Freedom Songs


Michael. Eric. Akai. How many more unarmed men will need die at the hands of police? Why aren’t these officers being charged with excessive force? Trained better? If I was writing this for a newspaper instead of a blog, I’d honestly think I was back in the Civil Rights movement. How have we come so far to slip right back? Why are we so quick to jump to prejudice thinking?


I wrote about it before and how I can see it from many sides, but at this point, there are minor offenses being committed that should, by law, result in a slap on the wrist when compared to being murdered. Choked to death or shot. How insanely barbaric.


The protestors have gotten a lot of flack. “I handed out job applications and they left” seems to be a common, “witty” social media comment. I know some of the protestors. They are in college working an internship on the side or graduates working full time jobs. Quick being so fast to judge.


Some of the methods, like blocking traffic, I don’t agree with. You put yourself at risk and emergency vehicles can be delayed but throughout history, these types of protests have happened to make the needed changes. Perhaps we just need more music to help the voices be heard.

Since protests have actually been such a part of history, there’s a vast history of protest songs. I wanted to focus on the Freedom Songs though since they’re very appropriate for these times unfortunately. Like I said, you’d think it was the damn 1950s or 1960s all over again instead of two thousand and freakin’ fourteen.


Freedom Songs were songs sung by participants in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. They were a way of life during the Movement. The songs contained many meanings for all participants. Songs could embody sadness, happiness, joy, or determination among many other feelings. They 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.

Music of the civil rights era was crucial to the productivity of the movement. It communicated unspeakable feelings and the desire for radical change across the nation. Music strengthened the movement.

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 songs 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. Hymns were slightly altered to incorporate wording reflective upon the 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 amount of activists to partake in the singing.

The most famous of songs with gospel beginnings were “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 of Nina’s most well known examples are “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”.

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

“Oh, Freedom” a spiritual dating back to slavery times

“I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” Adapted from a Spiritual

“I Woke Up This Mornin'”:Adapted from a Spiritual

“If I Had a Hammer” A labor union song by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

2 thoughts on “Freedom Songs

  1. mark January 7, 2015 / 6:01 pm

    Hi, I accidentally discovered your blog after I did a wordpress reader search for blues music and then saw your Nina Simone post that was tagged as blues. You have an excellent blog here and the whole idea of preserving the music where it will in your words “Never go away” is something that I appreciate very much.
    After reading this post and a couple of others in your blog I wanted to tell you about a couple of resources that I know you will like very much. Firstly I was wondering if you were aware of the songs of the underground railroad. They were the predecessors of the songs of the civil rights movement and served many purposes in bonding African American people. Some people believe that a lot of the songs were coded messages that enabled slaves to escape with the help of the underground railroad and it’s connections. Wikipedia has a good introduction page here and there are also many many good sites that go into much more detail.

    And referring back to your “never go away quote”, I am reminded of Alan Lomax, who like his father before him was a song collector. In many respects I could put an excellent case forward to say that Alan Lomax was the most important individual in the history of music. After realising that the musical heritage of America was slowly disappearing as times changed he decided to travel extensively round parts of America and record as much material as possible in order to save it forever. He was determined that it would never go away also and a lot of his recordings are available on a website called cultural equity, here is the main page for what is available as audio
    and here is an example of one of the excellent protest songs that he recorded

    I could say so much more, but I’ll control myself. It is really good to browse through this record collection here and see so many similarities to the music that I also love.

    Oh also… If you haven’t heard the Nina Simone song “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” then you surely must.

    Thanks for the memories,


    • EricaFrances January 10, 2015 / 11:50 am

      Wow, a ton of information! I know a little bit of the songs, but honestly I need to know more. I did go through the Wikipedia and decided I definitely need to hit a library or book store and pick up more info on the subject. It’s sad that many of can go through all this schooling and still, a huge part of history is left out. A huge, important part at that! I think that, in today’s environment, it’s really important to go back and actually see what was working then and what mistakes were made so we can learn from everything and apply it.

      I look at the die ins that have happened in Boston and they created a lot of buzz and news while remaining peaceful. It gets more people on board knowing they can have their voice heard without a stray bad apple.

      My roommate may have heard that Nina song before but I’m not remembering it so I’m going to check it out now! Thank you so much!

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