Category Archives: music

sip4: cricket v. space invader

In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.

Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?

Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.

We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.

Robert Moog at his synthesizer in 1970

East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.

Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.

Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.

Stay tuned.

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.

Caution: HOT IRON LOOKS THE SAME AS COLD IRON!

The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.

sip2: amazing oscillators

by Larry Dunn, July 21, 2020

Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.

Another inspiration came from Daphne Oram of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she founded in 1958. Her Oramics Machine is a visual synthesizer that uses drawn images to create sounds.

Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.

Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.

Our first oscillator, a flashing LED (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.

Prototype sound-producing synthesizer (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.

Crude homage to Daphne Oram (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.

Stay tuned.

sip1: ins and outs

by Larry Dunn, July 15, 2020

Last week I attended the first session of an eight-week online class called Synth in Place (SIP). Our friend and sometimes collaborator Kirk Pearson is teaching the class, which is presented by Kirk’s own Dogbotic sound lab in collaboration with Thingamajigs, a genre-crossing arts organization that fosters music created with made and found materials and alternate tuning systems. I’m unsure what I may do in the future with the knowledge I gain in this class, but, at the very least, it seems like a fun way to chew up some pandemic quarantine hours.

There are nine brave souls in our section of the class (Kirk is juggling several similar sized sections, some with teenagers, and others with older folks like us). In our group, we range in age from 20s to 70s and bring an interesting mix of backgrounds − several composers and performers, an electrical engineer and circuit board designer, a graphic artist and animator. We are also quite geographically spread out, one of the benefits of online classes, with folks in London, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, California, Oberlin, and places in between. Two of the attendees are people I know, and who also know Kirk (much longer than I have), which Kirk said was unique to this section. Jim Pugliese is a composer, percussionist, and educator, who recently retired from teaching at the LaGuardia high school for music and the arts in New York City. Nick Dunston is a composer and bassist, who has know Kirk since they were both at LaGuardia, which is where they met Jim. Small world.

Fully kitted out for Synth in Place (photo: Larry Dunn)

The objective of the course is to learn the basics of making electronic music by tinkering with the various component parts and sub-assemblies that can be created and manipulated to make sounds come out of a speaker. A few weeks back, Kirk sent us all a box full of components and connectors, packaged in envelopes with delightful Dogbotic graphics, designed by Maisy Byerly. He also sent us a list our own tools and supplies we will need − soldering iron and solder, batteries, tape, wire cutters and strippers, etc. After we gain some facility with all these pieces and parts, we will start plotting how to choose specific components and put them together into a working synthesizer.

Maisy Byerly’s illustrations are a delight (photo Larry Dunn)

Our first experiment in electronic sound-making involved connecting a box grater to a 9-volt battery and a small speaker, and then playing the grater with a spoon. Kitchen tool music is right in my zone!

Simple electrified box grater instrument (photo: Larry Dunn)

Next we riffed on the old saying about having, or not having, two nickles to rub together. Due to rampant inflation in the intervening years, we used quarters, which we electrified, again with the nine volt battery, and also connected to the speaker. Paper clips in the speaker cone add a nice buzz.

Rubbing two electric quarters together; don’t forger the paper clips (photo: Larry Dunn)

For our final exercise in this session, we experimented with piezoelectric microphones, which pick up sound and vibrations from things they are attached to (or are resting upon them). We made some cool sounds with a metal ruler held over the microphone and extended off the table for twanging purposes. We also did some drumming directly on the microphone surface with the quarters. In both of these cases, we connected the microphone via alligator clips and a mini-plug patch cord to a powered speaker.

Fun times with a piezoelectric microphone (photo: Larry Dunn)

The most profound lesson of the day was Kirk’s assertion that making DIY electronic music is an inherently political act. The electronic instruments we are creating make sound by manipulating electric voltage patterns. And these are sounds that no acoustic instrument can make. Thus making DIY electronic music is a rejection of the known universe and the creation of your own.

Stay tuned, to learn about the new worlds my Synth in Place colleagues and I create.

Synth in Place, presented by Dogbotic and Thingamajigs (illustration by Maisy Byerly)

soundtrack for a long march to justice

by Arlene Dunn, December 2013

[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she audited at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]

Introduction

Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World, and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.

Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.

Album cover from The Freedom Singers 1963 recording We Shall Overcome

Historical Background

After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests.  The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy. 

This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.

Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”1 Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

1963 SNCC sit-in at a Toddle House restaurant in Atlanta

Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions –  the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.

The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement

Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.”2 Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service. 

Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”3

At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.”4 Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.

Birmingham (AL) fire department workers turning fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1963

In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:

(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.5

Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them. 

Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:

One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”

Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen

Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom

This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.6

She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”7

Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘RoundWe Shall Not be MovedWoke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.

Demonstrators, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, singing Freedom Songs on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965

We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.

The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.

Musical links to the past

The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well. 

Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.

There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states: 

The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.8

This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement. 

SNCC Freedom Singers: Chuck Neblett, Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris

Specific Song Lineages

Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.

Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.   

Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar.  It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind . . . ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind . . . ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”

Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day. 

I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:

I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.

Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”

Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.

The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.9

On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”

The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.10 The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone . . . today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.

Conclusion

I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all. 

Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement.  In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers,11 which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:

This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.12

Wadada Leo Smith at Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in October 2012

Endnotes: 

[1] A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org

[2] Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs

[3] Ibid

[4] Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

[5]”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland. 

6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987

[7] ibid

[8] Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals. Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: Slave Spirituals Revived, A multidisciplinary online curriculum by The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, ©2004 Center for Teaching & Learning

[9] Ballad of America, http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm 

[10] History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/

[11] Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

[12] Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012

Bibliography

Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:

Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004. 

Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL

Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964

Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987

Websites:

American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/ 

Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org)

Oh Freedom! Website page: http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm

Recordings:

Davis, Rev. Gary, At Home and Church, 1962-67, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, ASIN: B0031DRW1S 

Freedom Singers, The, We Shall Overcome, Vinyl Masters, ASIN: B00DVAWI2E 

Freedom Song, Turner Home Entertainment, 2006, ASIN: B000BNTMBO.

Golden Gospel Singers, The, Capella Praise, Blue Flame, ASIN: B0000JUB974

McDowell, Fred, The Alan Lomax Recordings, Mississippi Records, ASIN: B0055HVDHM

Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around, Malaco Records, B000001KW0

Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DHL

Smith, Wadada Leo, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C

Staples, “Pops”, Peace To The Neighborhood, Virgin Records America Inc., ASIN: B0000S5883S

General Interest

Freedom Singers, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, 2-CD set, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DJT

Lewis, John, March Book I (Graphic Novel form), Top Shelf Productions, 2013

Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture), The University of North Carolina Press, 2005

Zinn, Howard, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1964