“Wandering Verses and Wandering Refrains” – the past and future of freedom music

Music was an integral part of the civil rights movement. But what is its importance today? Is the tradition carried on? And how? That was the topic of “Freedom Singers Then and Now,” a virtual panel hosted by DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton Wednesday night.

Every American has seen the iconic images of the civil rights movement and read the stories of the bravery of activists in the face of the racists of the Old Confederacy.

But there’s a reason the movement’s definitive story – “Eyes On the Prize” – is named after a song. Music was an integral part of the movement. But what is its importance today? Is the tradition carried on? And how?

That was the topic of “Freedom Singers Then and Now,” a virtual panel hosted by DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton Wednesday night.

“Without the songs of the civil rights movement, there would have been no movement,” said Rutha Harris, one of the earliest Freedom Singers.

Carol Maillard, one of the founders of Sweet Honey in the Rock, said her band was originally led by fellow freedom singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who focused on “giving us full expression voice, a full expression of us as children in church”. , on the political scene, growing up, whatever.

They formed in 1973 at the Last Colony Theatre, DC – so named because of the district’s lack of autonomy – “And at that time we didn’t see ourselves as a group that was going to carry on and be aware social. We didn’t think like that. We just wanted to sing together. … There was only culture and beauty and black people, just everywhere.

Eventually, “We realized that the music we offer is music that truly heals the soul. It’s music that moves people to action.

The music of the Freedom Singers, Sweet Honey and others inspired the next generation, such as Dr. Eric Poole, director of the Howard University Choir and Bands. “These songs are still relevant,” Poole said, “because we would take those wandering verses and wandering refrains” from spirituals and folksongs and adapt them to current events, gaining and spreading perspective and strength.

How about go-go?

Go-go, DC’s music, doesn’t sound much like the freedom songs of the 1960s, but the Don’t Mute DC co-founders explained that they were part of the tradition.

For Ron Moten, the connection between music and the civil rights movement was embodied in Shelly “The Playboy” Stewart, a DJ from Birmingham, Alabama, who relayed information about the meetings and marches of the early 1960s, particularly children’s steps. “[He] sent all the messages through the music to let the youngsters know when to jump out the windows.

He said he had Stewart in mind when he organized protests against the DC Control Board which “shut down Thomas Circle” in 1995. “Our voices have been heard,” Moten said. “We didn’t win, but we showed the youngsters the power they had.”

The Don’t Mute DC movement began with a protest against the silence of go-go music outside a Metro PCS store in Shaw, which has become a symbol of DC’s gentrification.

Moten said his movement has the same kind of energy and diversity as the civil rights movement and has won such victories as funding for schools and hospitals, a halfway house in DC and more. again. “I can go on and on about all the good things that happened just because people took a stand and got a win. And people have realized the power and responsibility they have to stand up for what is right.

“The music we’re talking about sounds very different from spirituals,” said co-founder Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, “…but that’s what ignited people on the streets and got people in power to listen. .”

“When I talk to groups of young kids, I’m like, this is your heritage. If you’re from DC, these drums are your heritage. And they’re our superpower. … Everyone talks about Chocolate City in the past tense, and we’re still here; we’re still the largest ethnic group; we still have an incredible heritage that we haven’t even begun to preserve, and that we don’t even really understand.

Between the pandemic and the protests against police brutality in recent years, “there are all these new opportunities for us to reassert our place,” Hopkinson said. “And I believe that music, our music, black music, will continue to be the engine that fuels this movement, to ensure that we continue to have a voice.”

Moving forward

During the question-and-answer period at the end of the roundtable, most of the questions focused on the topic of continuing the tradition and whether this is still possible.

“When I see protests, and I see marches [today], I don’t hear a lot of singing,” Mailliard said. “I hear people chanting phrases, but [I miss] the sung part which galvanizes, touches the heart and brings energy.

Harris agreed: “The Black Lives Matter movement…I haven’t heard a song. You must have songs. Songs must be sung; they will prevent you from being scared if you are on the march and that policeman comes up to you and says he is going to hit you with a truncheon.

OnRae LaTeal said, “I think there’s room for us to have more artists making more explicit music that’s rooted in and grounded in social justice practices.” She spent much of 2020 recording audio and video of protests in DC and setting protesters’ songs and chants to music to trap beats. From there was born the Freedom Futures Collective and the album “We Keep Us Safe”.

She and the founders of Don’t Mute DC have said that the music industry is not interested in free music, but that the advantage of modern times is the proliferation of other means of distributing one’s music, such than streaming services and social media.

Jordyn Jones, 17, a student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts who is studying musical theater in college, said: “My whole life has been swallowed up by music.

A resident of the Ivy City neighborhood, she said, “I saw violence; I saw gentrification. But one thing remains the same: “Music is something that never goes away. … It just evolves and changes.

That said, she added, “There is a huge gap between the elders and the young when it comes to justice, beliefs, the history of our culture and our people as a whole. And I think closing that gap would make a lot of things different and help a lot of different points of view.

Hopkinson, of Don’t Mute DC, said young people need the same encouragement as the older generation: “I think if we give young people the space… they’re going to innovate. We’re going to hear all kinds of amazing new music that will fuel the next moves to take us into the next battles.

His co-founder Moten agreed: “In DC we have all these pretty buildings, but how many of them are used by young people to hold fashion shows, talent shows and all the things we had coming up. ?”

He added: “This group of young people are going to kick you-know-what, because they are not afraid of anything. They just need to know how to use that courage they had in the right way and receive the platforms.

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