Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness.  Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.

The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world.

James Karales, Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights,1965
James Karales, Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights,1965

I thought the film might have made more use of the music associated with the civil rights movement. Yes, we can just about hear in the background some of those inspirational songs, including ‘Why (Am I Treated So Bad)’ by the Staple Singers, and ‘Keep on Pushing’ from Curtis Mayfield.  We hear the voice of Odetta as the marchers cross the Edmund Pettus bridge – but, curiously, singing ‘Masters of War’, rather than any of the other songs more specific to the movement.

So, in dedication to that struggle here is a playlist of some of the most important and memorable songs that inspired, or were inspired by, the Civil Rights Movement.

Stevie Wonder – Blowin’ in the Wind

Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is one of the songs that became an anthem for civil rights activists in the 1960s. It gained its high profile with the version released as a single by Peter, Paul and Mary which sold a phenomenal 300,000 copies in the first week of its American release and made the song world famous. In August 1963, it reached number two on the Billboard pop chart, with sales exceeding one million copies.

In Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home, Mavis Staples spoke of her astonishment on first hearing the song: she could not understand how a young white man could write something which captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully. Sam Cooke was also deeply impressed by the song and began to perform it in his live act. A version was included on Cooke’s 1964 album Live At the Copacabana, and he later wrote his own response ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which he recorded in January  1964.

Stevie Wonder became the first black artist to take a Dylan song into the US Top 10 when his version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ reached number 9 in 1966.

Joan Baez – Birmingham Sunday

Released in 1964, ‘Birmingham Sunday’ was written by Richard Farina in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, in which four young African-American girls lost their lives and many others were injured. The church was a centre for rallies in support of civil rights, making it a focal point for white hostility in the city’s racial conflict. The bombing was carried out by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. The song was a high point of Joan Baez’s fifth album, released in 1964

Paul Simon – A Church is Burning

The Birmingham bombing also inspired this Paul Simon song, released on his 1965 solo album Songbook.  Paul challenges the KKK atrocity with an ultimately optimistic message: ‘you can burn down my churches but I shall be free’.  Near the beginning of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, four little girls in starched dresses walk down the steps of their church talking about girlish things, bathed in light, before the explosion rips through that staircase.

Neville Brothers – Sister Rosa

The Neville Brothers 1989 tribute to Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist arrested on 1 December 1955 for refusing to obey the order to give up her seat in the coloured section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger, after the white section was filled. Parks’ act of defiance and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott was a key moment in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

Joan Baez – We Shall Overcome

This powerful anthem for freedom and change was published in the September 1948 issue of People’s Songs Bulletin, a publication of People’s Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director. It appeared with an introduction by Zilphia Horton, then music director of an adult education school that trained union organizers. She wrote that she’d learned the song from members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union: ‘Its strong emotional appeal and simple dignity never fails to hit people. It sort of stops them cold.’  The most famous version of the song is perhaps this one by Joan Baez. She sang it at the March on Washington in 1963 organized by Martin Luther King. President Lyndon Johnson quoted the phrase ‘We shall overcome’ when addressing Congress in March 1965, demanding a voting rights act after the violent ‘Bloody Sunday’ attacks on civil rights demonstrators during the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. Martin Luther King recited the words from ‘We Shall Overcome’ in his final sermon, delivered in Memphis on Sunday 31 March 1968, just before his assassination.

Bob Dylan – Only a Pawn in Their Game

‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ was written by Bob Dylan in response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and released on Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ album of 1964. Controversially, the song suggested that Evers’ killer was not solely to blame for his crime, since he was only a pawn of a wealthy white elite who incensed poor whites against blacks in order to distract them from their position on ‘the caboose of the train’.

In late 1954 Evers had been appointed the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi. He helped organize boycotts and set up new local chapters of the NAACP. He was involved with James Meredith’s efforts to enrol in the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s. Evers’ civil rights leadership and investigative work made him a target of white supremacists. In the weeks leading up to his death, the hostility directed towards him grew. In the early morning of 12 June 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television in support of civil rights, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car, Evers was struck in the back with a bullet that ripped through his heart. He was taken to the local hospital in Jackson where he was initially refused entry because of his ethnicity; he died in the hospital 50 minutes later.

Dylan first performed ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. Civil rights activist and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson would later tell critic Robert Shelton that the song ‘was the very first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black’. Dylan sang the song at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Paul Simon – He Was My Brother

This Paul Simon song appeared on the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M in 1964. It was written in memory of Andrew Goodman, a fellow college student and friend of both singers. Along with James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, he was one of three ‘freedom riders’ – civil rights activists – murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Sweet Honey In The Rock – Eyes On The Prize

Sweet Honey In The Rock grew out of the 1960s civil rights movement, having been founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who had been a member of The Freedom Singers, the movement’s leading African-American singing group. ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’ is derived from the old spiritual ‘Gospel Plough’, the lyrics adapted during the Civil Rights Movement by activist Alice Wine in 1956. The song became a quintessential civil rights anthem, speaking as it did about transcending oppression and persevering despite struggle or the obstacles that may present themselves.

The song also gave its name to the best TV documentary series about the Civil Rights Movement: Eyes on the Prize was a 14-part television series first broadcast on the PBS network in America and later in the United Kingdom on BBC2.

Phil Ochs – Here’s to the State of Mississippi

The murder in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till, killed by white men in 1955 for talking to a white woman, and the murders of Medgar Evers and the three voting-rights activists from the North in the 1960s, made Mississippi seem even to other Americans like a dangerous, foreign place. In this scathing tribute to a barbarous state, Phil Ochs pulled no punches :

And here’s to the schools of Mississippi
Where they’re teaching all the children that they don’t have to care,
All the rudiments of hatred are present everywhere,
And every single classroom is a factory of despair,
And there’s nobody learning such a foreign word as “fair.”
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of –
Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of!

Mahalia Jackson – Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Mahalia Jackson was one of the most influential gospel singers in the world, recognised internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by Harry Belafonte as ‘the single most powerful black woman in the United States’. In August 1956, Jackson met Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King at the National Baptist Convention. A few months later, both King and Abernathy contacted her about coming to Montgomery, Alabama, to sing at a rally to raise money for the bus boycott. They hoped her presence would inspire people who were getting discouraged with the lack of progress in the campaign. Jackson performed on 6 December 1956, shortly after the US Supreme Court had ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.  However, in Montgomery, the ruling had not been put into effect, so the bus boycott continued. After the concert, when she returned to the Abernathy’s home, it had been bombed.

Mahalia Jackson sang at the March on Washington in 1963, appearing on stage just before Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Toward the end of his speech, he departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme ‘I have a dream’, prompted by Jackson’s cry: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’ She also sang at his funeral after he was assassinated in 1968. Jackson said that she hoped her music could ‘break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country’.

Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam

‘Mississippi Goddam’ was written by Nina Simone and first released on her album Nina Simone in Concert in 1964. The song was released as a single and became a civil rights anthem, whilst being banned in several Southern states. The song captures Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama. On the recording she announces the song as ‘a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.’ In the song she says: ‘Keep on sayin’ ‘go slow’…to do things gradually would bring more tragedy. Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality!’

Simone performed the song before 40,000 people at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches when she and other black activists, including Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte crossed police lines.

Dorothy Love Coates – Ninety-nine and a Half (Won’t Do)

Written by Dorothy Love Coates in the midst of the civil rights movement, this song gives voice to the feeling of anger and impatience at the time. The singer was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where her early years were hard (she later described them as ‘the same old thing’), leaving school to work ‘all the standard Negro jobs’ available in Birmingham in the 1940s – scrubbing floors and working behind the counter in laundries and dry cleaners. She began singing with the Gospel Harmonettes in the early 1940s, and rose to national stardom in the 1950s.

Coates became active in the civil rights movement, and worked with Martin Luther King. She was fond of telling church audiences: ‘The Lord has blessed our going out and our coming in. He’s blessed our sitting in, too.’ While many other gospel artists were slow to address political issues head-on, Coates spoke out on issues such as the war in Vietnam, racism and civil rights.

The Impressions – People Get Ready

One of the most beautiful songs of the ’60s, ‘People Get Ready’ was written by Curtis Mayfield for the Impressions in the year after the March on Washington, and had a significant impact on the civil rights movement. Mayfield, who was living in Chicago at the time of the march, had grown up in the black church singing gospel. In a 1993 interview he said the song was a subconscious product of ‘the preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.’

Mayfield is regarded as a driving force behind soul and politically-conscious African-American music. In 1965 the Impressions produced music that became the soundtrack to a summer of resistance with songs such as ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘We’re A Winner’ that spread a message of hope in the face of oppression, pride in being black, and gave courage to a generation who were demanding their human rights.

Odetta – The Times They are A-Changin’

1965 was also the year in which Odetta released Odetta Sings Dylan, an entire album of covers of Bob Dylan songs. Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, on 31 December 1930, Odetta was a civil rights activist and folk singer. She described black folk music and spirituals as ‘liberation songs’ and used this music to ‘do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.’ Both Odetta and Bob Dylan sang at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington DC.

Aretha Franklin – Respect

Aretha Franklin been performing the song that became the anthem for an era for nearly a year during her live shows before recording the single that reached the top of the charts in June 1967. In the process she had made the song almost unrecognisable from the original version, written and recorded two years earlier by Otis Redding. The importance of the song for the civil rights movement was summed up by activist Ben Chavis, who worked with Martin Luther King as a youth coordinator:

We always sang songs about things we didn’t have. We said, ‘We shall overcome.’ We hadn’t overcome, but we sang ‘We shall overcome‘. And when Aretha came out with ‘Respect,’ we weren’t getting any respect. Black folks were being disrespected, being beat down, killed trying to get the right to vote. It was like she was fulfilling not only an urgency of the movement of that time, but she made known through her song that we were going to get respect. And then in July of ’67, we have the rebellion in Detroit. Many people also thought ‘Dancing in the Streets’ or ‘Heat Wave’ was a call to action. And those are all great songs. But ‘Respect’ had a different tenor to it that really kind of made you pay attention, and it still does.

The song was timely. In Detroit, black people were protesting unfair housing, unemployment, and oppressive actions by a police force that was 92% white. The riots in July 1967 left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The scale of the riot was unsurpassed in American history.

Marvin Gaye – Abraham Martin & John

This tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans, all icons of social change – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy and Robert. Kennedy – was written by rockabilly singer Dick Holler the day after the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles on 6 June 1968. It was first recorded by Dion, whose version was released within months of the deaths of Martin Luther King, assassinated on 4 April 1968, and Robert Kennedy, assassinated on 6 June 1968.

Dion later said: ‘I realised that what these four guys – Lincoln, King and the Kennedys – had in common was a dream. It was like they had the courage to believe that a state of love really can exist…’Abraham, Martin and John’ was a way of reminding people that they could aspire to great things, even in the midst of tragedy and confusion.’

The song was later recorded by Marvin Gaye prior to recording his What’s Going On album of political and social commentary. Early in his career, Gaye had been affected by events such as the Watts riots and asked himself, ‘with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?’

Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, released in December 1964, was written by Sam Cooke shortly after he and his entourage were turned away from motel in Louisiana because they were black. Cooke was impelled to write a song that spoke to his own experience and the struggles of his fellow black Americans. He had also been shaken by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.  According to his biographer, Peter Guralnick, Cooke loved the song, but wished it had been penned by a black American. He admired the song so much so that he incorporated it into his repertoire immediately, at the same time determined to write a song of equivalent power.

Guralnick writes:

It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him that the song – it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

Sweet Honey In the Rock, – Ella’s Song

‘Ella’s Song: We Who Believe In Freedom Cannot Rest Until It Comes’ was composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon for the a capella African-American vocal group Sweet Honey In the Rock, and was inspired by the life of the civil rights activist, Ella Baker. Ella was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Rosa Parks. She was a promoter of grassroots organizing and radical democracy, always focussed on the importance and power of young people. She has been called one of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it come

6 thoughts on “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist

  1. That is one awesome collection of songs. Every single one, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat and somehow makes you feel – as far removed as you may be by time, geography and heritage – part of something brave and righteous and vital. A hell of a playlist.

  2. Extraordinary list Gerry and so good to hear it one day after watching Selma.
    Delighted to hear Phil Ochs and Odetta again but I had a bad reaction to seeing Dylan on the list. For all my admiration for the guy, civil rights was not his finest hour and by the time of the Selma marches he had split from Joan Baez (his primary influence in this area) and had not recorded a ‘protest song’ for two years. He spent the spring of 1965 in England, touring.
    Great list though

    1. Thanks, Andy. I’m glad you enjoyed the playlist, but I can’t agree with you about Dylan. He may well have been influenced politically at the time by Joan Baez (and Suze Rotolo even more so in this respect, I think), but the man who performed at the March on Washington, wrote ‘Pawn in The Game’ (first performed in a field at Greenwood, Mississippi), ‘The Death Of Emmett Till’ (about a young Chicago boy beaten to death on a visit to Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman), ‘Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Hollis Brown’ surely can’t be overlooked. Robert Chapman wrote: ‘He was a folk-singer writing during a time when popular song focused on ‘Moon-June’ sentimentality and vacuous ditties. At the time it was unheard of for a young white songwriter to compose the kind of songs that he did, and he knocked down some serious barriers as to what was thought possible within the parameters of popular music.’ Sure, he’d moved on by ’65, but what about ‘Maggie’s Farm’, released that spring on ‘Bringing It All Back Home’?

  3. Thanks Gerry. Great selection – an axis of inspiration to remind us all of the heroic struggles that have gifted us so many rights and freedoms we are honour bound to defend, preserve and extend (and we can sing lustily too!) regards Thom.

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