Student Showcase: Connection Through Music in the Civil Rights Movement

rebecca klein explores the sounds and cross-class politics of the early 1960s civil rights freedom songs.

This is the fourth student showcase of digital history audio podcast projects completed by students in the 2016 edition of my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University. These projects are explorations in how scholarly history might take on new, multimedia forms. In this case, students probed the possibilities and challenges of the audio documentary format for historical interpretation. Collectively, we learned a lot from working on these projects (sometimes as much through how they do not quite work as how they did!).

Rebecca Klein’s podcast “Connection Through Music in the Civil Rights Movement” is a sonic exploration of the work that the freedom songs accomplished within the modern civil rights movement in the rural South of the early 1960s. Drawing upon a rich set of resources, from Folkways Records field recordings to oral history interviews, Rebecca argues that musical practices of communal singing bridged divides of class, region, and political and religious orientation in key places such as Greenwood, Mississippi. Middle-class African American student activists typically from urban backgrounds, arriving in the rural South as part of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and local African American residents, often poorer economically but rich in rural traditions of community, forged new solidarities through music, particularly though the act of singing together. As civil rights participant, Freedom Singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon has put it, singing together “changed the air,” and in doing so it created opportunities for intense connection across lines of difference under the duress of trying to break down the violent repressions of the Jim Crow system. It also, as Rebecca notes, was a means for exploring democratic modes of community activism capable of combining different kinds of expertise, respecting individual experiences and perspectives while blending them together in the pursuit of just social and political transformation.

What I most like about the many strong aspects of Rebecca’s project is her ability to maintain her own sophisticated historical analysis in a narrative that also honors the voices of others: from previous historians of the civil rights movement and the 1960s to activists themselves.

Rebecca’s audio podcast:

Rebecca’s script:

Download the PDF file .

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