"For me, the most important lesson
[of the Freedom Movement] is that by respecting the fact that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole."
From Bruce Hartford's article in the current issue of Urban Habitat.
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Friday, July 19, 2013

Music (Art) for Freedom -- how to grow a movement

I have been trying to convince members of the SaveCCSF coalition to do more singing and less chanting....with a smidgen of success so far.  I think some of the obstacles have been the lack of song leaders as well as the lack of practice within a modern culture that doesn't sing much anymore.

During each of the campaigns of the Southern Freedom Movement (e.g., Montgomery, Nashville, Albany, Greenwood, Birmingham),  momentum was fostered, sustained and increased at regular "mass meetings" in the evenings.  These meetings were part fundraisers, part strategy sessions, part information dissemination,  part faith building and part dress rehearsal.   The dress rehearsal part was regular singing, before, during and after the agendized meeting.

The Southern Freedom Movement was a singing movement (and for good reason)

Song leaders and even singing groups would begin the songs but the congregation would immediately join in and often offer lyrics to additional verses.  This was crucial learning and practice for the picket line or march or sit in the next day.

From Voices of the Civil Rights Movement:

DOG, DOG, Los Angeles, CA, August 1963, SNCC Freedom Singers led by Cordell Reagon.This satirical song, written by Movement activists James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette, was spread throughout the South by Movement organizers-especially Reagon, who here leads the original SNCC Freedom Singers. The song became a mainstay in the repertoire of both the first and second groups of freedom singers. Using rhythm and blues motifs, the song tells a parable of two boys who lived next door to each other but could not play together because of the color of their skin. Their homes were separated by a fence, but the dogs could slip under the fence to play.  
NINETY-NINE AND A HALF (WON'T DO), Birmingham, AL , 1963 , Alabama Christian Movement Choir led by Carlton Reese "99½ Won't Do" is based on the gospel tune popularized by Mother Katie Bell Nubin, mother of Rosetta Tharpe, famed gospel singer of the 1940s and 1950s. Reese, who leads the singing, rearranged the song and inserted new Movement phrases.

THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE , Selma, AL , October 1963 , Led by Betty Mae Fikes This rendition is led by Betty Mae Fikes with the Selma Youth Freedom Choir and is accompanied by piano. The song maintains enough of its traditional structure to allow for full participation by the congregation. The gospel influence is evident in Fikes's statement of the initiating line. One of the strongest song leaders to come out of the Movement, Fikes uses her unique and signature call to initiate each new verse halfway through the last line of the old verse. The gospel change in melody is picked up and maintained by the full congregation. Song leaders often localized songs by adding lyrics peculiar to their immediate situation. Many of these songs from Selma, Alabama, used names of local personalities. For example, Fikes sings "Tell Jim Clark" (sheriff of Selma) and "Tell Al Lingo" (Head of the Alabama State Troopers), calling their names as symbols of what the Selma Movement was fighting. Movement leaders were also named in the new lyrics. Spontaneous cheers and clapping greet Fikes's lines, recognition of her skill as a songleader and on-the-spot chronicler of the mood of the congregation.
 Below are some more recent hopeful examples of the use of song to build community, hope, maintain sanity, and express a vision for the future.


1 comment:

Justin S. said...

Combating injustice with song is much more effective than chanting. Song is not merely "making noise", it is a strengthening of discipline and rebounding negative attacks. When the Freedom Riders were sent to Parchman Prison, one main method of nonviolent resistance was song. By singing together, the civil rights activists were able to maintain their discipline while strengthening and supporting each other through such a harsh obstacle.