Friday, 3 October 2014

Folk Music and the Civil Rights Movement...

Published: July 21 2007 on Helium

The traditional folk singer was a traveller, sharing old, timeless stories in music. His companion was often the guitar, strumming the murmurings of a wistful soul. With the advent of the American Civil Rights Movement, from 1954-1968, (with the death of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act is passed), the folksinger voiced the heartaches, the questions, the pleas of minority groups. The folksinger became the musical champion of the oppressed; the "mascot" of the civil rights movement.

1954 marked the time when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in schools as illegal. However, not till the 1960's was there a vibrant movement to halt discrimination in all social sectors. In 1962, Bob Dylan released "Blowin' in the Wind". His song symbolized the pain of those who waited for answers to racial, cultural and political injustice.
"How many years must some people exist,
Before they're allowed to be free?"
The small voices were rising against the oppressors. And they were doing it in folk music.

Some emerging folk songs were derived from existing, traditional ones. "We shall Overcome" was derived from Charles Tindley's gospel song "I'll Overcome Some Day" (1900). Pete Seegar added new lines including "black and white together". Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack" was re-titled "Get Your Rights, Jack".

After "Bloody Sunday" of 1965, when police attacked marchers in Alabama, Julius Lester formerly offered his voice as the dialogue for, and the tangible expression of, the civil rights movement. He left Nashville in the South for New York, so he could get "a taste of freedom". He believed that discrimination was rampant in both North and South. The South involved blatant segregation in all forms of life, but he believed that segregation was better hidden in the North. Economically, Blacks were oppressed, so were forced to live in ghettos. Economics forced them to be segregated.

And so Lester was one of many folk singers, daring to sing out "freedom" songs, daring to suggest that white society was guilty of biased, dictatorial, moral and social codes.

While Martin Luther King uttered the political injustice of white law, Joan Baez sang Afro-American spiritual folk sings of freedom. Her experience with discrimination for her Mexican heritage drew her towards the civil rights movement.

Pete Seegar was both a folk singer and a political activist.
"If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening ... all over this land,
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between all of my brothers and my sisters
All over this land."
For Pete Seegar, there was no "soft" message. His words in music had all the power of an inflamed, political speech. Peter, Paul and Mary performed this song when Martin Luther King presented his famous "I have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Finally, there was Odetta, herself a Black American, singing out her Afro-American heritage. In 1961, Martin Luther Ling declared her the Queen of American folk music. Perhaps her most renowned song would have to be:
"This little light o' mine
I'm gonna let it shine".

The civil rights movement became a platform for folk singers. Interestingly, while the civil rights movement itself highlighted the huge divide between blacks and whites, the folk music, the voice of the movement, the mascot, quietly drew blacks and whites together in a bid for universal freedom. In the words of Julius Lester,
"Folk was also attractive because it was a racially integrated scene," says Lester. "It was still a very innocent time for the civil rights movement, a time when young blacks and whites 'discovered' each other without a sense of self-consciousness."

Folk music gave political hope that there would indeed be "a new world in the morning".


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