Freedom songs were a way of life during the civil rights movement. The songs contained many meanings for all participants. Songs could embody sadness, happiness, joy, or determination among many other feelings. Freedom songs served as mechanism for unity among the black community during the movement. The songs also served as a means of communication among the participants when words just were not enough. The song "We Shall Overcome" quickly became the face of the movement. Guy Carawan taught the popular freedom song during the spring of 1960 in a workshop held at Highlander, making the song extremely popular within the community.
Music of the civil rights era was crucial to the productivity of the movement. Music communicated unspeakable feelings and the desire for radical change across the nation. Music strengthened the movement, adding variety to freedom progression strategies. Music was highly successful in that the songs were direct and repetitive, getting the message across clearly and efficiently. Melodies were simple with repeating choruses, which allowed easy involvement within both black and white communities furthering the spread of the song's message. There was often more singing than talking during protests and demonstrations, showing how powerful the songs really were. Nurturing those who came to participate in the movements was vital, which would be done in the form of song. Participants felt a connectedness with one another and their movement through the songs. Freedom songs were often used politically to grab the attention of the nation to address the severity of segregation.
Songs were often derived from the Christian background, usually from hymns. Hymns were slightly altered to incorporate wording reflective upon civil rights protests, and current situations as they were brought out of the churches and into the streets. Although most freedom songs derived from hymns, it was important to include songs from other genres. To accommodate those who were not as religious, rock and roll songs could be altered to become freedom songs, which allowed for a broader number of activists to partake in the singing.
In several cases these songs began as gospel or spiritual, the most famous of these being "We Shall Overcome," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "This Little Light of Mine," and "Go Tell it on the Mountain".
Nina Simone and other professional artists are also known for writing or singing such songs. Two examples being:
- "Mississippi Goddam", from Nina Simone in Concert (1964).
- "To Be Young, Gifted and Black", from Black Gold (1970).
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer is known for singing songs at marches or other protests, particularly "This Little Light of Mine." Zilphia Horton also played a role in the conversion of spirituals to civil rights songs.
Additional freedom songs
Some 100 or so songs were commonly sung on Civil Rights Movement protests during the 1960s. Some of the best-known or most influential are:
- "A Change Is Gonna Come (song)": Composed and performed by Sam Cooke; #12 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list of Rolling Stone magazine
- Oh, Freedom": a spiritual dating back to slavery times
- "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round"
- "Certainly Lord": based on a spiritual
- "Hold On" (also known as "Keep Your Eye On The Prize"): Based on a spiritual
- "I Love Everybody", the most important song in the civil rights movement according to SCLC's James Bevel and Andrew Young, sometimes sung for an hour at a time.
- "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus": Adapted from a composition by Chico Neblett
- "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table": Adapted from a Spiritual
- "I Woke Up This Mornin'": Adapted from a Spiritual
- "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing": Composed by James Weldon Johnson
- "This Little Light of Mine": Originally a spiritual, associated with Fannie Lou Hamer.
- "We shall not be moved": Also, likely originally, a labor union song.
- "If I had a hammer": A labor union song by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
- "Hymn to Freedom": Composed and performed by Oscar Peterson
- Everybody Says Freedom, by Pete Seeger & Bob Reiser. Norton, 1989
- When the Spirit Says Sing! The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement, by Kerran Sanger. Taylor & Francis Inc, 1995
- Sing for Freedom: the Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, by Guy and Candie Carawan, Sing Out Corporation 1990
- Goertzen, Chris. "Freedom Songs." Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Ed. Charlie T. McCormick and Kim Kennedy White. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. 586-588. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 May 2014.
- The Songs – University of Illinois
- "People Get Ready": Music and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s – History Now
- Coco Jams
- About.com Top 10 Civil Rights Songs
- The Power of Freedom Songs ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- The Mix: Songs Inspired By The Civil Rights Movement – A collection of 150 songs that were either sung during the movement or, afterwards, inspired by the movement. This list was produced by NPR Music to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.