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[Detail] sit-down strike after being refused service

Socially Conscious Music: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Throughout history, music has played a part in inspiring and uniting people involved in social movements. Music was an important tool of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The song “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of the movement. Gospel singers like the great Mahalia Jackson often sang at civil rights rallies. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a group called the Freedom Singers to perform around the country, motivating people and raising money for SNCC. Jazz composers such as Max Roach composed new musical works that explored themes of freedom and protest.

Max Roach. We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite

Max Roach. We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite New York: Candid Records, 1960. Record jacket. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. (9-6) Courtesy of Candid Production, LTD

Examine the record jacket for Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

  • What is shown in the photo on the record jacket? Do you think this photo was a good choice for the jacket of a record titled Freedom Now? Why or why not?
  • How does the text on the record jacket convey the idea that this is socially conscious music? Have you seen a CD jacket in today’s market that makes clear the socially conscious nature of the music?
  • Imagine that you are a record producer in the 1960s, producing a record by an African American artist. The title of the album is “We Shall Overcome.” Look through The African American Odyssey for a photograph or drawing that you might feature on the record jacket. Explain why you think the photograph would make a good cover illustration.

Think about the situations in which you hear music. In each situation, how is music used—for enjoyment, to set a mood, for worship, to inspire or unite people, other purposes? Are any of the uses of music negative (e.g., to incite violence, to encourage drug use)?

The Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a highly regarded writer of the Harlem Renaissance. While he wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies, histories, and the words to more than one opera, he was best known as a poet. He published his first poem in a national magazine at the age of 19 and continued writing until his death 46 years later. One of the innovations he pioneered was infusing his poetry with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

The African American Odyssey exhibit features five drafts of a Hughes poem, “Ballad of Booker T.” Examine the five drafts:

  • What do you notice about the revision process? Find at least one example of a change Hughes made that he reversed in a later draft. Why do you think he went back to the original wording or line breaks?
  • What aspects of the poem remained the same through all five drafts? Do you think these consistencies provide clues to Hughes’s vision for the work?
  • The African American Odyssey says that “Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.” Do you find any evidence in the poem of Hughes’ critical view of Washington? What evidence do you see of empathy for the circumstances in which Washington worked? Do you think you could write an empathetic poem about someone you disagree with? Why or why not?

Find and read one or more of Hughes’s better-known works, such as “Theme for English B,” “Dream Deferred,” “Let America Be America Again,” “Dream Variations,” or “Mother to Son.” Compare these poems to “Ballad of Booker T.” Which do you think best celebrates African American creativity and identity? Explain your answer.