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Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

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Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Date: January 24th (listen any day or time)

Source: Spotify List


These are songs that grew out of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and beyond. Martin Luther King reminded us that songs take “the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph."  If this is the case, then the songs offered here are triumphant music."

We Shall Overcome, picked up by the U.S.'s most popular folk singer of the time, spread the song through union halls and gatherings around the nation.  By the 1960s, Black students who were involved in sit-in movements adopted the song as the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Songs described below represent different genres. Some were originally spirituals and revised to be sung at movement gatherings and some were written to respond to political events that occurred at a specific time. 


Woke Up (Freedom Singers)

"Woke Up This Morning" is a freedom song made as a revamp of the old gospel song "I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus" in the 1960s. It is one of many similar songs during the civil rights movement. The song was created by Reverend Robert Wesby of Aurora, Illinois, in the Hinds County jail during the freedom rides.


Spiritual Trilogy (Odetta)

"Oh, Freedom" is a post-Civil WarAfrican American freedom song. It is often associated with the Civil Rights Movement, with Odetta, who recorded it as part of the "Spiritual Trilogy", on her Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues album, and with Joan Baez, who performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington.


O' Freedom/Ain't Gonna' Let Nobody Turn Me Around (Joan Baez and Mavis Stapleton)

Before Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around was used in the Civil Rights conflict, the song was a spiritual called Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around and printed with music in Clarence Cameron White’s 1927, Forty Negro Spirituals.


A Change is Goin' to Come (Sam Cooks)

Cooke wrote this as a protest song to support the civil rights movement, as Black Americans fought for equality. Up to this point, most of his songs were either touching ballads ("You Send Me") or lighthearted up-tempo tunes ("Twistin' the Night Away").


Blowing in the Wind (Peter, Paul and Mary)

"Blowin' in the Wind" is a song written by Bob Dylan in 1962. It was released as a single and included on his album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963. It has been described as a protest song and poses a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war, and freedom. 


Abraham, Martin, and John (Harry Belafonte)

The song itself is a tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans, all icons of social change: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. It was written in response to the assassination of King and that of Robert Kennedy in April and June 1968, respectively.


Black and White (Three Dog Night)

The song was inspired by the United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed racial segregation of public schools.


I Am Willing (Holly Near)

Near's lyrics speak to the need for all of us to be activists:  "I am open and I am willing. To be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us."


This Little Light of Mine (The Freedom Singers)

"This Little Light Of Mine" was originally a children's song and a spiritual that was transformed by the nation's civil rights movement into something more.


Society's Child (Janis Ian)

"Society's Child's" lyrics concern an interracial romance – a still-tabooed subject in mid-1960s America. Ian was 13 years of age when she was motivated to write and compose the song, and she completed it when she was 14. Released as "Society's Child (Baby I've Been Thinking)", the single charted high in many cities in the autumn of 1966 but did not hit big nationally until the summer of 1967.


We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder (Bernice Johnson Reagon)

"We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (also known as Jacob's Ladder) is an African American slave spiritual based in part on the Biblical story of Jacob's Ladder. It was developed some time before 1825, and became one of the first slave spirituals to be widely sung by white Christians.


Birmingham Sunday (Joan Baez)

"Birmingham Sunday" is a song written by Richard Fariña and most famously performed by both Fariña and his sister-in-law Joan Baez. The subject matter is the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 by members of the Ku Klux Klan that killed four girls and injured 22 others. The girls were Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). The melody of the song comes from a traditional Scottish ballad named "I once loved a lass".


Only a Pawn in the Game (Bob Dylan)

"Only a Pawn in Their Game" is a song written by Bob Dylan about the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963. Showing support for African Americans during the American Civil Rights Movement, the song was released on Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' album in 1964.


We Shall Overcome (Pete Seeger)

"We Shall Overcome" is a gospel song which became a protest song and a key anthem of the American civil rights movement. The song is most commonly attributed as being lyrically descended from "I'll Overcome Some Day", a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley that was first published in 1901.


Hold On (The Montgomery Gospel Trio)

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" is a folk song that became influential during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is based on the traditional song, "Gospel Plow," also known as "Hold On," "Keep Your Hand on the Plow," and various permutations thereafter. 


Tribute to Martin Luther King (Otis Spann)

was an American blues musician, whom many consider to be the leading postwar Chicago blues pianist.


Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Robert Parris Moses)

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" is a folk song that became influential during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.


If You Miss Me At the Back of the Bus (Pete Singer)

"If You Miss Me at The Back of the Bus" was a song written by Charles Neblett and recorded by Pete Seeger on his album We Shall Overcome in 1963. The song was written in response to attempts to desegregate a public swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois, after a young African American man drowned while swimming in a local river due to the pool not allowing any African Americans to use it.


Which Side Are You On? (Pete Singer)

"Which Side Are You On?" is a song written in 1931 by activist Florence Reece, wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky.


People Get Ready (Eva Cassidy)

"People Get Ready" is a 1965 single by the Impressions, and the title track from the People Get Ready album. The gospel-influenced track was a Curtis Mayfield composition that displayed the growing sense of social and political awareness in his writing.


Lift Every Voice and Sing (Tasha Cobbs Leonard)

Often referred to as "The Black National Anthem," Lift Every Voice and Sing was a hymn written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), composed the music for the lyrics. A choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal,  first performed the song in public in Jacksonville, Florida to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln's birthday.


This Little Light of Mine (Sam Cooke)

"This Little Light of Mine" is a popular gospel song of unknown origin. It was often reported to be written for children in the 1920s by Harry Dixon Loes, but he never claimed credit for the original version of the song, and the Moody Bible Institute where he worked said he did not write it.  It was later adapted by Zilphia Horton, amongst many other activists, in connection with the civil rights movement.



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