Songs have suffused the political scene throughout the course of American history. From anti-slavery songbooks compiled by fugitive slaves in the early nineteenth century to collaborative videos of recording superstars performing for famine relief in the late twentieth century, songs have helped accomplish goals of great social importance. Political campaigns have employed songs to create an aura around candidates. The Civil Rights Movement used songs to bind people together in a commitment to a better future. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected in 1962. “They give people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” Wars have produced both pro- and anti-war songs that have served as rival anthems during divisive times.
Songs are the statement of a people. You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than any other way, for into the songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations.—John Steinbeck, 1940
One dozen anti-slavery hymnals and songbooks were published between 1834 and 1856 in Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. “Hymns, descriptive of the wrongs and sufferings of our slave population,” the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) believed, could impress upon listeners “a deep sense of their obligations to assist in undoing every burden, breaking every yoke, and setting every captive free.” Fugitive slave William Wells Brown (1816–1884) compiled this secular collection of verses for similar reasons.
Making a Point with Music
“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” published in January 1915, a few months after war broke out in Europe, became a rallying cry for the nation’s pacifists. Reflecting the official U.S. policy of neutrality, the song was one of the most popular of the era. Two years later, after America entered the war, “answer” songs, such as “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker,” “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Coward,” and “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier,” offered a contrasting sentiment.
1 of 4
Al Piantadosi (1884–1955) and Alfred Bryan (1871–1958). “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” New York: Leo Feist, 1915. Sheet music. Harry and Sara Lepman Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (086.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0086]
Eugene Platzman and Happy Mack. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker.” New York: F. B. Haviland, 1917. Sheet music. Harry and Sara Lepman Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (085.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0085]
F. G. McCauley and C. C. Case. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Coward.” Wellington, Ohio: F. G. McCauley, 1917. Sheet music. Harry and Sara Lepman Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (085.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0085_01]
Charles Bayha (1891–1957). “I’d Be Proud to Be the Mother of a Soldier.” New York: Shapiro, Bernstein and Co., 1917. Sheet music. Harry and Sara Lepman Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (085.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0085_02]
Entertainers have written and performed many songs for presidential campaigns. Al Jolson (1886-1950) headed the Harding and Coolidge Theatrical League during the 1920 election campaign and led a delegation of seventy-five performers to the home of Senator Harding (1865–1923) in Marion, Ohio for a rally on the candidate’s front porch. “Harding, You’re the Man for Us,” written for the occasion, became the campaign’s official campaign song. For an Eisenhower rally during the 1952 presidential campaign, Irving Berlin (1888-1989) rewrote the song “They Like Ike” from his musical Call Me Madam as “I Like Ike.” At a 1954 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner attended by the president, Irving Berlin reprised the song, proclaiming “I Still Like Ike” in a newly written chorus.
1 of 3
Al Jolson. “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.” New York: Al Jolson, 1922. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (087.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0087]
Irving Berlin. “I Like Ike,” 1952. Manuscript sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (087.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0087_01]
Irving Berlin. “I Still Like Ike,” February 19, 1954. Holograph lyric sheet. Music Division, Library of Congress (087.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0087_02]
Singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976), the son of a slave, brought black work songs, the blues, and spirituals to concert halls throughout the world. Robeson’s passport was cancelled by the State Department in 1950 because of his left-wing political activities and statements abroad criticizing racism in the U.S. and praising the Soviet Union. In 1958, the Supreme Court invalidated State Department regulations denying people passports because of suspected disloyalty and Robeson’s passport was returned.
1 of 2
Flyer for Paul Robeson recording. Naperville, IL: Rediscover Music, 1998. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (089.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0089]
Paul Robeson receives an award from George Marshall (1904–2000), chairman of the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties, at a dinner held in New York to unite Americans to fight racial discrimination, April 2, 1944. New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (089.02.00) [Digital ID # ppmsca-31144]
Pete Seeger (b. 1919), son of a musicologist and violin teacher, “fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo,” he wrote, during a 1936 trip to a folk festival in Asheville, North Carolina. He immersed himself in folk music while cataloging and transcribing songs in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song. In his lengthy career, Seeger has performed folk music to support unionism, social justice, international peace, and environmental conservation, among other concerns.
1 of 2
Line drawing of Pete Seeger, ca. 1950s. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (091.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0091]
Program for New York Society for Ethical Culture, Folk Song Festival series, January 29, 1955. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (092.02.00) [Digital ID # bhp0092_02]
Music and Controversy
Pete Seeger (b. 1919) and other folksingers formed People’s Songs, Inc., in January 1946, hoping to inspire a “singing labor movement.” The group went bankrupt after supporting the 1948 Progressive Party presidential bid of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965). In 1955, Seeger, once a Communist Party member, was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but refused on First Amendment grounds to answer questions “about my associations and opinions.” His contempt conviction subsequently was invalidated.
1 of 3
People’s Songs. Pete Seeger sings with Henry Wallace in an airplane during a Southern campaign tour, September 1948. Reproduction. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (088.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0088]
Defendant-Appellant’s Brief. United States of America v. Peter Seeger. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, submitted February 15, 1962. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (092.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0092]
“Should Pete Seeger Go to Jail?” Flyer, ca. 1961. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (092.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0092_01]
A Topical Song Writer
Singer-songwriter Phil Ochs (1940–1976) preferred the appellation “topical singer” to “folk singer.” Ochs gained mainstream press recognition in 1963 as one of a few singer-songwriters, who New York Times critic Robert Shelton (1926–1995) noted were “reviving the broadside tradition of 17th-century Britain, and saying their piece at the same time.” Formerly a radical journalist in college, Ochs in this 1964 interview discusses his decision to use folk music to express political views.
Myra Buttle. “An Interview with Phil Ochs.” Hootenanny, July 1964. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (091.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0091_01]
Mainstream Folk Music
Folk music reached mainstream America through best-selling recordings by groups like the Kingston Trio, cover stories in national magazines, and television. Some worried that commercialism would distort the folk revival movement. When the prime-time ABC folk music series Hootenanny—a word Pete Seeger (b. 1919) had popularized—barred Seeger from appearing in 1963 because of his past political associations, fifty folksingers boycotted the show. Although Judy Collins (b. 1939) appeared three times, she eventually stopped, citing censorship and artistic concerns.
Robert Shelton (1926–1995). “Judy Collins/Why I Quit the A.B.C. Show.” Hootenanny, March 1964. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (093.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0093]
An Open Letter to Bob Dylan
When Bob Dylan (b. 1941), the most influential folk singer-songwriter of the early 1960s, began to turn away from the “finger-pointing songs” (his term) that had won him acclaim, the folk revival community split in reaction. While some, like Phil Ochs (1940–1976), delighted in his eclectic new directions and called Dylan’s songs “as brilliant as ever,” many disapproved. Irwin Silber (1925–2010), a pioneer folk music magazine editor, expressed dismay in this letter, at which Dylan took umbrage.
Irwin Silber. “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan.” Sing Out! November, 1964. Courtesy of Joe Hickerson (093.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0093_01]
Music and the Civil Rights Movement
Folk songs were integral to the civil rights movement. During a 1962 trip to Georgia, Pete Seeger (b. 1919) suggested to Bernice Johnson (b. 1942), a singer and field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), that she form a singing group to support the organization. At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, the SNCC Freedom Singers joined Seeger, Peter [Yarrow] (b. 1938), [Noel] Paul [Stookey] (b. 1937) and Mary [Travers] (1936–2009), Joan Baez (b. 1941), Bob Dylan (b. 1941), and Theodore Bikel (b. 1924) to sing the movement’s anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Photograph of Newport Folk Festival, July 1963, (from left): Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers, Noel Paul Stookey, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Freedom Singers (Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, 1943–1996, Rutha Harris, b. 1940, Charles Neblett, b. 1941), Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel. Hootenanny, May 1964. Reproduction. Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress (090.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0090]
“We Are the World”
More than forty-five leading American pop recording artists gathered together in a Los Angeles studio on January 28, 1985 to record “We Are the World,” a song written by Michael Jackson (1958–2009) and Lionel Ritchie (b. 1949), and produced by Quincy Jones (b. 1933) to raise money for famine relief in Africa. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau (b. 1948) spoofed the recording session in two weeks of Doonesbury comics, in which he inserted the strip’s fictional pop star, Jimmy Thudpucker, among the performers.