The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement

Soprano and Music Researcher at Grinnell College
Jun. 22, 2018
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement
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The Role of the Spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement

Editor's Notes

  1. This Little Light
  2. * Negro spirituals are songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. This stolen race was deprived of their languages, families, and cultures; yet, their masters could not take away their music.   * Over the years, these slaves and their descendents adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters. They re-shaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement. Their songs, which were to become known as spirituals, reflected the slaves’ need to express their new faith.    Spirituals were created extemporaneously and were passed orally from person to person. These folksongs were improvised as suited the singers. There is record of approximately 6,000 spirituals or sorrow songs; however, the oral tradition of the slaves’ ancestors—and the prohibition against slaves learning to read or write—meant that the actual number of songs is unknown. Some of the best known spirituals include: “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen”, “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees,” and “Wade in the Water.” * The songs were also used to communicate with one another without the knowledge of their masters. This was particularly the case when a slave was planning to escape bondage and to seek freedom via the Underground Railroad.
  3. Northern states, beginning with Mass (1783), began outlawing slavery, leading to the ban on importing slaves to US in 1809 In the years leading up to the American Civil War, there were slave rebellions (N. Turner, 1831). Abolitionists actively advocated for the cessation of the institution of slavery. They helped slaves escape from captivity using the Underground Railroad. * Legislative actions and court decisions such as Fugitive Slave Act and Missouri Compromise (1850), Dred Scott Decision and Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) reflect growing animosity between slave and free states * Election of Lincoln in 1860 decisive event leading South Carolina and other southern states to secede from the Union and was primary cause of the Civil War With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, most former slaves distanced themselves from the music of their captivity. The spiritual seemed destined to be relegated to mention in slave narratives and to a handful of historical accounts by whites who had attempted to notate the songs they heard.
  4. * The performance of spirituals was given a rebirth when a group of students from newly founded Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee, began to tour in an effort to raise money for the financially strapped school. The Fisk Jubilee Singers not only carried spirituals to parts of the United States that had previously never heard Negro folksongs, the musically trained chorus performed before royalty during their tours of Europe in the 1870’s. * In 1916, Burleigh published the song, “Deep River,” for voice and piano. By that point in his career, he had written a few vocal and instrumental works based on the plantation melodies he had learned as a child. However, his setting of "Deep River" is considered to be the first work of its kind to be written in art song form specifically for performance by a trained singer. * While Burleigh, Hall Johnson and their contemporaries were actively composing art song and choral settings of spirituals, it was not until the 1930’s that a concerted effort was made to preserve this part of American culture in its original form. Following the lead of Fisk University, Southern University, and Prairie View State College, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) worked with various state programs to record the first-hand recollections of the survivors of slavery. These slave narratives included stories about the role of music in their lives and songs delivered by those who had sung these folksongs in that bygone era.   Over the years, the spiritual has given birth to a number of other American music styles, including Blues, Jazz and gospel.
  5. * Resentment by White Southerners of the efforts to end of their “particular institution” led to creation of groups like the KKK and to institution of Jim Crow laws designed specifically to limit access to Blacks.   * Various individual events focus attention to treatment of Blacks (the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, Marian Anderson performing at Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947)   Civil Rights Movement “official” start was the 1954 Supreme Court decision “Brown v. Board of Education” which declared that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional  
  6. Bus boycotts, sit-ins, marches began, bringing together supporters from North and South and calling forth leaders from the Black community, especially from its churches and schools  
  7. MLK is believed to be the first to use a familiar sacred song as source material for protest song during Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-6. Changed “Give Me that Old Time Religion” to reflect nature of struggle and determination to move on to victory. The verses state King’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, love, brotherhood and the desire for freedom.
  8. * Groups like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) wrote adaptations for mass meetings, marches, and other gatherings. Professional singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson showed their support in the performance and recording of spirituals and other “freedom songs.”   Began using spirituals because they were familiar to protestors, even those from outside the South, and spirituals had served so well the need for strength gathered from the whole   Like the spiritual of old, the words were changed on the spot to reflect the mood or situation of the moment. One change was from personal references (I, me) to group references (we, us) to further emphasize the sense of community. Songs were accompanied most often by clapping hands, tapping feet, or beating on whatever surface was available at the time.   * Protest songs could generally be described as either group participation or topical songs. Group participation songs, which included the call and response songs that featured a leader who introduced a line of text, to which the group responded with a “refrain”—was well suited to the large groups gathered for marches, sit-ins, or meetings. Topical songs were professionally composed songs written and performed by individuals as commentary or protest.
  9. “Sing for Freedom” organized in Atlanta May 1964. Intent to bring freedom songs from different regions together. Song writers and organizers from around the country attended to learn “freedom songs from different protest areas for mass meetings, demonstrations, etc.” Participants sang familiar folk songs with new verses added. “There was that tremendous impact that only occurs when 50 or 60 song leaders bring their voices and clapping together in thunderbolts of song for 20, 25 minutes, just on and on and on. The Northern guests were out of breath, for they were not used to 20 minutes of letting your whole body explode into song.” P. 101   Yet, even here, using spirituals was not without its controversies. Some youths didn’t share in the feeling that the old slave songs were appropriate for contemporary use, and some of their elders still felt a stigma was attached to them.  
  10. Singer, scholar and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon talked about the bus boycott meeting. She noted that the meeting closed with a traditional spiritual, sung without changing the words. She stated:   Here were two songs, both a part of Black traditional sacred music repertoire: One song, “Old Time Religion” was updated to articulate on the immediate need of the Movement; and the second, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” ending the session, was sun[g] in its traditional form. On many occasions, the new moved from the old in the midst of Movement activity. This evolutionary process was possible because the structure of the traditional material enabled it to function in contemporary settings. There was continuity with some traditional lyrics being changed for statements of the moment. These transformed songs were used in conjunction with older songs to convey the message that the struggle of Blacks had a long history. P.96  The spiritual faded in prominence has the nature of the Civil Rights Movement changed. Groups like SNCC embraced the “Black Power” philosophy, splintering members who had opposing views of the direction of the Movement. The death of MLK in 1968 seemed not only to mark the decline of the movement, but to signal the return of the spiritual being sung as folksong to its century-long slumber in the archive of American’s past.
  11. “We Shall Overcome” had roots in the gospel hymns “I’ll Be all Right” and “I’ll Overcome Someday” by Charles Tindley. Reagon traced its use as a protest song to a 1940’s union protest activities against a tobacco production company in North Carolina.   When the Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee (SNCC) formed in 1961, “We Shall Overcome” became their theme song, its most powerful means of expression. Author Jon Michael Spencer said, “Musically, the freedom songs were the paradigm of militancy; blacks were not just singing about freedom but were systematically seeking it.” (p. 104)