Freedom Songs

We started the summer singing and we never stopped all summer.

Like most volunteers, I arrived at the Oxford, OH training week knowing some folk songs and protest songs: Blowin’ in the Wind, The Banks are Made of Marble, If I Had a Hammer, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, This Little Light.  I was used to sitting in someone’s living room singing melody or humming harmony with a guitar strumming accompaniment, or humming along to a 33 LP record of Joan Baez or the Weavers.

But within that short week at Oxford, along with the principles of nonviolence and tips for teaching Freedom School, I learned a whole new way of singing. The SNCC staff, in their bib overalls, didn’t so much teach us as they did let the music pour out of their beings into ours.  We stood around a big bonfire one night at Oxford as a group of SNCC veterans gathered their fears, their hopes, their wounds and sang them out into the night, all one in the yearning and the promise of the music. I started to sing with my body and my heart, singing at the top of my voice yet losing my individual voice completely in a blend of all the voices. I think the actual moment I joined the movement was the moment that night I opened my mouth and sang too.

The freedom songs we learned that week and kept on singing all summer long were a musical center that united us with civil rights struggles all over the country, with the Freedom Riders of 1961, with the Albany and Birmingham marchers of the year before, and the Selma marchers of the year to come.  We might work in different states or towns, we might be in organizations with different initials (CORE. SCLC, MFD, SNCC, NAACP, COFO, etc.) we might have personality or ideological conflicts, but we all knew a core of 30 to 40 freedom songs, and when we sang them, we were one.

Gail Falk, George Smith, Preston Ponder, ?, Sam Brown, Leila Waterhouse, Pete Rabinowitz

All the best freedom songs could and were adapted on the spur of the moment to the particular town and particular struggles of the people who were singing.  In Meridian, we sang, Ain’t gwana let Lee Roberts turn me roun’.  For I‘m gonna set at the welcome table, we sang, I’m gonna set at Weidmann’s Restaurant and “I’m gonna set at Kresge’s counter. For This little light, we’d sing All around Meridian, I’m gonna let it shine!

Freedom songs were sung with no soloists and no conductor.  There were often song leaders, who could get the song started on pitch and call the words for the next verse, but anyone else was welcome to be a leader or call out a verse too.

There were no mimeographed songsheets, no notes written out on scores. Guy

Ben Chaney

Carawan quotes Pete Seeger as saying, “One woman on the Selma march saw me trying to notate a melody and said with a smile, “Don’t you know you can’t write down freedom songs?'” I never saw most freedom songs written down until I came across them in the hymnal of the Unitarian/Universalist church I attend now in Vermont. When we sing a “freedom song” out of the hymnal, I always feel off base. The process of translating the rhythms into measures with equal numbers of beats, while well-intentioned, seems to remove the flow, and putting the notes into exact scale pitches on a staff takes away the nuanced pitches of the oral songs.  It feels like singing a photograph of a song.

It has been said by many people, but it bears repeating, that music gave the civil rights movement its power and its soul.  We haven’t had another movement since in this country with music in its heart. It unified people in a meaning more powerful than mere words.  There were songs for every mood of a movement (and the greatest of the songs were chameleons that adapted to the various emotional states we shared.)

There were songs for perseverance: Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. They say that freedom is a constant struggle.

There were songs of determination and anger: Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me roun’.  

Songs for making a choice: Which side are you on? with its verse Don’t Tom for Uncle Charlie, don’t listen to his lies, cause black folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize.

Songs for scary times: I ain’t scared of your jail.

Joyful, hopeful songs: Woke up this mornin’ with my mind stayed on freedom. This little light of mine. I’m gonna set at the welcome table one of these days, Halleluia!

There were songs for parting and mourning: We been ‘buked and we been scorned. This may be the last time.

There were songs with humor: If you miss me from Miss Anne’s kitchen and you can’t find me nowhere, come on out to the living room ’cause I’ll be settin’ right there.

And songs that told history.  My favorite Oginga Odinga tells about the State Department’s ill fated effort to show Kenyan official Oginga Odinga in 1963 that race relations in the United States were really fine. The State Dept. included Atlanta on its tour (after all, it was supposed to be the City Too Busy to Hate) and put Odinga up at the Peachtree Manor, one of the only integrated hotels in the city.  SNCC staff heard about Odinga being in town and went to visit him with the purpose of giving him a different perspective. They invited the Kenyan to accompany them to the Toddle House restaurant, right next to the hotel, where they were refused service because of their race, and a number of people were arrested for sitting in. Odinga realized he had been given a “whitewashed” version of American race relations. He taught the SNCC workers the Swahili word for freedom, which is the chorus of the song: Uhuru, Uhuru, Freedom Now, Freedom Now.

We sang marching and at meetings, in churches and in freedom school.  I remember singing one of my favorites Wade in the Water in a congo line snaking down the beach beside the boardwalk in Atlantic City at the end of August 1964, when we were still hopeful that the FDP delegation would be seated by the Democratic Convention.

I’d say my favorite song was/is Oh Freedom, for its prayerful spiritual yearning, so simple and so deep.

But of all the songs, We Shall Overcome had a unique role. It was always sung last, and after it was finished, there would be no more singing.  We always sang it connected to everyone else, with arms crossed, hands clasping the hands of the person on either side. I loved to look around the circle or the pews as we sang and see the intertwining of arms, smooth and gnarled, skinny and hefty, black, brown and white. We Shall Overcome was one of those chameleon songs that could express anger, determination, optimism, or perseverance in the face of great sorrow or fear.

On the night of August 4, the song gave us all what we needed.  By coincidence, that night Pete Seeger had come to Meridian to give a concert.  First Baptist Church was full of Freedom school students, COFO workers, adults active with the movement, and, as I now see in Mark Levy’s photos FBI agents (identified by their neckties, short haircuts and white shirts). Earlier that day, the FBI had found the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman beneath an earthen dam in Neshoba County, but most people in the church didn’t know it yet.  Here’s what I wrote to my parents the next day:

The night the bodies were discovered, Pete Seeger was giving a concert in Meridian.  Most of the people there still did not know the news.  Finally . . . Seeger very beautifully made the announcement.

We must sing “We Shall Overcome” now, Seeger said. “The three boys would not have wanted us to weep now, but to sing and understand this song.

That seems to me the best way to explain the greatness of this project, that death can have this meaning.  Dying is not an ever-present possibility in Meridian, the way some reports may suggest.  Nor do any of us want to die.

Yet in a moment like last night, we can feel that anyone who did die for the Project would wish to be remembered not by tributes or pure grief, but by understanding and continuation of what he was doing in Mississippi.

And so we stood up and crossed hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Thanks to Donna Garde and Mark Levy for their photos of Meridian, summer 1964. For written background on Freedom Songs, see the many wonderful articles and writings of Bernice Reagon, and Sing for Freedom, by Guy and Candie Carawan (foreward by Julian Bond). But of course, the songs shouldn’t be read, they should be listened to, and there is are rich libraries of recordings accessible through the web.

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  • margery freeman  On February 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    So moving, Gail! Your words make me weep with joy and remembrance – and sorrow.
    Thank you!

  • Helen Rentch  On February 6, 2012 at 3:28 am

    Dear Gail, this is my first read and I am eager to go back to the beginning. I agree from my little bit of experience, it was the music which made the courage so possible and lifted the movement to such a lofty community. I first heard the songs from young women at Spellman who were just back from the Freedom Summer in Mississppi.. having experienced the cattle prods in ‘bullpens’ for registering people to vote. It was quite a shocker to me to hear such stories.

    I would challenge that music has also been powerful in the mountains and the struggles around coal, as I know you know. Between Michael Kline and Hazel Dickens there has been some real ‘moving’… one night I stood with some women on a strip mine in Ky and we sang every song we knew… and I know my presense there and knowing to sing came directly from the marches in Georgia. Also on picketlines with Lois Scott and Bill Worthington in Harlan County, facing the scabs and the mine operators who had big guns..”We will not be moved… like a tree planted by the waters..” kept us tied together.. Michael tries to teach the songs… but out of context I don’t think they can be felt.

  • freedomsongs11  On February 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Helen, so good to hear from you. Yes, it is trus the miners’ movement had some great songs, and I love them. I don’t think of them as unifying in the same way as the freedom songs. Many were more wordy and complicated to learn, so they were often “performed.”. I can’t think of a lot of situations where there was a big roomful of miners all singing, every one. But I wasn’t in Harlan Cointy….. And for sure the original version of Which side are you on started, “They in Harlan County…..”

  • HArris Webster  On February 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Gail, Thanks for previewing your ‘freedom songs’ blog at choir. The photo’s and written out words enriched your choir comments. As I mentioned in choir, your words brought back memories of singing with the Fisk College Choir and efforts then confronting segregation. You had the privilege and challenge of experiencing the Civil Rights Movement in its prime. In my second semester in 1954 I experienced it in its earlier post war stages, not as dangerous a time, but still challenging in its own way. Harris

  • Paul Ohlson  On February 11, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Gail, so rich, so powerful, so profoundly real. I just wept last Sunday at the sermon about on Martin Luther king, Jr. and his ability to always keep love up front, driving his bus. Your writing and your recollections are gifts to us all. Thank you soooo much!

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