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The Freedom Songs that were the life blood of the Movement
on April 8, 2002
This double-CD reissue of "The Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966" documents the importance of songs in the Civil Rights Movement. Teachers covering this tumultuous time in American History in their class can certainly give students a better sense for the time by not only showing videos of the peaceful demonstrations and police brutality, but by playing them some of the songs from this album. Many of these freedom songs were recorded live in mass meetings held in churches. These are not just spirituals and gospel songs, but draw upon rhythm and blues, football chants, blues, and calypso for their beauty and energy. The first disc features songs from mass meetings, where a singer or core of singers leads the people in the singing of the songs, while the second focuses on ensemble works by the SNCC Freedom Singers and other groups. The accompanying booklet written by Bernice Johnson Reagon combines historic photographs with insights into each song, providing an excellent education in the meaning of the music. Reagon not only explains how these songs were song, but also which songs were prominent for the Selma-to-Montgomery March ("Governor Wallace"), "Freedom Train" for the vigil for the Mississippi Democratic Party elections, and so on.
Chances are that unless you were involved in the Civil Rights Movement you will not especially recognize many of these songs, with "This Little Light of Mine," "Go Tell It On the Mountain," and "We Shall Overcome" being the obvious exceptions. But you will be surprised at some of the popular songs that were appropriate for the cause, such as "Calypso Freedom," based on Harry Belafonte's "The Banana Boat Song," and "Get Your Rights, Jack," based on the Ray Charles hit "Hit the Road, Jack." For me the song that stood out was "In the Mississippi River," written by Marshall Jones after the disappearance of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. As local rivers were dragged in search of the men, many other bodies were discovered, a chilling fact that certainly needs to be more than a historic footnote to that tragic event. There is also a lengthy segment from a sermon by Rev. Lawrence Campbell, which illustrates the song-sermons that were an integral part of the movement and its traditions. The result is a historical document of immense value to teachers and their students.
Folkways Records was founded by Moses Asch and Marian Distler in 1948 to document music and spoken word from around the world. The Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways from the Asch estate and has succeeded in preserving the best of the label's 2,200 albums. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued this grand tradition. I have checked out a half-dozen of their offerings and their are uniformly superb, especially in terms of providing the historical context by which we can best appreciate these songs from another place and another time.