In their book “Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs”, Candie and Guy Carawan present a history of the Civil Rights Movement following a methodology that breaks from the standard norms of historiography. Instead of focusing, for example, on political events or key social actors in their narrative, they decide to approach the Civil Rights Movement through the songs that accompanied it. Accordingly, it can be stated that the Carawans’ underlying argument in the work is that the songs of this movement provide an accurate synopsis of the movement itself. In the following research, I would like to evaluate the merit of this argument by, for example, comparing their analysis of Civil Rights songs with the real political conditions which activists were faced with. One of the key research questions guiding my final paper is thus the following: to what extent are the musical works of art of the Civil Rights movement accurate reflections of the socio-political divide which shaped this conflict?

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The Carawans’ are clear to trace a lineage between the songs of the Civil Rights movement to the centrality of music to the Afro-American heritage. From this perspective, therefore, the decision to analyze the movement using its music as a guiding framework is consistent with the organic nature of Civil Rights’ struggle: it incorporated its own cultural framework in order to confront the dominant discourse of racism. Each song analyzed in the work, in this sense, corresponds to a different dimension of the Civil Rights’ struggle. An analysis of how a song reflects real socio-political conditions therefore provides a unique viewpoint on history and, furthermore, arguably a viewpoint that is more consistent with the subjective perspective of the African-Americans’ involved in this struggle.

Another way to approach this research question would be the following: what differentiates the use of song in the Civil Rights’ movement from other uses of artistic mediums by different protest movements? For example, in Poems From the Women’s Movement, the use of poetry in disseminating the fundamental concerns and demands of the women’s rights movement is analyzed. In this sense, a further research question is the following: is the use of song in the Civil Rights’ movement something uniquely African-American? Does it reflect the real social conditions of African-American life? For example, to the extent that African-Americans have historically been excluded from the mainstream of U.S. society, their reliance on an oral and musical tradition is a consequence of this being their dominant form of communication because of their marginalization, for example, in terms of their exclusion from participation in written discourse.

Nancy Callahan’s The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama adds another valuable dimension to this research topic, in so far as she approaches the Civil Rights movement from the concept of folk art in general. The main thesis of the work appears to be that any truly populist, people’s movement, will necessarily heavily rely upon forms of “folk art”, since it is this art which is the authentic “voice” of the people. Joe Street’s The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement furthermore places African-American culture at the very center of the Civil Rights era, to the extent that Street views culture as the main catalyst for change.

In this research paper, therefore, I will examine the extent to which culture and, in particular, music helped inform the Civil Rights’ movement, using the above sources as conceptual support for my investigation.

  • Callahan, Nancy. The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
  • Carawan, Guy and Candie. Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs. Montgomery, AL: NewSouth, 2007.
  • Moore, Honor. Poems from the Women’s Movement. Washington, DC: Library of America, 2009.
  • Street, Joe. The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2007.