Based in traditional and popular forms of African American music such as spirituals, folk music, blues, and even popular rock and roll and rhythm and blues formats, freedom songs have long been an important type of civil rights song. Freedom songs convey positive messages of unity and perseverance rather than antagonistic responses to oppression. Most of the songs that came to be known as freedom songs had roots in African American religious music, in protest songs associated with American labor movements, or both. By the early 1960s protesters had changed the wording of some religious songs—for example, shifting discussion of salvation in “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” to an emphasis on freedom. Other songs emphasized overcoming fear, claimed the ultimate righteousness of the activists’ cause, and helped people stay together as a group.
In the summer of 1961, more than three hundred Freedom Riders were arrested and incarcerated in Mississippi’s Hinds County Jail and Parchman Penitentiary. Many civil rights activists cite this period as pivotal in establishing freedom songs as an important tool for demonstrators. Their extended confinement resulted in the expansion of the freedom song repertoire, as they modified existing civil rights songs and created versions of folk or popular songs that applied to the movement. Songs developed during this era included “Mississippi Goddam,” “Which Side Are You On?,” “Hallelujah I’m A-Travelin’,” and “Freedom Train a’ Comin’” (an adaptation of a union song). In addition, imprisoned Freedom Riders transformed “Yankee Doodle,” “The Midnight Special,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and even “Dixie” into parodies discussing prison conditions, reflecting on the Freedom Rides, and commenting on personalities such as Mississippi governor Ross Barnett.
The Mississippi Caravan of Music also helped boost the importance of freedom songs. Headed by Bob Cohen, the caravan traveled throughout the state, teaching freedom school students freedom songs and their origins. Caravan members also often kept up the morale of civil rights workers, who had little opportunity for after-hours recreation.
- Guy Carawan and Candie Carawan, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Its Songs (1990)
- Guy Carawan and Candie Carawan, eds., We Shall Overcome!: Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement (1963)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
- Shana L. Redmond, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (2014)
- Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement (1995)
- Pete Seeger and Robert S. Reiger, Everybody Says Freedom: Including Many Songs Collected by Guy and Candie Carawan (1989)