Freedom Songs of The Civil Rights Movement
Throughout the turbulent decade of the 1960s, the music of the Freedom Singers was representative of the Civil Rights Movement and its political and humanistic agendas. In an effort to promote their causes and raise the consciousness, courage, and morale of movement sympathizers, SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) recruited groups of young advocates to travel and educate the southern public. These groups also helped to raise funds for the
SNCC Freedom Singers 1962 – (left to right) Charles Neblett, Bernice Johnson,
organization. The four original members of the SNCC Freedom Singers included Charles Neblett, bass, Cordell Reagon, tenor, who were both song leaders from earlier civil rights gatherings in other cities, and Bernice Johnson, alto, and Rutha Mae Harris, soprano, who were preachers’ daughters from the Albany area. Bernice Johnson was a student at Albany State College, and Rutha Harris would later attend there. The group’s performances reached approximately 200 college campuses around the United States, where, the quartet sang and informed listeners of recent events in the Civil Rights Movement. All four members of the original group were under age 21.
The movement organizers used songs in various ways: to identify themselves as part of a community, to gain support and strength, and to make a political statement. The songs used in a particular area were culturally connected to the people of that specific place. In Albany, the organizers saw the community relate the freedom songs to a decades-long tradition of struggle and survival. The following freedom songs were adapted or created by the people of the Albany Movement.
Songs of the Albany Civil Rights Movement:
- Ain’t Gonna let Nobody Turn Me Round
- This became known as the theme song of the Albany Movement. It is based on an old spiritual, with new words added by movement participants. Some of the new verses included “Ain’t gonna let Chief Pritchett turn me round”, in reference to Albany Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, and “Ain’t gonna let Z.T. turn me round”, in reference to Z. T. Mathews, the sheriff of Terrell County, Georgia.
- Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly
- Based on the spiritual “Oh Mary, Oh Martha”, with new words by Bertha Gober and Janie Culbreth-Rambeau. This song originated in the Dougherty County (Albany) jail, and refers to Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett and Albany Mayor Asa Kelly.
- Over My Head
- This adaptation of a traditional spiritual was created by Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson-Reagon during the Albany Movement. The original refrain contained the words “Over my head I see trouble in the air”. Reagon changed the word “trouble” to “freedom”, and added several new verses to the song.
Research done and text written by Dr. Deanna F. Weber.
Special thanks to Ms. Jaye Alper who donated her father's images and wrote the biographical note.