Make your own free website on

for Songs of Freedom and Struggle

Home | History | Links | Membership

Struggle and Song
By Chris Seymour

We've been singing as we struggle for change since before this country was a country, since enslaved Africans shared coded songs of revolt and escape, and artisans sang protests against the factories that were destroying their livelihoods.

Until relatively recently, singing was part of most people s daily lives, so of course it was part of our movements. But the tide of movement music songs sung to, and (crucially) by, groups of people to inform the ignorant, incite action, lift spirits and build solidarity among toilers for change has ebbed as well as flooded along with the swell and shrinkage of movements for change. What follows is an idiosyncratic survey of some of the high-water marks of movement music.

Slave songs

Watchful overseers couldn t prevent slaves from using song to sustain themselves in their bondage, criticize their masters, covertly convey information about upcoming escape attempts and even commemorate revolts. Singer and musicologist Bernice Johnson Reagon remembers her elementary school teacher in Dougherty Co., Ga., passing along a recollection of her grandmother, who had been a slave: When slaves held secret meetings, Reagon writes, "they would  put a big black iron wash pot in the middle of the floor so the sound of the singing would go in the pot and not out the door."
 They might have been singing a complaint song remembered by the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave, that began, "We raise the wheat, they give us corn; we bake the bread, they give us the crust."
 If they were bolder, they might have sung the anthem of a secret organization of slaves founded in 1813 in South Carolina, a song sung by Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators as they prepared for their 1822 rebellion in Charleston. Parodying the then-popular patriotic song "Hail Columbia," the anthem called daringly for revolt:

 Arise, arise! Shake off your chains!
Your cause is just, so Heaven ordains;
To you shall freedom be proclaimed!
Raise your arms and bare your breasts,
Almighty God will do the rest
Blow the clarion s warlike blast
Call every negro from his task
Wrest the scourge from Buckra s hand
And drive each tyrant from the land!

 Vesey's rebellion failed when informers betrayed the group of 131 Blacks and four whites.

 Other songs, sung more openly, carried coded advice and information about escape and the Underground Railroad, such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which pointed to the Big Dipper as a guidepost to the North. Still others conveyed news about friends and families who had reached free territory; in the lyric "I heard from Heaven today," "Heaven" stood for Canada. The hymns and spirituals the slaves sang in church leaned heavily on biblical stories of bondage and escape, particularly the liberation of theIsraelites from Egypt.
 While enslaved Africans were using music to help lighten, slip or smash their chains, abolitionists whites and free Blacks in the North were also using song to support the movement to end slavery. A wave of Christian revival swept the land in the early 1830s, and many of the new evangelists bore with them the Gospel and the hymns of abolitionism. As has many an activist singer before and since, abolitionists often put their words to well-known tunes; the anonymous composer of
"The Patriot s Hymn," for example, lifted the melody of "My Country  Tis of Thee" for:

 My country!  tis for thee
Sad land of slavery!
For thee I sigh:
Land where my fathers died
Land once the pilgrims  pride
I hear on every side
Oppression s cry

 The Wobblies
The next movement with songs at its center was the effort to build one big union and usher in an era of workers' self-government, led by the Industrial Workers of the World in the first decades of the 20th century. Songs had played a role in other movements at the end of the 19th century, notably in the mine workers' struggles in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia; in the nationwide fight for the eight-hour day; and in the Populists  attempt to link farmers and workers in an alliance for justice. But it was the Wobblies, with their simple, pointed, easy-to-learn songs (often set to hymn tunes) and their little red book of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, who really set the rabble singing. According to Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW, edited by Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas and Deborah Shaffer, "They sang in jails and in the freight cars they called  rattlers.  They sang at picnics and rallies, in saloons and hobo jungles. Singing was not a performance, but a community event in which everyone participated."
 The Wobblies helped organize the 1912 Lawrence, Mass., mill strike that gave us the song "Bread and Roses." Inspired by a striker s sign, James Oppenheim and Caroline Kohlsaat wrote the lines that still reverberate:

 As we go marching, marching,
Unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing
Their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty
Their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for,
But we fight for roses, too.

 It was a Wobbly, Ralph Chaplin, who wrote what became U.S. labor's national anthem, "Solidarity Forever." Sadly, more conservative unions have sometimes censored his radical lyrics:

 In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the Union makes us strong.

 The IWW s most famous bard, Joe Hill (born Joseph Hillstrom in Sweden), traveled the country organizing workers and making up sharp satiricalsongs like
"The Preacher and the Slave." Hill often took on (among other foes) the Salvation Army, whose brass bands would gather on street corners where Wobblies were soapboxing and start playing their horns to drown out the subversives. With Hill s song, the agitators could sing right along with "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," but with somewhat different lyrics:

 Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what s wrong and what s right
But when asked about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land beyond the sky (way up high)
Work and pray, live on hay
You ll get pie in the sky when you die (that s a lie)

 The Depression and WWII
Joe Hill, who was framed on a murder charge and shot by a Utah firing squad in 1915, wasn't immortalized in song until 1938, when Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes wrote "Joe Hill" ("I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me. "). Robinson and Hayes were part of a group of leftist singers, songwriters and folk song collectors who used music to support workers  and poor people s movements in the Depression years.
 Many of the songs we activists still sing today came out of this period. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an early  '30s sharecroppers organization, turned the Black gospel song "Jesus is My Captain, I Shall Not Be Moved" into "We Shall Not Be Moved," which has been sung ever since by civil rights organizers and union pickets.
 Kentucky s Florence Reece wrote "Which Side Are You On?" in a rage after Harlan County Sheriff J.H. Blair and a bunch of armed thugs burst into her home one day in 1931 during a National Miners Union strike. The men brandished rifles at her children and ransacked the house searching for her husband, a rank-and-file organizer. After they left, she ripped a calendar from the wall and wrote words that later rang, with a few changes, on civil rights picket lines throughout the South:

Don t scab for the bosses
Don t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

 Woody Guthrie was, of course, the most prolific and well-remembered of the era's singer-activists. Born in 1912, Woody rambled from his native, dust-ravaged Oklahoma to California and ultimately to New York City in the late 1930s, making up songs about the lives of migrant workers and other hard-hit people and their efforts for change. At a historic 1940 benefit for migrant workers organized by actor Will Geer, Guthrie met a number of people who were at the heart of the protest music scene of the time. Folk song collector Alan Lomax was there, along with singers Pete Seeger, Josh White, Huddie Ledbetter — called Leadbelly — and Aunt Molly Jackson, who was, like Reece, a Kentucky mining-country labor songwriter. Lomax was so impressed with Guthrie he convinced RCA Victor to record a 12-disc, 78 RPM collection of Guthrie's Dust Bowl songs, including "Do Re Mi" and "I Ain t Got No Home." The resulting Dust Bowl Ballads was probably the first
recorded collection of self-conscious protest songs. Before the degenerative nerve disease Huntington s chorea disabled him (he died of itin 1968, at 56), Guthrie wrote more than a thousand songs, some ephemeral, many still indispensable, from "Deportee" to "Union Maid" and "Pretty Boy Floyd" to "This Land Is Your Land," his peerless answer to mindless patriotism.
 Guthrie joined the group of lefty singers who traveled in various permutations as the Almanac Singers singing to support struggling workers all around the country. (They also sang as did virtually every other protest singer to support the embattled Spanish Republic.) At various points, the Almanacs included Seeger, Josh White, Sis Cunningham, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Bess Lomax Hawes, among others. In the 1940s, before the war, the Almanacs hosted hootenannies --  free-form mixes of performanc eand songswapping to raise the rent on their Greenwich Village communal home, Almanac House. The hoots, which resumed after the war under the auspices of the People s Songs organization, helped lay the groundwork for the urban folk revival that swept the country in the 1950s and 1960s.
So did the Folkways record label, founded in 1947 by Moses Asch, which recorded Guthrie, Leadbelly, Jackson and Seeger, as well as helping expose
aspiring urban folkies to the influences of rural traditional musicians like banjo players Clarence Ashley and Dock Boggs.
 Following the lead of the Communist Party, the Almanacs initially opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. But they withdrew their album of peace
songs after the Germans invaded the U.S.S.R. and began backing the war effort with a record of anti-fascist songs including "Round and Round
Hitler s Grave." Then the men in the group dispersed to various branches of the armed services.
 After the war, Seeger and Hays formed the Weavers with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The new group was more polished than the Almanacs and sang
fewer political songs, and their popularizations of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" and an upbeat bilingual English-Hebrew song called "Tzena, Tzena" made the pop charts. Seemingly seconds later, living-room singers --  especially the young --  took up guitars and started their own hoots. The music industry was quick to cash in on the trend.
 But in the postwar era of anti-Communist witch-hunts, the Weavers and other movement singers, such as Paul Robeson, were made to pay dearly for their politics and their closeness to the Communist Party. By the late '50s, the commercialization of folk music and the persecution of Seeger, Cunningham and the others had successfully drained politics out of the folk boom that the Almanacs had, ironically, nurtured. Some of its stars, however like Odetta, the Alabama-born singer of spirituals and other African-American songs; Calypso superstar Harry Belafonte; and the young traditional balladeer Joan Baez would return to the politics of protest.

 The Civil Rights Movement
For while folk groups such as the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters and their ilk were singing sweet nothings, the greatest singing movement of our country s history was heating up in the South. Deeply rooted, at least at first, in the churches, the civil rights movement naturally drew on the spirituals that had sustained the ex-slaves during a century of post-slavery servitude.
 Civil rights song makers continued the long tradition of adapting the old to fit new circumstances the most famous example being perhaps the one of
the most convoluted: A group of picketing tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., changed Rev. Charles Albert Tindley s old spiritual "I Will Overcome" to "We Will Overcome." Zilpia Horton, who was helping the workers organize a union, added some verses and taught the song to Seeger, who changed it around some and sang it around up north. He taught it to Guy Carawan, who changed the verb and took it south again, singing "We Shall Overcome" at the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. From there the song spread throughout the Southern movement, becoming its anthem; eventually, the whole world would know it.
 Even not-so-old songs got renovated. James Farmer and other Freedom Riders adapted Reece s "Which Side Are You On?" while they were locked in a Mississippi jail in 1961. Hearing that "most local Negroes were with us, but afraid to do anything because of fear of reprisals," he wrote:

 Don t "Tom" for Uncle Charlie
Don t listen to his lies
 Cause Black folks haven t got a chance
Until they organize

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

 As it was with the Wobblies, song was essential to the functioning of the movement. Participatory singing was at the center of any mass meeting or demonstration and even more important in the jails that grew increasingly crowded as the student lunch-counter sit-ins grew and spread in the first years of the 1960s. By the end of a week of marches in Albany, Ga., sparked by the jailing of SNCC activists who tried to buy tickets at the Albany bus station s whites-only window in the winter of 1961, there were more than 700 people in jail, then a U.S. record for mass incarceration. Those arrested in the demonstrations were a disparate bunch, recalls
Bernice Johnson Reagon, who later joined the SNCC Freedom Singers: "We were high school and college students, wives, mothers, workers, educated and uneducated, churched and unchurched, sober and non, and grandmothers When things would rub between people of different persuasions, someone would say  sing a song, Bernice,  and I would. People were not necessarily changed, but singing collectively created more space to be together in a cell with no space."

 Children of the movement
The civil rights movement radicalized and inspired hundreds of thousands of people. Many were young, poor or both and didn t have enough at stake to keep them from asking tough questions about their society. The civil rights movement thus helped spark the movement against the war in Vietnam, the New Left, the women s liberation movement, the Chicano movement, the gay liberation movement, the American Indian Movement and the other social upheavals that dominated that decade-plus we call the Sixties.
 The civil rights struggle also helped put politics back into the folkrevival. Peter, Paul and Mary had begun singing topical material like Hays' and Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" in 1961. But it was trips South by young songwriters like Len Chandler, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan in the early- to mid-1960s (visits instigated by Carawan, Reagon and Seeger, among others) that fueled the outpouring of topical song. In 1961, Sis Cunningham had started Broadside, a topical song magazine, unsure if there would be enough material to fill it, let alone people to buy it, but a few years later it was doing a roaring trade.
 Topical songs were the soundtrack to the '60s social movements, as outraged song makers wrote songs attacking the "Masters of War" (Dylan), asking "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" (Country Joe McDonald) and "What Have They Done to the Rain?" (Malvina Reynolds), proclaiming "I Ain t Marchin  Anymore" (Ochs) and scoring the "Universal Soldier" (BuffySainte-Marie). Many of those songs were for listening to, not for singingalong with. The record companies had found they could sell folk songs to the masses in the 1950s found that they could sell protest music just as well in the 1960s. Reagon had grown up singing every day like many of her small-town civil rights movement comrades, in a family that did not have a record player. But the middle-class baby boomers whose demonstrations helped stop the Vietnam War were second- or third-generation phonograph owners. People sang along when prodded at rallies, but the Northernmovements of the  60s inevitably did not sing as much as had their Southern inspirers.

 Movement Music Lives
Dylan more or less signaled the end of the folk boom when he "plugged in" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Other folk-based or topical musicians either started rocking or got left out of the music industry's mainstream. Later, punk and, more recently, rap musicians would include potent political messages in their music, but their audiences are not singing the songs at marches and demonstrations.
 There are those who kept making movement music, music with a message meant to be sung by people who aren't on stage, even as the industry lost interest. Seeger, of course, is one of them, having made it a hallmark of his concerts to get audiences to sing songs of struggle in harmony. So is Reagon, who founded the a capella African-American women's ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock 25 years ago this November. Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Sweet Honey and other feminist singers carved a space for women to make music in a male-dominated industry and helped launch a women's music movement that is both political and participatory. The anti-apartheid struggle and the movements in solidarity with the countries of Latin America brought new sounds, new rhythms and new songs to movement music here. Charlie King helped keep thousands singing when they were locked up for protesting the Seabrook, NH, nuclear plant in 1977 and now
shares his well-crafted and singable songs with activist audiences around the country. Toshi Reagon (Bernice's daughter) blends a message into her blues-gospel-rock mix and gets her audiences singing, as does feminist punk-folker Ani DiFranco. Hundreds of other song makers, almost all of them with day jobs, create songs to be sung on picket lines and at rallies. In San Francisco, rally organizers can call up the Freedom Songs Network, which can connect them to singers with songs appropriate to their action.
 It often feels completely marginal, the task too huge. With musical tastes so highly segmented these days, a movement song maker has a hard time choosing a well-known tune that everyone will know to set her words to, let alone finding people to sing it with. But occasionally events like the following raise hope for movement music:
 As the National Public Radio announcer winds down her report on the 1995 International Women s Conference in Beijing, she reports that the delegates closed their session by singing an "old American spiritual." Behind her swell the voices of thousands of women from all over the world singing in harmony. What they are singing, however, is no old spiritual, but a simple song written in 1984 by activist singer and songwriter Pat Humphries (her first):

Gonna keep on walkin  forward
Keep on walkin  forward
Keep on walkin  forward
Never turning back

Folksinger and labor researcher Chris Seymour lives in Brooklyn and serves
on the steering committee of the People's Music Network. To contact Chris,

This article appeared in the War Resisters League magazine, Nonviolent Activist.

To subscribe: 212/228-0450 or e-mail

Or check out the League's website at
go to the top of this page

Home | History | Links | Membership