Folk Music And Civil Rights Movement

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27th Apr 2017 History Reference this


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There is no defined origin of folk music. It is linked more with the culture than with the entertainment. Sometimes the folk songs are too old that they become an important part of the audio history. This is notably seen in North America where a number of songs sung by folksingers like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly tell such tales that are not even found in the historic books. Since beginning folk music has been targeting the working class. It focuses more on the community and thus got very less commercial victory. Such songs cover a wide range of topics like civil rights, war, economic problems, irony, work and romantic songs. (Ruehl, n.d)

The word “folk music” originated from England, where the German term “volk” which stands for people was taken and then it was related to the natives of England. These included the uneducated peasants who could not publish books so they told tales and legends with the help of songs. This word has been in use from the 19th century but in reality folk music had been there for centuries. The popularity of the folk music had been from the Romantic period. Amongst the many composers of folk music, Joseph Haydn and Beethoven were very popular. These were often accompanied by traditional folk dances too.

Currently, there was no renewal of folk music till 20th century. In 1928 the folk music festival was held in Asheville, Carolina. One of the most famous contributors in this regard was Woodie Guthrie. This is because a number of future folk singers worked on the songs that his mother sang for him as a child. In 1930s and 1940s there was an increase development in folk music. In this time period Jimmay Rodgers in 1930s and in 1940s Burl Ives contributed a lot for the revival of folk music. In 1950s The Weavers, Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte were the most dominant folk music groups. Their way of singing was to respect and produce the old folk music. This way continued up till the mid sixties after which ‘folk rock” appeared and Beatles conquered the folk music. In 1960s the term “protest music” appeared in which folksingers sang songs against capitalism, war in Vietnam. Also, they sung to support the civil rights movement in America. Some people named it as “antifolk” on the grounds that moderate politics lessens the value of traditions which are an important part of Folk music. The decline of folk music was evident in 1975 and it was not revived till 1990s. Still in 1990s the revival was very less as compared to the previous one. During 1970s and 1980s all the famous brands took inspiration from folk music and hence lead to the formation of folk music festivals and clubs today. Although the folk music is not at its peak today, it is still very famous. Since it has been a hundred year old, it may fade away soon. (MB, 2007)

Moving towards the Folk music in America and particularly North America, the term folk music was initially coined in 18th century by Europeans and linked it to themselves. They claimed that since America does not have a long history so it has no folk music. This was not until an old English folk song “Barbara Allen” was found in late 19th century and it was stated that America has a history of folk songs. So the early folklorists consulted Appalachians to find the remains of old English songs passed from the British Isles. In order to explore the English folk songs, John Lomax the Texas folklorist made a number of attempts. He found the famous English folk musician Lead Belly who was accustomed with numerous African American folk songs and was the introducer of “House of the Rising Sun” as well as “Midnight Special” to the traditions of America. (Sullivan)

Between 1950s and 1960s, there was a lot of popularity of folk music in America. More than 50 folk singers performed live on folk music. At the festivals of folk music people used to bring their own musical instruments and played them. Side by side they also enjoyed performances by the professional folk singers. Popular folk musicians included Weavers, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel and Odetta. (TACHI)

Folk music has contributed to a number of political movements especially in America. The civil rights movement has a very close link with the folk music. The civil rights movement was an African American Movement to end the racial discrimination. It was the time when there was segregation amongst the blacks and whites in almost every field including universities, offices and schools. The blacks were denied their basic rights and were treated as undesirable and low class citizens. Hence a movement was started to put an end to the racial prejudices that were increasing in the society and promote equality.

During the 1959s and 1960s the freedom folk songs contributed the most in instigating the spirit of racial justice amongst the Americans and Africans, thus empowering the Civil Rights Movement. Whether these songs were sung in congregation on individually they were the main contributors towards the freedom fight and touched the hearts of the people who were involved in this struggle.

The most popular song amongst these was “We Shall Overcome.” This song was adopted as the anthem for the civil rights movement. In the 19th century it was found that it originated from the African American religious songs. (Turino)

The difficult procedure that resulted in the formation of this song as the anthem shows how much hybrid the African American Music culture is and also the civil rights movement. This song originated from the hymn in 19th century called “I’ll overcome someday”. During the war time period the African American tobacco staff converted the hymn to “We Shall Overcome”. They sang the song in Highlander Folk School. (Ward)

It was during the extreme side of the civil rights movement in 1940s and 1950s, when under the leadership of Martin Luther King, the song “We Shall Overcome” became famous. Its most popular version has been sung by Joan Baez. This song was sung in various huge marches during the civil rights movement and also in the freedom movement in numerous countries. Its lyrics and tune was so inspiring that the American President of that time, Lyndon Johnson used it frequently in his speech to encourage the civil rights movement and the to vote by Americans and Africans. These rights were snatched from them by the local chiefs. The president also mentioned how songs like these contributed to the political movements and hold significance. (“World music as protest – We Shall Overcome”)

It is vital to see that it was not only the African Americans who sang songs regarding this movement in 1950s and 1960s. The field of racial denial consisted of other songs by a number of folksingers including the famous Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. These entire singers mocked at the racial discrimination and spoke for the true democratic values. Among these a prominent example is “Oxford Town” by Bob Dylan. It was an open condemnation to the state’s prejudice that caused severe fighting at the University of Mississippi in which James Meredith unified the university under the control of army in 1962. Dylan was amongst those folk singers who produced such songs that instigated the emotions of young white college students in the favor of the civil rights movement and gained further public support. Freedom and folk songs have a long term commitment with the civil rights movement. In order to find out how much a song contributed to the civil rights movement, it all depended on the lyrics of the particular song. (Ward)

In 1965 the Supreme Court of America announced that the separation in the schools was not legal. Nevertheless, in 1960s a series of movements occurred in an attempt to put an end to discrimination in every field. In 1962 “Blowin in the Wind” was sung by Bob Dylan. His song was the answer to those people who were suffering from racial, political and traditional inequality. The song went on as

“How many years must people exist,

Before they are allowed to be free?”

A number of voices in folk music rose at this time to voice for the discrimination. “We shall overcome” which was derived from the Charles Tindley’s gospel song “I’ll overcome someday”, was added new lines by Peter Seegar called “Black and White Together”. Moreover the famous song of Ray Charles “Hit the Road Jack” was re named as “Get Your Rights, Jack”. When the police hit the marching people in Alabama in the “Bloody Sunday” of 1965, after that Julius Lester officially started voicing for the Civil Rights Movement and bringing an end to the crushing discrimination that was destroying the ethical values. In order to find a tinge of freedom he abandoned Nashville located in the South of New York. He claimed that discrimination is increasingly found in North as well as in South. In South however there was open separation in every field of life. On the other hand in North the separation was not very openly done. The blacks were being crushed and suppressed economically and were forcefully made to reside in ghettos. It was thus economics that made them separated. Thus, Lester was amongst the numerous folk singers that contributed towards the freedom songs and claimed through his songs that the whites were biased, authoritative and had no ethical and social values.

As Martin Luther King continued his passionate speeches about the political inequality demonstrated in the law of whites, at the same time Joan Baez sung African American religious folk songs related to racial discrimination and freedom. The thing that drove her closer to Civil Rights Movement was her experience with inequalities due to her Mexican legacy. Pete Seegar was not only a folk singer but also a campaigner of politics. (Wiseman, 2007)

“If I had a hammer

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening … all over this land,

I’d hammer out danger”

Another famous song by Pete Seegar was “Keep Your Hand on the Plow and Hold On”. When it was revised to be used as a Civil rights Movement song, it was an old folk gospel song. This song explained a very important fact that patience in necessary while fighting for freedom. There has been a number of changes in the song, but the refrain did not change:

“The only chain that a man can stand is the chain of hand in hand. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.” (Ruehl)

Such was the enthusiasm of the folk singers who left no stone unturned to help the civil rights movement be a success. Passionate strugglers sang their songs during their marches to boost up their morale and keep the spirits high. These folk songs were a major contribution to the success of the civil rights movement and encouraging the masses to raise their voices for it.

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