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e-mail: beth@ebcxm.com
Lower Hutt, New Zealand

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University essay written in 2003, for a Media Studies paper.   Graded A-.

Popular Music & Politics:

The Civil Rights Movement

Popular music and politics have been inter-connected for a long time, but over the years this connection has undergone changes.   In the 1940s, the popular music of World War II was used as a device to encourage nationalistic feelings among listeners.   Songs like The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again,[1] from singer Vera Lynn, encouraged young men to join the forces, do their duty, and fight for ‘king and country’.   At the same time the songs consoled the women at home that their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands were doing their duty; they were brave and courageous soldiers and the women should be proud of them.

 

Another twenty years down the road and the times had changed.   Music was now a device for protesting against the Vietnam War.   Many singers and songwriters produced songs that demonstrated their anti-war sentiments, and the music of artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, helped to mobilize an anti-war campaign around the United States of America, and the rest of the world.

 

In between these two periods of wartime there was another war of sorts that popular music played a part in.   As with the Vietnam War, the popular music of the 1950s and 1960s played a part in mounting demonstration protests against the civil rights injustices rampant in the United States.

 

Yet again, it was the poetic lyrics of Dylan that shone a light on the events of the day that were being covered up, or just ignored.   Dylan’s song The Death of Emmett Till tells the story of a young African American boy who suffered a horrific death at the hands of several white men.[2]   The story continues in the lyrics, telling of the court case where a jury of their peers found two of the murderers innocent of the crime; a jury of all white peers – including two of their fellow murderers.

 

Dylan helped to raise the public consciousness to the atrocities happening to African Americans in the United States, particularly in the South.   But Dylan also raised the issue of the everyday white man being Only a Pawn in their Game.[3]   This is a song about the assassination of the civil rights movement leader, Medgar Evers:

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school,
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

Dylan’s popularity with young people in the 1960s would have opened up an aspect of American life that many would not have experienced, or even been aware of.   A less graphic lyric, but a much more popular song of Dylan’s was subtler in its message, but the sentiment is clear.   In Blowin’ in the Wind, Dylan sings the lyrics:[4]

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

This could be a reference to the freedom marches the African Americans, and supporters were taking part in, to assert their right to vote, a right that was being held up by whites in power in the South.

Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Again this is Dylan trying to raise the consciousness to the events, and his music helped the Civil Rights Movement in this way, as well as raising money in concerts he gave with other performers who shared his sentiment.

 

Another artist that played a role in this connection between music and political movements, at this time, was singer Harry Belafonte.   Though his role was largely overshadowed by the more well known, and at times more controversial, performers; Belafonte’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is undeniable.   He was already a popular singer by the time the movement got going in the late 1950s; and he used his position to help mobilize the movement, and to motivate the people.

 

Harry Belafonte is African American, and sings in a distinctly Jamaican style in many of his songs, but the over riding feature of his music is the Negro sound in his songs.   The harmonies, and background music is often reminiscent of African music, particularly with songs such as Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), God Bless The Child, and one of his signature tunes Jamaica Farewell.   But at the same time Belafonte was releasing songs that were more than just a pretty tune to show his velvet vocals.   He sang songs (and sometimes wrote songs) about the lives of his fellow African Americans; songs that told the stories of the events of the day, such as Back Of The Bus, a traditional Negro praise tune, that extolled the actions of Miss Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to be relegated to the back of the bus anymore.[5] [6]

 

As well as telling stories of the African Americans in the United States, Belafonte also used his music to make political statements.   In the song Black and White (Together), Belafonte is calling for attention, saying he has a message for everyone, he is calling out to “join all the races in harmony”.   This song is about the call for integration in the States:

The black man is small and mighty
Like Dr. King and Mohammed Ali
The white man is very powerful
He could unite the whole world in brotherhood
Together we can build a nation
Of love and integration
We don't have to go to the moon
The earth has plenty of room yes

Integration today is the future of the USA
Foundations we must build
For the young generations provide the skills
The future is in our hands
So lets unite and plan, plan, plan
Let me hear you now all together
Black and white forever yes.

The political message to the people, and to the government is undeniable in these lyrics, and there are many more, but Belafonte’s part in the Civil Rights Movement went further than just the music.   Belafonte was also a member of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council, and in this position he had direct contact with the political leaders of the time, especially President John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

 

In 1961 members of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council were at the White house to meet with President Kennedy.   This was while the Freedom Rides were going on in the South, and some of the Peace Corps group were angry at the President for not coming out publicly in support of the African American, and white, Freedom Riders who had been beaten in Alabama.[7]   While these men were, as author, and senator, Harris Wofford, explained, “some of the most articulate men in America,” they were also “tongue-tied” in the presence of the President.   But eventually at Wofford’s insistence these men did raise the issue of the Freedom Riders with President Kennedy.   Belafonte and the others requested that Kennedy would “say something a little more about the Freedom Riders”.[8]

 

Belafonte’s contacts were not only in Washington D.C, he was also a trusted and influential friend of Martin Luther King Jr.   He arranged many concerts and events to help raise money for, and awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, and he marched at some of the numerous protest marches.   After a march in 1965, was broken up by Alabama State troopers, and deputized volunteers, attacking 500 unarmed African Americans marching across a bridge to exercise their right to vote, a protest march was organized in Montgomery Alabama.   Belafonte was unable to attend as he was finishing up at a Peace Corps meeting, but at the end of the meeting he stood arm in arm with Chief Justice Warren, Sargent Shriver, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and lead the assembly in singing We Shall Overcome.

 

The sentiment within the Civil Rights Movement was hopeful at this time, and largely peaceful, but the times changed soon after these events in 1965.   The first signs came late in 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated.   President Kennedy was loved and admired by the majority of the African American community in the States as he had come out in support of the movement, and he seemed to be listening to their most revered leader, Martin Luther King.   And it was partly because of the work of President Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy that a Civil Rights Bill was to be passed.   With Kennedy’s death there was a fear that the movement might falter, but fortunately for the movement the new president Lyndon B. Johnson continued with pushing the bill through.

 

Harry Belafonte released a sad, but still hopeful song soon after President Kennedy’s death, the lyrics started off talking about Abraham Lincoln, and his part in declaring that segregation was wrong. [9]   The song continues:

Has anybody here,
Seen my old friend John,
Can you tell me, where he's gone,
He freed a lotta people,
But it seems the good die young,
I just looked around,
And he's gone.

The song remains somewhat hopeful though with the lines:

Didn't you love the things they stood for,
Didn't they try to find some good for you and me,
And we'll be free,
Someday soon it's gonna be one day.

There was still a belief that things could and would get better.   But this feeling seemed to change after the ‘murderous spring of 1968’.   There was a total disillusionment in politics, and the peaceful actions of Martin Luther King and his colleagues seemed hopeless to the people still hoping for freedom.   The violence increased, from both sides, the black and the whites all fighting, as the assassinations of King in April 1968, and Robert Kennedy just two months later, felt like more than just a temporary defeat as President Kennedy’s death had.

Belafonte’s song Abraham, Martin and John had grown and now included the latest two deaths, and the lyrics were less hopeful:

Has anybody here,
Seen my old friend Martin,
Can you tell me, where he's gone,
He freed a lotta people,
But it seems the good die young,
I just looked around,
And he's gone,

Has anybody here,
Seen my old friend Bobby,
Can you tell me, where he's gone,
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.

The movement faltered, as these great and peaceful leaders were now gone, and the music reflected this, the sentiment can be seen when hearing the words of a journalist, Jack Newfield, who went through these events:

Now I realized what made our generation unique, what defines us apart from those who came before the hopeful winter of 1961, and those who came after the murderous spring of 1968.   We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome.   We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.   And from this time forward, things would get worse: our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.[10] 

Things did get worse for a time.   For a time the music was more sorrowful, defeated, but then the anger appeared, and with the actions of leaders like Malcolm X, the anger was mirrored in the Civil Rights Movement, or the music was a reflection of the feelings in the Civil Rights Movement.

In closing, while the connections between popular music and politics cannot be fully quantified, to say “popular music has no political significance,” can be argued against easily.   Just looking at the interconnections during the 1950s and 1960s with the Civil Rights Movements clearly illustrate that popular music did have its significance to the people, and the political sentiments of the time.

Notes:

[1] Vera Lynn.   The White Cliffs of Dover, We’ll Meet Again.   1941.
[2] Bob Dylan.   The Death of Emmett Till.  
[3] Bob Dylan.   Only a Pawn in their Game.  
[4] Bob Dylan.   Blowin’ in the Wind.
[5] Harry Belafonte.   Back of the Bus.   Carver Neblett-Trad
[6] Harris Wofford.   ‘Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties’, pg.112.   (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992).
[7] Ibid.   pg.125.   The Freedom Rides were a series of Bus Rides African Americans undertook in the Southern States, to go to voting booths to register for their right to vote.   The local laws in the counties did everything they could to stop these Rides, from throwing them in jail to beating the Riders.   It was not just the African Americans, some of the white supporters were also injured.
[8] Ibid.   pg.126.
[9] Harry Belafonte.   Abraham, Martin and John.
[10] Harris Wofford.   ‘Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties’, pg.446.

Bibliography:

Books:

Wofford, Harris.   Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties.    Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Websites:

Harry Belafonte and Friends Website.   Internet WWW page, at URL:   <http://w1.871.telia.com/%7Eu87125666/index.htm>    (Version current at 21st October 2003).

Bob Dylan.com.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <www.bobdylan.com>    (Version current at 21st October 2003).

campion@lclark.edu.   HIST 224 Modern Britain: Vera Lynn Lyrics.   Internet WWW page, at URL: <http://www.lclark.edu/~campion/hist224/veralynn.htm>   (Version current at 21st October 2003).

CDs:

Belafonte, Harry.   Greatest Hits.   BMG Records, 2000.

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