I've been working on a collection of 'freedom songs' for the past while. Eventually I'm going to make a mix-tape (well, mix-CD) out of them. Except lately I've been finding so many that I might have to make a 2 part album... Disc one would probably have pre-1980s songs (of which there is an abundancy of good stuff); side B would have post-1980's music (of which there is a limited amount of goodness) - e.g. Common's new single 'I Have A Dream'* or Wyclef Jean's 'Million Voices' or U2's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' (its about the Troubles in Northern Ireland didn'tyaknow!).
Almost all of the pre-1980s songs have to do with civil rights and racial equality, whereas the post-80s songs are more protest/anti-war/world-issues songs. (For example, Million Voices - from the movie Hotel Rwanda - is a lament over the Rwandan genocide. )
What I'm noticing the most about the pre-80's freedom songs is that they're incredibly powerful sounding! Listening to them either puts tears in my eyes or makes me feel like grabbing a piece of cardboard and spray painting it black (no Rolling Stones pun intended there, I swear). Most of them were either either written at the height of the civil rights era or were old slave or gospel songs 'reinvented' for the cause (click the link to hear some samples). The feeling at the time must have been amazing! Music that could stir and uplift and inspire people to action played such a huge part in the success of the movement!*
There's this one Martin Luther King, Jr. speech which he brilliantly intersperses with quotes from 'We Shall Overcome.' Listening to it gives me 'a delicious thrill' (as Anne Shirley would say). I've got a sound clip of the part I'm about to quote and it'll definitely be going onto the Freedom Songs CD:
I know that there are still some difficult days ahead, there is still much work to be done, and I know that some of us so often have to stand amid the surging movement of life's restless sea, constantly face chilly winds of adversity, but in spite of this I still believe that we will solve this problem. Oh, every now and then it becomes difficult to believe it, but I will never lose that faith. Living every day amid the threat of death, living amid the agony and the tensions that inevitably come as a result of being on the front lines of the struggle, one is tempted to despair at moments, but we have a theme song in our movement, and I will continue to sing it because I believe it: "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”Wow.
Now, before the victory's won, some of us will have to get scarred up a bit, but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some more will be thrown into crowded and frustrating jail cells, but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some will be called bad names, some will be called Reds and Communists simply because they believe in the brotherhood of man, but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some more may have to face physical death, but if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death and eternal death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. Yes, we shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, truth crushed to earth will rise again. We shall overcome because there is something in the very structure of the cosmos which justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own." With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope; with this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children all over this nation, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR
But you've really got to hear him say the words to understand just how awesome it is. Man, did he have an amazing voice.
Anyway, the version of 'We Shall Overcome' - arguably the greatest anthem of the movement - that is most famous is the one done by Pete Segeer (and there's a great write-up about it here and another one about the history of music of the civil rights movement here). I've listened to 4 or 5 renditions and Pete's is my favorite. My second favorite is the one sung by Joan Baez. They're both going on my CD.
If anyone wants a copy, let me know.
* Although, that one's still up for debate. Its catchy but I'm getting kind of annoyed with the repeating MLK sample.
* See, good music = success! Just look at the Nazis! Oh, wait...