It’s good to know that there was more than one way to be a freedom worker back in the day. Thank God for those whose greatest gift to the movement was their ability to throw their heads back and sing their butts off. They were the songbirds of the movement. (Every movement needs itself some songbirds.) These singers knew how to strike up the right song at the right moment, and with passion and indignation in their voice inspire marchers to clasp arms together and press on despite the threat of snarling dogs and police carrying billyclubs.
Some women were gifted organizers (Diane Nash and Ella Baker). Other women were great orators and knew how to say just what needed to be said to get folks involved (Fannie Lou Hamer and Prathia Hall). Others were good at organizing and being faithful footsoldiers (e.g., running off flyers, showing up for marches, supplying food when needed, teaching people to read, driving the elderly to the voting booth). But, precious Lord, some women could get you to strike out toward the Promised Land by simply singing!
Imagine the role music played in uniting people during tense moments of the movement. Those moments when grandiose sermons and speeches were not enough. Just sing! And sing they did. Singers took slave songs, gospel songs, folk songs and labor songs- songs that had several layers of meaning - and adapted them for the context: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “This Little Light of Mine.” They sang from truck beds, in churches, inside jail cells, and on the steps of national memorials in an effort to keep protestors’ spirits high and hope alive. The songs of these freedom singers inspired audiences to press on, press further, and press upward.
Take your weave off for the three women below who represent the scores of singing freedom fighters who threw their heads back in indignation and sang their butts off for justice.
She and the musically blessed members of her family — her late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings Yvonne, Cleotha and Pervis, known collectively as the Staple Singers — were regular performers at civil-rights rallies organized by Dr. Martin Luther King. The family began appearing in Chicago-area churches in 1948 when Mavis only 9 years old.
It was her father watching the Little Rock 9 “holding their heads high” as they faced jeers and violence to integrate their Arkansas high school that inspired his song, “We’ll Never Turn Back” In a period that included more well known works from Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, and others, the Staple Singers maintained their reputation as a group that specialized in social commentary songs (“When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done,” “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take Your There”). Steeped in the music of the church, the Staple singers from Chicago (via Mississippi) crossed into the pop mainstream without compromising their gospel roots. As the youngest and remaining member of the family, Mavis Staples continues today her family’s tradition of singing songs that inspire and motivate people to keep the faith.
Even at six years when her family moved from Birmingham, AL, to Los Angeles, Odetta showed a keen gift for music. Thanks to her mother, Odetta did begin voice lessons, training in classicial music when she was 13, even though those lessons had to be interrupted when her mother could no longer afford to pay for them. She would go on to become an explosive folk singer, frequently sharing the platform with other well-known folks singers of the 60s like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Known for her incredibly powerful stage presence and her ability to command the simplest instruments - voice and clapping hands - as well as her mastery of acoustic guitar, helped to get her recognized by Harry Belafonte as a force to be reckoned with. Belafonte saw to it that Odetta’s powerful folk singing voice would became a fixture at civil rights gatherings. She galvanized the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington when she sang, “I’m On My Way.” Odetta continues to be a firebrand folk singer at 77 years old taking her music around the world to audiences everywhere.
Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon grew up in Albany, Georgia, where she was surrounded by the sacred music of her father’s Baptist church. Her activist work started in her hometown of Albany where protests and marches were often accompanied by massive arrests. She found inspiration in the songs elders would sing at mass meetings and community gatherings, and music took on greater meaning for her. She writes, “As a singer and activist in the Albany Movement, I sang and heard the freedom songs, and saw them pull together sections of the Black community at times when other means of communication were ineffective. It was the first time that I knew the power of song to be an instrument for the articulation of our community concerns.”
After spending a night in an Albany jail with fellow students singing spirituals and folks songs to keep themselves encouraged Reagon glimpsed her calling. She eventually left Albany and joined the SNCC Freedom Singers as a respected songleader, using music as a tool for civic action. Hearing Bernice Reagon sing is like hearing generations of women keening from eternity, demanding to be heard. Bernice Reagon, songleader, scholar, curator, composer, would go on to found in 1970 the award winning a cappella quintent “Sweet Honey in the Rock” which performs traditional African and African American music around the world. Scholar, composer, curator, and songleader, Reagon retired from touring with “Sweet Honey in the Rock” a few years back to devote her energies to special musical and cultural projects.