Folk Music and the Civil Rights Movement

On the Soundtrack of a Revolution

Civil Rights March on Washington
Library of Congress / Getty Images

On the day in 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to what was the largest gathering of its kind to ever set foot in Washington, D.C., he was joined by Joan Baez, who began the morning with an old African-American spiritual tune called, "Oh Freedom." The song had already enjoyed a rather lengthy history and was a staple of meetings at the Highlander Folk School, widely considered the educational center of the labor and civil rights movements. But, Baez's use of it was notable. On that morning, she sang the old refrain:

Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave
and go home to my Lord and be free.

The Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement wasn't just about grandiose speeches and performances in front of thousands of people at the nation's capital and elsewhere. It was also about Baez, Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers, Harry Belafonte, Guy Carawan, Paul Robeson, and others standing on truck beds and in churches across the South, singing together with strangers and neighbors about our collective right to freedom and equality. It was built on conversations and sing-alongs, people being able to look around them to see their friends and neighbors joining in, singing, "We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day."

The fact so many folk singers joined Dr. King and various groups that were instrumental in the movement, in their effort to spread the word about civil rights, was hugely relevant, not only because it brought added media attention to the effort, but also because it showed there was a faction of the white community who were willing to stand up for the rights of African-American people. The presence of folks like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Odetta, Harry Belafonte, and Pete Seeger alongside Dr. King and his allies served as a message to people of all colors, shapes, and sizes that we are all in this together.

Unity is an important message at any time, but during the height of the civil rights movement, it was a vital component. The folksingers who joined in spreading Dr. King's message of vital change through nonviolence not only helped change the course of events in the South but also helped encourage people to add their voice to the chorus. This helped validate the movement and gave people comfort and the knowledge that there was hope in their community. There can be no fear when you know you're not alone. Listening together to artists they respected, and singing together in times of struggle, helped activists and regular citizens (often one and the same) to persevere in the face of great fear.

In the end, many people suffered great losses - from facing the risk of imprisonment to being threatened, beaten, and in some cases killed. Like any time of great change in history, the period in the middle of the 20th Century when people across the country stood up for civil rights was full of both heartbreak and victory. No matter the context of the movement, Dr. King, thousands of activists, and dozens of American folk singers stood up for what was right and managed to actually change the world.

Civil Rights Songs

Though we generally think of the civil rights movement as having kicked up sometime in the 1950s, it was brewing long before that throughout the South. The music which emerged during the early part of the civil rights movement was based largely on old slave spirituals and songs from the Emancipation period. Songs which had been revived during the labor movement of the 1920s-40s were re-purposed for civil rights meetings. These songs were so prevalent, everyone already knew them; they simply needed to be reworked and reapplied to the new struggles.

Civil rights songs included anthems like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" (based on the hymn "Hold On"), and perhaps the most stirring and widespread, "We Shall Overcome."

The latter had been brought into the labor movement during a tobacco workers' strike, and was at the time a hymn whose lyric was "I'll be alright someday." Zilphia Horton, who was Culture Director at the Highlander Folk School (an innovative live-work school in eastern Tennessee, founded by her husband Myles) liked the song so much, she worked with her students to rewrite it with more universal, timeless lyrics. From the time she learned the song in 1946 until her untimely death a decade later, she taught it at every workshop and meeting she attended. She taught the song to Pete Seeger in 1947 and he changed her lyric ("We Will Overcome") to "We Shall Overcome," then taught it around the world. Horton also taught the song to a young activist named Guy Carawan, who wound up taking over her position at Highlander after her death and introducing the song to a gathering of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. (Read more history on "We Shall Overcome".)

Horton was also responsible for introducing the children's song "This Little Light of Mine" and the hymn "We Shall Not Be Moved" to the civil rights movement, along with several other songs.

Important Civil Rights Singers

Though Horton is largely credited with introducing "We Shall Overcome" to folk singers and activists, Carawan is generally credited with popularizing the song within the movement. Pete Seeger is frequently lauded for his involvement in encouraging group singing and contributing songs to the movement. Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Odetta, Joan Baez, the Staple Singers, Bernice Johnson-Reagon and the Freedom Singers were all major contributors to the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, but they weren't alone.

Though these professionals led songs and used their influence to both draw crowds and entertain them, most of the music of the movement was made by average people marching for justice. They sang songs as they made their way through Selma; they sang songs at sit-ins and in jailhouses once they'd been detained. Music was more than just an incidental ingredient in that massive moment of social change. As many survivors of that period of history have noted, it was the music which helped them stick to the philosophy of nonviolence. Segregationists could threaten and beat them, but they could not make them stop singing.