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Fifty Years Ago: The Music of the March on Washington Rally

Songs give people the ability to muster the courage to dissent and keep on struggling for freedom and justice. They were part of the fabric of the civil rights movement. The importance of music is why musical performances at the March on Washington demonstration were necessary.

“Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe that there wouldn’t have been a movement,” Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers, told NPR. “We needed those songs to help us not to be fearful when we were doing marches, or doing picket lines. And you needed a calming agent, and that’s what those songs were for us.”

The Freedom Singers formed in 1962 to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were present and performed, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Singer and actor Harry Belafonte helped to organize the musicians who performed at the demonstration fifty years ago. As he told the Los Angeles Times recently, he recognized artists were the “gatekeepers of truth” and that in every instance where he had been “exposed to struggle, songs were an intricate part of the day.”

There was argument among movement leaders, including Malcolm X, over whether to include white musicians in the program. Belafonte rejected the idea that they should not have been allowed to perform because it would not have been appropriate given Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “message of inclusion.”

African-American musicians such as Marian Anderson, Odetta and Mahalia Jackson were invited to perform. White folk artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were invited as well.

Charles Euchner’s book, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington, contains various anecdotes on the artists’ performances.

Jackson, a gospel singer, performed, “I’ve Been ‘Buked and Scorned.” Each syllable of the song, according to Euchner, was “full of sounds and emotions.” She stretched the words out to make them “deeper and more resonant.”

“The people on the National Mall craned their necks, shifted their bodies to see her,” Euchner recounts. “Eyes were wide open, to hear her better. People covered their faces with their fingers. People wept, bubbled in joy, leaned in toward their mates.” This was because “Mahalia expressed the deepest suffering of the black race, reaching back to the slave ships and centuries of bondage and broken hopes and dreams—but also painting the brightest picture of the Exodus and a better world.”

She also performed an encore, “How I Got Over” (which Rev. Shirley Caesar performed at the “Let Freedom Ring 50th Anniversary Celebration”).

Anderson, a contralto singer, had been scheduled to perform the National Anthem. She could not get to the podium in time so she missed her opportunity to perform. She was given a second chance later in the demonstration when she was invited to perform, “He Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

Her performance recalled the historic performance she gave on Easter Sunday on April 1, 1939, when she made history after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt opened the Lincoln Memorial up to her so she could be perform after being denied access to Constitution Hall, which was at the time a whites-only venue.

Odetta stunned those in attendance when she performed, “Oh Freedom.” She had been dubbed the “queen of American folk music” by Dr. King in 1961. With her music, she put the struggle for equality at the center of her music.

In an interview for NPR, Odetta recalled how the music had probably been uplifting to those in the crowd. She said she was “floored by the sight of all those people way back to Cleopatra’s needle.” She was moved after hearing the “kind of things people had to go through, even to afford the bus to arrive to Washington, DC.” And, “The feeling of unity and communion [was] really quite something.”

But she also recalled how she was hurt to see people there to film and document the demonstration turn their cameras off when she was up on stage. She remembered no longer seeing the lights from the cameras and said, “Many times we think in terms of popularity of the person and they will turn the camera on for somebody…because they have a big following or they earn a lot of money.” She wondered why cameramen didn’t just film the whole event.

Bob Dylan performed “When the Ships Come In” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” In his book, Euchner describes “When the Ships Come In” as being about the “retribution enemies of freedom would face on their judgment day.” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” was about the murder of Medgar Evers and Euchner interprets the song as a statement about Evers’ killer being “just a tool of the real hatemongering in the South, the politicians who use racism to further their own careers.”

It was hard for people to get past Dylan’s voice. Jonathan Takiff, who was a suburban Philly kid, is quoted in Euchner’s book. He recalls how Dylan “sounded angry and agitated, not pretty, and what he had to say wasn’t pretty. It was intended to smack you over the head. He took a page out of the Woody Guthrie book.”

For people like African-American comedian Dick Gregory, who were in attendance, it was upsetting to see Dylan on stage. “What was a white boy like Bob Dylan there for?” Why was Joan Baez there? “To support the cause? Wonderful! Support the cause. March. Stand behind us, not in front of us.”

John Handy, an African-American jazz musician who attended, was upset that there had not been more people who had made black contributions to the arts featured in the demonstration.

There were some in the movement, according to Euchner, who believed the performances had turned “music into a passive spectator activity.” The acts had been like the Newport Festival. They had not roused people with a “call to action.”

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary performed “If I Had a Hammer.” He recalls in the current issue of TIME magazine how the feeling he experienced “went beyond joy. It was hard to describe, but it was the antithesis of fear, and it propelled us all into another channel in our lives.”

From the same issue, Belafonte remembers that the musicians he invited to perform were not just that “they were sympathetic and very much involved in the ideals of the struggle, it was that’s who they really were. They were artists, and they were superstars, and you could be both a powerfully received force” and “say the right thing” and “have a moral point of view.”

“In the end, the day was a complete win-win. The Kennedys heaved a huge sigh of relief that there was not one act of violence,” Belafonte concludes. “And to see at the end everybody singing “We Shall Overcome” and all the arms linked–we’ve said it often, but it’s worth saying as often as necessary: there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And it was all of America. All of it. You went through that crowd and you couldn’t find any type missing, any gender, any race, any religion. It was America at its most transformative moment. ”

*Here are some clips of songs that were performed at the March on Washington, some of them actual recordings of the performances that took place fifty years ago:

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."