Wade In The Water Ep. 5: The Power Of Communal Song The story of African American religious music as a moral weapon, to galvanize individuals for worship and for action in the civil rights struggles of the century.

Wade In The Water Ep. 5: The Power Of Communal Song

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADE IN THE WATER")

MASS MEETING: (Singing) Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON, HOST:

The Power of Communal Song. From National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution, I'm Bernice Johnson Reagon, and this is WADE IN THE WATER.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WADE IN THE WATER")

MASS MEETING: (Singing) Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. You know God's going to trouble the water.

JOHNSON REAGON: When Black people come together to sing in a group, you have a communal experience that you can feel and hear. Congregational singing is a musical vocal expression of collective power and spirit, an experience of great beauty that came to America with the Africans by way of the Middle Passage. There are different traditions of congregational singing that have evolved as Black people made their way through the American journey. One of the oldest is a continuation of African singing, a company with sacred dancing known as the ring shout tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUBILEE")

MCINTOSH COUNTY SHOUTERS: Yeah. We're the McIntosh County Shouters. We sing the songs that our old ancestors have sang years ago. We don't have a piano. They didn't have them. That's why we ain't got near one (ph). We don't have a drum. (Unintelligible). We get our rhythm from the patting of the stick and the clapping of our hands, and then we sing the song.

(Singing) Come on, children. Gather round. Oh, my Lord. Help me sing this little song. My Lord, jubilee. Jubilee, jubilee. Oh, my Lord. Jubilee in the morning. My Lord, jubilee. Jubilee, jubilee. Oh, my Lord. Jubilee in the evening. My Lord, jubilee. (Unintelligible). Oh, my Lord. (Unintelligible). My Lord, jubilee. Now, my children, you are free. Oh, my Lord. My Lord brought you liberty. My Lord, jubilee. Jubilee, jubilee. Oh, my Lord. Jubilee in the evening. My Lord, jubilee. Call me a Sunday Christian. Oh, my Lord. Call me a Monday devil. My Lord, jubilee. Don't care what you call me. Oh, my Lord. I know Jesus love me. My Lord, jubilee.

JOHNSON REAGON: "Jubilee," performed by the McIntosh County Shouters from southeast Georgia. This is one of the rare groups who continue to sing the songs and move along with the singing in a ring counterclockwise fashion, creating the ritual called the ring shout. Black people during slavery often had their drums banned, but because Black people needed the drumming in order to worship, they created the rhythms in the clapping, in the stomping of the feet, in the beating of the stick. And the McIntosh County Shouters are excellent examples of the survival of this African tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE JUDGMENT")

MCINTOSH COUNTY SHOUTERS: (Singing) I see the sign. Hail. I see the sign. Hail. I see the sign. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. The sign of the judgment. Hail. The sign of the judgment. Hail.

JOHNSON REAGON: At the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life in 1991, the McIntosh County Shelters performed the ring shout "I See The Sign Of The Judgment."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE JUDGMENT")

MCINTOSH COUNTY SHOUTERS: (Singing) Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Loose horse in the valley. Hail. Loose horse in the valley. Hail. Loose horse in the valley. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Tell me who going to ride him. Hail. Tell me who going to ride him. Hail. Tell me who going to ride him. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Hail. Jesus going to ride. Hail. Hail. Jesus going to ride. Hail. Hail. Jesus going to ride. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Said I come out the corner. Hail. Said I come out the corner. Hail. Said I come out the corner. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Tell me what you gonna do. Hail. Tell me what you gonna do. Hail. Tell me what you gonna do. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Hail. You run, said I (ph). Hail. Hail. You run, said I. Yeah, you run, said I. Hail. O, the time draws nigh. Said I run to the rock. Hail.

JOHNSON REAGON: "I See The Sign Of The Judgment" is led by the elder of the group, Lawrence McKiver.

LAWRENCE MCKIVER: I was trying to sing the song. I'd listen - I was right around 7 or - 7 or 8 years old. And I was trying to sing the shout song. And as I grew more and got more understanding from it from my old ancestors, then I got so that I could manage it, do it as good as I'm doing it now.

JOHNSON REAGON: The ring shout performed by the McIntosh County Shouters is the same ritual described by Lucy McKim Garrison in her introduction to the slave songs of the United States. It was the first publication that was a collection of Black songs that appeared in 1867.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: (Reading) The most peculiar and interesting of their customs is the shout, an excellent description of which we are permitted to copy from the New York Nation of May 30, 1867. The true shout takes place on Sundays or on praise nights through the week and either in the praise house or in some cabin. The benches are pushed back to the wall when the formal meeting is over. And old and young, men and women, all stand up in the middle of the floor and, when the spiritual is struck up, begin first walking and by and by shuffling around, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion which agitates the entire shouter and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently. Sometimes as they shuffle, they sing the chorus of the spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE JUDGMENT")

MCINTOSH COUNTY SHOUTERS: (Singing) That's a sign of the judgment. Hail. That's a sign of the judgment. Hail. That's a sign of the judgment. Hail. O, the time is nigh. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATAN IN HERE")

SENIORLITES: (Singing) Satan in here. Oh. Satan in here. Oh. Run along now (ph). Oh. Satan in here. Oh. Satan in here. Oh. Satan in here. Run along now.

JOHNSON REAGON: "Satan In Here" - Satan in here (ph), get him outchea (ph), get him out of here. We're listening to Gullah, from a group of singers from Johns Island, S.C., called the Seniorlites. This group begins their song slowly, often with some of the members standing, moving from side to side. As the song heats up, they begin their own style of shouting, bringing their feet down in a pattern of stomps that adds another drumming pattern to the song. Seniorlites member Younus Washington (ph) spoke of the meaning of "Satan In Here" (ph).

YOUNUS WASHINGTON: My great-great-grandmother sang that song, "Satan In Here." And it means that sometimes when a person gets burdened or things are not going as it should and they see, like, the devil is moving in and is sort of taking control or possessing someone - Satan in here - and they say you get him out, you kick him out, you box him out. You do whatever it is necessary to get rid of Satan so that that body could get together and enjoy the religion and feel God's spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATAN IN HERE")

SENIORLITES: (Singing) Hey. Hey, right on out here. Huh. Hey. Heh. Hey, right on out here. Huh. Hey. Hey, right on out here. Huh. Hey. Hey, right on out here. Huh. Huh. Hey, right on out here (ph).

JOHNSON REAGON: The practice of shouting - that is, any kind of sacred movement with the singing - met resistance from Christian missionaries. These leaders of the church wrote critically about what they felt were extremes in worship practices evolving within African American communities during the 18th and 19th centuries. Because of the opposition, they sometimes had to conduct their services where they shouted in secret. By the latter part of the 19th century, there were strong efforts to stamp out all vestiges of the ring shout, and these efforts were led by white and Black leaders of the Protestant church.

STERLING STUCKEY: In 1878, roughly 13 years after the cessation of the Civil War, Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was visiting Philadelphia and saw a group of Blacks - this is after slavery - saw a group of Blacks doing the ring shout and went over to these Blacks and said to the young minister, have your people sit down and worship in a rational manner.

JOHNSON REAGON: Historian Sterling Stuckey.

STUCKEY: And the young minister responded by saying that people worship God in various ways. Unless there's a ring here, a ring there and a ring over yonder, sinners won't get converted. In other words, the act of conversion itself had a much better chance of occurring after slavery as during slavery if Blacks were permitted to be converted within the circle of the ring shout.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS: (Singing) Walk, believer, walk. Daniel. Walk, believer, walk. Daniel. Walk, I'll tell you, walk. Daniel. Walk, I'll tell you, walk. Daniel. Shout, believer, shout. Daniel. Shout, believer, shout. Daniel. Shout, I'll tell you, shout. Daniel. Shout, I'll tell you, shout. Daniel.

JOHNSON REAGON: In 1963, I met a group from the islands off the coast of Brunswick, Ga. They called themselves the Georgia Sea Island Singers. When they sang and moved, you could hear the beat of the drum in the timing they created with voice, hands and feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS: (Singing) On the eagle's wings. Daniel. On the eagle's wings. Daniel. On the eagle's wings. Daniel. On the eagle's wings. Daniel. Fly, I'll tell you, fly. Daniel. Fly, I'll tell you, fly. Daniel. Fly the other way. Daniel. Fly the other way.

JOHNSON REAGON: In their singing, the Georgia Sea Island Singers created patterns that were very similar to this example of West African Ashanti drumming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANIEL")

GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS: (Singing) ...Believer, run. Daniel. Shout, believer, shout. Daniel. Shout, believer, shout. Daniel. Shout, I'll tell you, shout. Daniel. Shout, I'll tell you, shout. Daniel. Shout the other way. Daniel. Shout the other way. Daniel. Shout the other way. Daniel. Shout the other way. Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME IN ZION, I BELIEVE")

SOUTHERN BAPTIST CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing) I believe in Zion, in Zion (ph) - I believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME IN ZION, I BELIEVE")

SOUTHERN BAPTIST SENIOR CHOIR OF WASHINGTON, DC: (Singing) Good time in Zion, I believe. (Unintelligible).

JOHNSON REAGON: In another example of congregational singing, Deacon William Reardon leads the Southern Baptist Senior Choir of Washington, D.C., in performing the spiritual "Good Time In Zion, I Believe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME IN ZION, I BELIEVE")

SOUTHERN BAPTIST SENIOR CHOIR OF WASHINGTON, DC: (Singing) ...I believe. Good time in Zion, I believe. (Unintelligible). Amen.

JOHNSON REAGON: Many of the songs used in congregational singing came out of the 19th century, but new songs are created all of the time. Most of the time, we do not know the composer. This is not the case with the 20th century composer and master singer Reverend Claude Joseph Johnson of Atlanta, Ga. He created songs using the older tune repertoire associated with the Baptist congregational style, and his songs quickly moved into wider practice within churches throughout the Baptist network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAUDE JOSEPH JOHNSON: I teach a class up north there in Atlanta. And in teaching that class, I tell my students - I say, listen. Anything that has a lung and a tongue can sing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Amen. Amen.

JOHNSON: Anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Amen.

JOHNSON: So therefore, it may not sound so good to you or the one that's sitting beside of you. But how do you know that it doesn't sound sweet to Jesus?

JOHNSON REAGON: We know about Reverend Johnson because he had a consciousness about his compositions. During the '70s, he received a gold record for "I Want To Go Where Jesus Is." This is a song written in 1926 in response to the challenge of being a young Black man trying to survive in Atlanta, Ga., in a climate of racism and discrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I called a car one day, a streetcar. And I sat in the back as I knew I had to do. And then there was a man came in with about five seats above me, and he came back there and tried to make me get up. And I didn't do it, so he slapped me out of the seat. And I got up, and I asked him, why did you slap me? And he drew back to slap me again, and I bit his finger. And I bit him so hard and he went down on his knees (laughter). And the conductor put me off and made me walk, and I had a long ways to walk. And I was upset. I felt mistreated. I felt just like, what's the use of staying in here and be treated like this? When I got to my job, I got a piece of - pad of paper, and I wrote it. I want to go where Jesus is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO GO WHERE JESUS IS")

JOHNSON: (Singing) There ain't no crying where Jesus is. That's why I want to go. That's why I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. That's the reason I want to go. Well, there ain't no dying where Jesus is. Come on. Well, there ain't no dying, oh, where Jesus is. Well, there ain't no dying where Jesus is.

JOHNSON REAGON: Black congregational songs are songs of worship. They're songs of survival. They are also used as songs of social commentary and protest, a way to get through obstacles. You learn the songs and the way to sing the songs not in a rehearsal but as they're actually being performed in a service. And everybody who has willingness and the courage to sound their voices can join in. It is a most democratic experience.

When Black people began to join unions to improve their lives as workers, they took their songs and this style of collective singing into their union meetings. One of the most influential organizers was also a great singer and songleader. He came out of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union movement in Arkansas. He was John Handcox. And Handcox was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1930 singing, "Mean Things Happening In This World" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS MEAN THINGS HAPPENING")

JOHN HANDCOX: (Singing) There is mean things happening in this land. There is mean things happening in this land. But the union's going on, and the union's growing strong. There is mean things happening in this land. On the 18th day of May, the union called a strike, but planters and their bosses throwed the people out of their shacks. There is mean things happening in this land. There is mean things happening in this land. But the union's going on, and the union's growing strong. There is mean things happening in this land. The planters throwed the people off the land where many years they had spent. And in the cold, hard winter, they had to live in tents. There is mean things happening in this land. There is mean things happening in this land. But the union's going on, and the union's growing strong. There is mean things happening in this land.

JOHNSON REAGON: John Handcox had a way of taking old songs and creating new lyrics to chronicle the struggle of organizing unions in the South. His music had a big impact on the culture of the larger labor movement. He took "Roll The Chariot On" (ph) and changed it to "Roll The Union On." The Almanac Singers, a group of white musicians who performed for union meetings, recorded Handcox's "Roll The Union On" with Pete Seeger on guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL THE UNION ON")

ALMANAC SINGERS: (Singing) We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll, we're gonna roll the union on. We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll, we're gonna roll the union on. If the boss gets in the way, we're gonna roll right over him. We're gonna roll right over him. We're gonna roll right over him. If the boss gets in the way, we're gonna roll right over him. We're gonna roll the union on. We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll, we're gonna roll the union on. We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll, we're gonna roll the union on. If the goons (ph) get in the way, we're gonna roll right over them. We're gonna roll right over them. We're gonna roll right over them. If the goons (ph) get in the way, we're gonna roll right over them. We're gonna roll the union on. We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll, we're gonna roll the union on. We're gonna roll, we're gonna roll...

HANDCOX: It's - I don't know. It's something about songs that has more effect than making a speech to my eye.

JOHNSON REAGON: Labor union organizer and singer John Handcox.

HANDCOX: Anyway, when - if you making a speech, that's just you doing it. But when all of them is singing, they have a different feeling. They have a feeling that they is a part of what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED HATTIESBURG MEETING LEADER: Help us to fight this battle. Give us the courage to continue. Don't let us stop until the victory have been won. In Jesus' name, we ask these blessings and for his sin. Amen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD HOLD MY HAND WHILE I RUN THIS RACE")

HATTIESBURG CONGREGATION: (Singing) Oh, Lord, hold my hand while I run this race.

UNIDENTIFIED HATTIESBURG MEETING LEADER: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Everybody.

HATTIESBURG CONGREGATION: (Singing) Hold my hand...

UNIDENTIFIED HATTIESBURG MEETING LEADER: (Singing) Oh, while...

HATTIESBURG CONGREGATION: (Singing) ...While I run this race.

UNIDENTIFIED HATTIESBURG MEETING LEADER: (Singing) Oh, Lord, hold...

HATTIESBURG CONGREGATION: (Singing) Hold my hand.

JOHNSON REAGON: We are listening to the sound of a congregation gathered at a mass meeting in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1964. The purpose of the meeting - to bring people together to build a struggle to win the right to vote in Mississippi. The obstacle the organizers faced - fear, crippling fear, fear of economic reprisal, fear of losing one's life. The people who gathered in those meetings had witnessed the violence that would certainly come upon them as a result of their participation in a struggle to end racism. When they came together, it was often the song and the singing in a group that made them know that they were not alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD HOLD MY HAND WHILE I RUN THIS RACE")

HATTIESBURG CONGREGATION: (Singing) Lord, search my heart (ph) while I run this race. Oh, I don't want to run this race in vain. Oh, guide my hand, oh, guide my...

VINCENT HARDING: The songs were that force which gathered us together. The songs were our communal expression.

JOHNSON REAGON: Historian Vincent Harding.

HARDING: The songs affirmed our collectivity in this action, and the songs were a part of that force that, in a sense, moved through us as well to take us to deeper possible levels.

JOHNSON REAGON: Many of the songs that became freedom songs during the civil rights movement were church songs. A few of them had also been introduced to the Labor Union movement by John Hancock, among them, "We Shall Not Be Moved," here led by Rutha Mae Harris of the Freedom Singers, a civil rights movement organizer from the Albany, Ga., movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) We shall not - oh, Lordy, we shall not be moved. Oh, we shall not - we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted the water, oh, we shall not be moved. Oh, we're on our way to freedom. Oh, Lordy, we shall not be moved. We're on our way to freedom. Oh, Lordy, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted the water, oh, we shall not be moved. We shall not be moved. Oh, segregation is our enemy. (Unintelligible) be removed. Segregation is our enemy. It must be removed. Just like a bag of garbage in the alley, oh, it must be removed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine - let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Tell Governor Wallace, I'm gonna let it shine. Tell Governor Wallace, well, I'm gonna let it shine. Tell Governor Wallace, well, I'm gonna let it shine - let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Tell...

JOHNSON REAGON: The songs of the movement were the voice of the struggle. From the mid-'50s through the '60s, it felt as if the movement was everywhere, and its sound was the singing. It seemed to me in southwest Georgia that every day there was something else on the radio or the TV about Black people organizing, saying that we were not going to take it anymore. One of the major movements occurred in Montgomery, Ala., when Rosa Parks refused to get up from a seat on a bus. And then there were the sit-ins, where students walked off the campuses of colleges and moved downtown to the lunch counters and demanded to be served.

These were followed by the Freedom Rides. In 1961, a group of Black and white riders boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., headed south to New Orleans. Black and white riders sat on the seat next to each other. They were determined to challenge the racism within the society. James Farmer was executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality.

JAMES FARMER: And then in every church after church off of the Freedom Rides, anyplace in the South especially, we'd see youngsters, teenagers, even children singing those songs, rocking back and forth. And it's more than the words and the music. I am yet to see an album that does justice to that spirit because there you have the words and the music. You don't have the clapping hands. You can't see them. You can't see the fire in the eyes, the fierce determination, which supersedes the fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT MY FREEDOM NOW")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) Freedom now, freedom now, freedom now, freedom now, freedom now, freedom now.

FARMER: They would sing that, then walk out of the church and start on a march. I'll tell you, those kids could walk through a stone wall. You know, nothing could stop them. Nothing could stop them - and they'd say, ain't going to let nobody turn me round. And then the cop would come up and say, turn around, stop, you know. He didn't know how useless his words were. Nothing was going to stop them then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, FREEDOM")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free - and be free. No segregation. No segregation. No segregation. No segregation over me - 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 - and be free. No more dogs. No more dogs. No more dogs biting me - biting me. And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free - and be free. Nothing but freedom. Nothing but freedom.

JOHN LEWIS: It was so powerful. It was a nonviolent tool. It was a nonviolent weapon.

JOHNSON REAGON: Georgia state representative and civil rights movement leader John Lewis.

LEWIS: One night at the Trailway (ph) bus station in Nashville, where we were sitting in all night, there was a waitress there with a large meat cleaver. And some of the young men and women got very sleepy, and they would put their heads down on the lunch counter. And this waitress would walk around with this cleaver, this big meat knife, and hit on the counter every now and then and say something like, there will be no sleeping in here. This is not a hotel. And there will be no singing - music. The songs were powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'LL NEVER TURN BACK")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) We've been beaten. We've been scorned. We've been talked about, sure as you're born. But we'll never turn back. No, we'll never turn back until we've all been freed and we have equality. We have walked through the shadows of death.

JOHNSON REAGON: This song expressed the growing awareness among the students who were organizing voter registration drives that we could get killed and the people who supported us, housed us, went down to the courthouse to register, could also be killed. And even as we understood the cost, we sang We'll "Never Turn Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'LL NEVER TURN BACK")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) No, we'll never turn back until we've all been freed and we have equality. We have hung our heads and cried for those like Lee (ph) who died, died for you and I - oh, me - died for the cause of equality. But we'll never turn back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOLLIS WATKINS: First, I'd just like to ask everybody in the audience that have been down and attempted to register to raise your hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't do it now (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

WATKINS: See? There's a number of hands. Now, how do you feel - those that have gone down and registered to vote, do you feel that you are doing something that you should and feel that you are part of this fight?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.

WATKINS: All right. I see...

JOHNSON REAGON: Hollis Watkins, one of the youngest organizers from, McComb, Miss. One of the major leaders in the civil rights movement in that state was Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a great speaker and a great singer. She had a way of telling her personal testimony that drew people around her and made them want to go forward. She talked again and again about what it would take to win the right to register to vote if you were Black in the state of Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Since I went down to register, there's been bloodhounds in front of my door. We're being harassed. And whether I work at home or wash, the bills go higher and higher. Everything to put me out of Ruleville is being done. But I'll be right there fighting for freedom until God say enough done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN")

HAMER: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. Paul and Silas, bound and jailed - let my people go. Had nobody for to go their bail - let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go. Jail door opened, and they walked out - let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. Who's that yonder dressed in red? Let my people go. Must be the children that Moses led. Let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go.

JOHNSON REAGON: Fannie Lou Hamer leading a mass meeting in Greenwood, Miss., in 1963, singing "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

The singing kept things going in Mississippi and throughout the movement. In mass meetings in rural churches in Mississippi and southwest Georgia, the songs were sung unaccompanied and led by a song leader. The Birmingham, Ala., movement of 1963 took place in churches that were strong urban gospel congregations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON MY WAY")

MAMIE BROWN AND THE BIRMINGHAM MOVEMENT CHOIR: (Singing) I'm on my way - I'm on my way - to freedom land - to freedom land. I'm on my way - I'm on my way - to freedom land - to freedom land. I'm on my way - I'm on my way - to freedom land - to freedom land. Oh, I'm on my way, oh, Lord, to freedom land. If you don't go - if you don't go - don't you hinder me - don't hinder me. If you don't go - if you don't go - don't hinder me - don't hinder me. If you don't go - if you don't go - don't hinder me - don't hinder me. Oh, I'm on my way, oh, Lord, to freedom land. It's an uphill journey...

JOHNSON REAGON: This was Birmingham, one of the pivotal points in the movement, where the marches often returned to mass meetings after facing Sheriff Bull Connor, who used dogs and fire hoses on young children in the demonstrations. The singing in Birmingham was led by a choir, the Birmingham Christian Movement Choir. It was organized by 19-year-old Carlton Reese, then a student at Miles College.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLTON REESE: You know, if you're going to be in this freedom movement, you got to have on your traveling shoes.

(CROSSTALK)

REESE: You see, this song came from a little, old song that we call - someone called The Holy Rollers used to sing.

(CROSSTALK)

REESE: But you see, we talking about freedom now. I want everybody to repeat after me - got on my travelling shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Got on my traveling shoes.

REESE: Got on my traveling shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Got on my traveling shoes.

REESE: Got on my traveling shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Got on my traveling shoes.

REESE: Got on my traveling shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Got on my traveling shoes.

REESE: Now, this is a pick-up number. I want you to ring it in right there with me. You go with the beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING SHOES")

CARLTON REESE AND COMPANY: (Singing) Traveling shoes, Lord. Got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord. Got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord. Got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord. Got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for freedom now - got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for freedom now - got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for justice now - got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for justice now - got on my traveling shoes. Shoes don't hurt my feet - got on my traveling shoes. My shoes don't hurt my feet - got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for justice now - got on my traveling shoes. Fighting for justice now - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Well, I haven't been to heaven, but I've been close. Streets up there are paved with gold. I'm fighting for my rights. I fought (unintelligible) - I want my freedom (unintelligible) - or not. Got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Traveling shoes, Lord - got on my traveling shoes. Let me see you march for Jesus - got on my traveling shoes. I got on my traveling shoes. Let me see you getting an eye for Jesus (ph) - got on my traveling shoes. Jesus want you to have your freedom - got on my traveling shoes. Won't you march for freedom now? Got on my traveling shoes. Won't you march for freedom now? Got on my traveling shoes. I want you to get in a line tonight - got on my traveling shoes. Want you to march for freedom now - got on my traveling shoes. Want you to step for freedom now...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Martin Luther King.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Thank you very kindly, my very dear friends. Never in the history of this nation have so many people been arrested for the cause of freedom and human dignity. You know there are approximately 2,500 people in jail right now. Now, let me say this - the thing that we are challenged to do is to keep this movement moving. There is power in unity, and there's power in numbers. As long as we keep moving like we are moving, the power structure of Birmingham will have to give in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYES ON THE PRIZE")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT CONFERENCE: (Singing) Paul and Silas are bound in jail. He had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Why don't you hold on. Well, I've never been to heaven, but I think I'm right - people in heaven are Black and white. Keep your eyes...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARMER: So they couldn't stop us. That's why the jailers kept saying, stop that singing- don't sing. You know, they didn't care what else we did, but just don't sing.

JOHNSON REAGON: James Farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARMER: Stop that singing, they'd say. They were running around like wild men saying, shut off the singing - closing windows and everything else. Stop that singing; don't sing - because it drove them crazy. It began to get to them. It got under their skin. And they saw that they could not break our spirits as long as we could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYES ON THE PRIZE")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT CONFERENCE: (Singing) Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. Why don't you hold on. Well, there ain't but one thing we did wrong - stayed in the wilderness a day too long. Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. Why don't you hold on. Well, one of these days, about 12 o'clock, this whole world is gonna reel and rock. Keep your eyes on the prize -hold on. Hold on.

JOHNSON REAGON: Keep your eyes on the prize - hold on. One of the most important traditional songs that became a freedom song was first used on the strike picket lines of a union movement. During the 1940s, the American Tobacco Company workers in Charleston, S.C., were on strike. As with many Southern unions of that day, they attended regional meetings at the Highlander Folk School, an adult education center used by labor unions in Monteagle, Tenn.

The strikers from Charleston taught the workshop participants one of the songs they always used in their union meetings and on the picket line. The song was "We Shall Overcome," and it was to become the signature theme song of the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart I know that I do believe, Lord, we shall overcome some day.

We are not alone.

(Singing) We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone today. Oh, deep in my heart I know that I do believe, oh, we shall overcome some day.

JOHNSON REAGON: Jamila Jones, a young student who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott and sang in the mass meetings, learned the song from Guy Carawan, who was then music director at Highlander.

JAMILA JONES: One night at Highlander, I can remember that we were watching a movie when some men came in with guns and billy clubs. And the power was turned off, and we were in complete darkness. There we were, some of us barely knowing each other and unknowing of what it was that was happening and going on. So there was a lot of fear in the room. But as the men walked around between us with their guns and their billy clubs, somebody decided to sing "We Shall Overcome."

JOHNSON REAGON: Guy Carawan, former music director at Highlander.

GUY CARAWAN: She's the one who got the idea. She started humming "We Shall Overcome," and that got everybody humming together, and then they just started singing. And for about two hours, that actually quieted some of the terror and fear that people had of what these deputized thugs were doing.

JONES: There seemed to be a need to say to the men - (singing) We are not afraid.

And those lines helped convince us that we were not afraid.

CARAWAN: Jamila was a wonderful singer, probably about in her early teens. And that night when they raided Highlander, she sat there in the dark and made up the verse on the spot - we are not afraid - and helped about 50 people there sing in the dark, we are not afraid, and sing "We Shall Overcome" just to keep their spirits up while the deputized thugs went around and ransacked everybody's luggage.

JONES: It unnerved them. One of the men turned to me with his flashlight, as he shown it in my face, and said very nervously, if you have to sing, do you have to sing so loud? And that statement just raised my voice even higher. (Singing) We are not afraid today.

And everybody - it just seemed like nature came into the room. The water on the outside and even the trees just picked up, and we were just a part of that nature, in tune to what was happening, so much so that it unnerved them, and they began to even back up. Even though they arrested some of the people they pretended or alleged was selling illegal booze, they retreated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) God is on our side. God is on our side. God is on our side today. Oh, deep in my heart, oh, I do believe, oh, we shall overcome some day.

We'll walk hand in hand.

(Singing) We'll walk hand in hand. We'll walk hand in hand. We'll walk hand in hand some day. Oh...

WYATT TEE WALKER: My name is Wyatt Tee Walker. And from 1960 to '64, I served as chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr. And I've been a Harlem pastor for the last 26 years. One cannot describe the vitality and emotion this one song evokes across the Southland. I have heard it sung in great mass meetings with a thousand voices singing as one. I've heard half-a-dozen sing it softly behind bars of the Hinds County Prison in Jackson, Miss. I've heard old women singing it on their way to work in Albany, Ga. I've heard the SNCC students singing it as they were being dragged away to jail. It generates power that is indescribable.

LEWIS: The movement without song would have been like birds without wings.

JOHNSON REAGON: John Lewis.

LEWIS: I'm not so sure - I know in my own case - that I would have been able to adhere to the philosophy and to the discipline of nonviolence on May 21, 1961, when I was beaten and left lying in the streets of Montgomery in my own blood, by a young man with a soda crate. It was the words of the songs that gave me courage.

CORDELL REAGON: And the process of working throughout the South and going to jail and getting beat and being in mass meetings and singing this one particular song that became the theme song of this movement. It is a powerful song. You can go anywhere in the world today where there's struggle, and you will find this song, and you will still see people in the streets, marching and singing it. It is our gift to the world, the world people in struggle. We want to ask you to stand up and cross your right hand over left and sing with us "We Shall Overcome."

JOHNSON REAGON: SNCC Freedom singer Cordell Reagon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

VOICES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Oh, Lord, we shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I know that I do believe, for we shall overcome some day.

We are not afraid.

(Singing) We are not afraid.

JOHNSON REAGON: The Power of Communal Song - this program is a part of the WADE IN THE WATER series produced by National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution. The senior producer is Judi Moore Latta; associate producer Sonja Williams. The technical director is Renee Pringle, with additional engineering by Charles Thompson (ph). Production staff includes Beverly Oliver, Dackeyia Simmons and Joseph Gill.

We extend special thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History Archives Center, the Office of Telecommunication and Radio Smithsonian, Sule Greg Wilson, Catherine Thompson (ph), Jim Brown and the Ginger Group, Folkways Records, Cynthia Schmidt (ph), the Library of Congress and NPR member station KVCR. The executive producer is Sandra Rattley, and I'm conceptual producer Bernice Johnson Reagon.

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