Good evening and welcome to the 8th annual Ben Franklin Blues Project. In celebration of Black History month, our 8th graders embarked on a study of the civil rights movement through its music. The theme was Black and Blue: The Fight for Freedom, and we witnessed how in the face of oppression, violence, and fear, African Americans used their music to persevere to achieve equal rights. This was powerful music. Music of pain. Music of struggle. Music of hope. Music that would help to save the soul of America. Its worth a closer look.
Since the first Africans were brought over in bondage in 1619 in Jamestown, music has been the one thing that could not be taken away from them. It was their own. The words the said, the notes they sung, and maybe more importantly, the way the sung them, expressed who they were and what they felt. Their field hollers and work songs reflected the rhythm of their labor, and spirituals provided the soundtrack of their souls.
Although many slave owners thrust their own Christianity upon their slaves, it seemed to genuinely resonate with many of them, and developed into a center piece of African-American culture. The idea that God would be concerned with slaves, free them from their bondage, and offer them the promise of heaven when they die, was enough to draw many slaves into this new faith. It was not hard for them to recognize the parallels between the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and Africans enslaved in North America. Songs were an important part of their religious experience. They were the salve that relieved them in times of hardship and saw them through the dark days of slavery into emancipation. Even after the Civil War, music became the primary emotional outlet for blacks. In blues and jazz, African Americans expressed their struggle against discrimination and persecution through the songs they sung and the notes they played. That music reflected their side of the American experience.
Its no wonder, then, that when black Americans organized themselves to fight for their equal rights, that music and religion played such prominent roles. Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and 60’s found inspiration in the songs of the church, and deepened their determination in the gospel message. Many of the most prominent leaders of the movement were men of the cloth, and churches became command centers of civil rights activity. There, they sang the songs of their ancestors - the songs that carried them through their hardest trials. Spirituals and Blues were dusted off and repurposed for their new struggle against segregation, and became known as ‘freedom songs.’ To civil rights activists, singing reinforced their faith and provided a sense of unity. It improved their morale, strengthened their resolve, and proclaimed their message of equality to the world. In a non-violent movement, the only weapons these foot soldiers carried were songs. They were sung when faced with tear gas, fire hoses, police dogs, and bombs. They were sung behind prison bars, on city streets, in churches, and on buses. They were sometimes sung in joy and sometimes through tears. Martin Luther King said, “we sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday’’ (King, Why, 86).
“Go Down Moses” is one of those songs. It’s history stretches back into the days of slavery, and 100 years later, it could be heard in jail cells, marches, and sit-ins throughout the country, as blacks were fighting for their freedom. And in1957, jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong recorded just as the Civil Rights movement was gaining steam.