Timeline of African American Music
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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Vocalists Peter, Paul, and Mary on stage.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Peter Mary Paul Civil Rights March On Washington
In the Mississippi River
The Freedom Singers
Get Your Rights, Jack
CORE Freedom Singers
We Shall Overcome
Dorothy Cotton, Freedom Singers & Pete Seeger
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
The SNCC Freedom Singers
Calypso Freedom
Sweet Honey in the Rock
If I Had a Hammer
Pete Seeger
Blowin’ in the Wind
Bob Dylan

Themes

  • Political Issues/Activism
  • Black Power/Pride
  • Freedom
  • Racism/Discrimination
  • Social Consciousness

Musical Features

  • Ballad
  • Hymns
  • Ensemble

Instruments

  • Voice
“The core of freedom song repertoire was formed from the reservoir of traditional songs and older styles of [religious] singing. This music base was expanded to include most of the popular secular and sacred music forms and singing techniques of the 1950s and 1960s.”
Bernice Johnson ReagonSinger & Civil Rights Activist

The Civil Rights movement was a “singing movement.” In the 1950s, African American churches hosted community groups that organized mass protest activities against racial segregation in the South. The tradition of congregational singing led by strong song leaders soon extended to choirs, small ensembles, and soloists who sang in mass meetings, marches, and in jails. Their repertoire was called Civil Rights freedom songs, also known as protest songs.

Context and History

The modern Civil Rights and Black Power movements emerged from an era of social unrest in the mid-1950s when African Americans from the South mounted a series of grassroots activities to protest their social status as second-class citizens. These activities gained widespread momentum and spread to the North, attracting national attention in the 1960s. Music was integral to both movements and served a multitude of functions. It galvanized African Americans into political action; provided strength and courage; united protesters as a cohesive group; and became a creative medium for mass communication.

Participation in the Civil Rights movement crossed generational, professional, and racial boundaries. The musical repertoire reflected this diversity, consisting of original versions and new interpretations of spirituals, hymns, ballads, gospel, rhythm and blues, and soul music, as well as original creations. For example, at a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta in 1964, members of the Freedom Singers led protesters in a medley consisting of both contemporary and traditional songs, “Freedom Medley: Freedom Chant/Oh Freedom/This Little Light of Mine” and “Lord Hold My Hand While I Run This Race,” which came from the repertoire of a rural Baptist church congregation. The younger generation reinterpreted and created new songs in the traditions of the jubilee concert spiritual and gospel quartet (“Oh Prichett, Oh Kelly” and “In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers). They also sang contemporary gospel songs, rhythm and blues, and soul music, which they turned into freedom songs such as “Get Your Rights, Jack” by the CORE Freedom Singers based on Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack” (1961). The updated versions of these songs captured the energy of the movement and the prevailing message of freedom.

Other well-known freedom songs include “We Shall Overcome,” theme song of the movement and now an international anthem for freedom and resistance; “Come Bah Yah” (also known as “Kumbaya,” and derived from the spiritual “Come By Here”), “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” (spiritual), “99½ Won’t Do” (gospel), and “Calypso Freedom” (Caribbean calypso). During the folk revival of the 1960s, many white and Black folk singer-songwriters began writing and/or performing protest and Civil Rights songs, including Peter Seeger (“If I Had a Hammer,” written with Lee Hays from the Weavers), Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), Odetta, Richie Havens, Len Chandler, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and the group Peter, Paul and Mary. The power of the freedom struggle, in the 1960s and beyond, directly impacted the work of many musicians working in vernacular, jazz, and popular/commercial genres, including Taj Mahal, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Randy Weston, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Olatunji.

Musical Features/Performance Style

Songs were performed in a variety of familiar modes: spirituals and ballads, gospel-hymns, traditional and modern gospel, or lined hymn (an older style of singing in which the congregation repeats each line sung by the leader). Other examples embody rhythm and blues, soul, and calypso. Well-known melodies were often adapted to fit new texts.

Lyrics

The themes of freedom and empowerment, and the rejection of second-class citizenship and cruel treatment by the police, dominate the texts of freedom songs. The lyrics and melodies of folk spirituals, folk ballads, hymns, gospel, and popular songs were adapted to reflect the issues of the situation at hand and the protestor’s vision for social and political change.

The SNCC Freedom Singers
Odetta
Bernice Johnson Reagon
Pete Seeger
Bob Dylan
Joan Baez
Peter, Paul, and Mary
Phil Ochs
The SNCC Freedom Singers

Bibliography

  1. Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “The Civil Rights Period: Music as an Agent of Social Change.”
  2. Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation. Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim, eds. New York. Routledge Press, 2016, 343-380.
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The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

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Jessye Norman

Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

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The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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