Activities/Discussion

Suggested Activities:

  • Medgar Evers, an African-American civil rights activist, was assassinated in his driveway in 1963.  The following four songs were written and sung in response to this tragedy.  Here is a link to Mr. Ever’s obituary in the NY Times.  
  • Read the obituary and listen to the four songs.  How does each interpretation differ from one another?  What is the emotional impact of each song?  How is listening to the music different than reading the obituary?  What is the impact of each medium?

Phil Ochs The ballad of Medgar Evers

Freedom Singers Ballad of Medgar Evers

Judy Collins Medger Evers Lullaby 

Bob Dylan – Only a Pawn in Their Game

 

  • Research the origins of We Shall Overcome, its evolution as a symbol of the civil rights movement, and analyze its impact on the movement and in society as a whole.
  • Listen to Handel’s Messiah and read Dr. King’s speech entitled “Loving your Enemies.”  What do you think Dr. King liked about the Handel and how did it relate to his ideals?  What is the spirit of the music?  How does the music color the text?
  • Pick a musician active in the civil rights movement, such as Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, the Freedom Singers, or Pete Seeger, for example.  Research their life.  How did they view their roles as musicians/community leaders?  Listen to at least 10 of their songs.  How did their music reflect their worldview?  When listening, consider their lyrics, their way of singing, their style of the music, their background, the other musicians they played with, etc…
  • Listen to and compare the lyrics of Zog Nit Keynmol , sung by Paul Robeson and James Brown’s Say It Loud (reprinted below.)

  •  What was the inspiration for each of these songs?  What do they have in common?  Who do you think was the intended audience for each song?  How do you think the “intended” audience felt and responded hearing each song?  What universal themes are brought up in each song?  How can each song influence people beyond the time and place they were created?
  • Read this article from the NYTimes about Elvis Presley.
  • Listen to Elvis’s version of the song Peace in the Valley

  • and compare it to this version by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

  • Research Elvis’ relationship to Memphis and the community he grew up in.  Research and listen to the musicians that influenced Elvis’ music and style. Did Elvis break down racial barriers?   How?  

Links to other Lesson Plans:

A great music /history lesson plan from the Smithsonian about Black American Freedom Songs from 1960-1966.

How did the popular music of the 1960s influence or aid the civil rights movement?

How did the Freedom Riders and other political activists inspire or help produce civil rights-oriented music?  

How did popular music reflect the values of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and help the movement convey its message?

In this lesson, students will examine the history and popularity of “We Shall Overcome” and investigate six additional songs from different musical genres that reveal the impact of the Civil Rights movement. These are: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a poignant Blues song depicting the horrors of lynching; Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” a Folk song about protests after the integration of the University of Mississippi; John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” an instrumental Jazz recording made in response to the September 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four African-American girls; Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a response to the same church bombing as well as the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi; Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a Soul song written after Cooke’s arrest for attempting to check in to a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana; and Odetta’s “Oh Freedom,” a spiritual that Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington.

The Memphis Rock N Soul Museum 72 page “Musical Guide for Educators”

 Lyrics of Zol Nit Keynmol and Say it Loud (below)

 Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say)

Never say that you are on your final road,
Though overhead dark skies of lead may death forbade.
The long awaited hour surely will appear,
When with a roar our steps will thunder: we are here!

From land of palm trees to the far-off land of snow,
Our people come together crushed by pain and woe.
But where a drop of our blood as touched the ground.
There our strength and our courage will resound.

This song is written down with blood and not with lead.
The birds don’t sing it, for it fills the air with dread.
This song was sung as all around us bullets sprayed.
And walls collapsed as people hurled their hand grenades.

“Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud”

By James Brown, 1968

Uh, with your bad self 
Say it louder (I got a mouth) 
Say it louder (I got a mouth)

Look a’here, some people say we got a lot of malice 
Some say it’s a lotta nerve 
I say we won’t quit moving 
Til we get what we deserve 
We’ve been buked and we’ve been scourned 
We’ve been treated bad, talked about 
As just as sure as you’re born 
But just as sure as it take 
Two eyes to make a pair, huh 
Brother, we can’t quit until we get our share

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, one more time 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, huh

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands 
But all the work I did was for the other man 
And now we demands a chance 
To do things for ourselves 
we tired of beating our heads against the wall 
And working for someone else

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, oowee

Ooowee, ou’re killing me 
Alright uh, you’re out of sight 
Alright, so tough, you’re tough enough 
Ooowee uh, you’re killing me, oow

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud

Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves 
We tired of beating our heads against the wall 
And working for someone else 
A look a’here, 
One thing more I got to say right here 
Now, we’re people like the birds and the bees 
We rather die on our feet, 
Than keep living on our knees

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, hu 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, hu 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, Lord’a Lord’a Lord’a 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, ooooh

Uh, alright now, good Lord 
You know we can do the boog-a-loo 
Now we can say we do the Funky Broadway! 
Now we can do, hu 
Sometimes we dance, we sing and we talk 
You know I do like to do the camel walk 
Alright now, hu alright, 
Alright now, ha

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud, let me hear ya 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud

Now we’s demands a chance to do things for ourselves 
We’re tired of beating our heads against the wall 
And working for someone else, hu 
Now we’re our people, too 
We’re like the birds and the bees, 
But we’d rather die on our feet, 
Than keep a’living on our knees

Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud, let me hear ha’, huh 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, hu 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud

Oooow, oowee, you’re killing me, alright 
Uh, outa sight, alright you’re outa sight 
Ooowee, oh Lord, 
Ooowee, you’re killing me 
Ooowee, ooowee, ooowee, ooowee, ow

Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud, hu 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud , Lord I feel it 
Say it loud, 
I’m black and I’m proud 
Say it louder, 
I’m black and I’m proud