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Essential Civil Rights Songs

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Equal civil rights in America would be pursued, and strides would have been made, even without the participation of blues, gospel, and folk singers and songwriters. But, the presence of these artists and their remarkable contributions to the long struggle for equal civil rights in the U.S., plus the empowering effectiveness of sing-alongs, has certainly helped an incredible amount.

The songs on this list don't even begin to capture the hundreds of tunes that have been written about civil rights in America (and around the world), and the struggle for equal civil rights is far from over. But, if you're looking to learn more about music during the height of the civil rights movement (in the 1950s and '60s in America), this is a good primer for your journey. Some of these songs were adapted from old hymns. Others were originals. All of them have helped inspire millions.

"We Shall Overcome"

© Sony 1963

When "We Shall Overcome" (purchase/download) first came to the Highlander Folk School via the Food and Tobacco Workers Union in 1946, it was a spiritual titled "I'll Be Alright Someday." HFS Cultural Director Zilphia Horton - along with those workers - adapted it to the struggles of the labor movement at the time, and began using the new version - "We Will Overcome" - at every meeting. She taught it to Pete Seeger the following year. He changed the "will" to "shall" and took it around the world. It became considered the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, though, when Guy Carawan got folks singing it at a rally in South Carolina. It's since been sung around the world. 

Deep in my heart, I do believe / We shall overcome some day

"When Will We Be Paid For the Work We've Done?"

Staples Singers - We'll Get Over Album Cover
© Stax
This Staple Singers classic brings to light the entirety of African-American history until that point, including slavery, the construction of the railroads, and highways, and demands payment and reparations for the horrors and exploitation of the working class African Americans.

"We fought in your wars ... to keep this country free for women, children, man ... When will we be paid for the work we've done?"

"Oh Freedom"

Joan Baez - How Sweet the Sound
© Razor & Tie

"Oh Freedom" (purchase/download) also has very deep roots with the African-American community, as it was sung by slaves dreaming of a time when there would be an end to slavery. On the morning preceeding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., Joan Baez started the day's events with her rendition of this tune, and it quickly became an anthem of the movement. The refrain ("Before I'll be a slave...") also appeared in an earlier tune "No More Mourning."

"Oh, Freedom! Oh, Freedom over me! Before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave ..."

"We Shall Not Be Moved"

Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back Album Cover
© Anti- Records

"We Shall Not Be Moved" (purchase/download) was another song which took root as a song of liberation and empowerment during the labor movement of the early 20th Century. It was already a staple in union halls (integrated and segregated alike) when folks started working it into Civil Rights rallies in the 1950s and '60s. Like many of the period's great protest songs, it sings of the refusal to bow to the powers that be, and the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

"Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved."

"Blowin' In The Wind"

Bob Dylan - Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
© Columbia

When Bob Dylan debuted "Blowin in the Wind" (purchase/download), he introduced it by clearly indicating it wasn't a protest song. In a way, he had a point. It wasn't against anything - it simply raised a number of provocative questions which had long ago needed to be raised. It did, however, become an anthem for some folks who couldn't have said it better themselves. Less in the singalong tradition than songs like "We Shall Overcome," however, "Blowin' in the Wind" was an assertive tune which has been performed by a number of other artists throughout the years, including Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.  

"How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?"

"This Little Light of Mine"

Sam Cooke - This Little Light of Mine
© ABKCO

"This Little Light of Mine" (purchase/download) was a children's song and an old spiritual, reintroduced during the Civil Rights Era as a song of personal empowerment. Its lyrics talks about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. Its refrain sings of the light in each individual and how, whether standing up alone or joining together, each little bit of light can break the darkness. The song has since been applied to many struggles, but was an anthem of the civil rights movement at the time.

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine ... let it shine over the whole wide world, I'm gonna let it shine."

"Going Down to Mississippi"

Phil Ochs - A Toast to Those Who Are Gone
© Phil Ochs

One of the most dangerous places to be African-American (or a white civil rights activist) at the height of the movement was Mississippi. Yet, students and activists alike poured into the deep south to lead rallies and sit-ins, work toward registering people to vote, and provide education and assistance. Phil Ochs was a songwriter with a fierce cannon of protest songs. But "Going Down to Mississippi," in particular, resonated with the civil rights movement because it talks specifically about the struggle that was happening in Mississippi. Ochs sings:

"Someone's got to go to Mississippi just as sure as there's a right and there's a wrong. Even though you say the time will change, that time is just too long."

"Only a Pawn In Their Game"

Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changing
© Columbia

Bob Dylan's song about the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers talks about the greater issue at hand in Evars' murder. Dylan honed in on the fact that the murder of Evers wasn't just an issue between the assassin and his subject, but was a symptom of a greater problem which needed fixing.

"And he's taught how to walk in a pack, shoot in the back, with his fist in a clinch, to hang and to lynch ... He ain't got no name, but it ain't him to blame. He's only a pawn in their game."

"Strange Fruit"

Billie Holiday - Lady Day the Very Best of Billie Holiday
© Legacy

When Billie Holiday premiered "Strange Fruit" in a New York club in 1938, the civil rights movement hadn't anywhere near approached its ultimate velocity. Though much of mainstream culture wouldn't hop on the bandwagon until more than a decade later, though, the civil rights movement had been going on slowly, underground, for generations in the south. This song was so controversial that Billie's record company wouldn't release it. Luckily, it was picked up by a smaller label and preserved to this day.

"Strange trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"

Freedom Songs - Selma, Alabama
© Smithsonian Folkways

"Keep Your Hand on the Plow and Hold On" was an old gospel song by the time it got revisited, reworked, and reapplied within the context of the civil rights movement. Like the original, this adaptation talked about the importance of endurance while struggling toward freedom. The song has been through many incarnations, but the refrain has remained much the same:

"The only chain that a man can stand is the chain of hand in hand. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on."

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