Episode 3, Season 3
Music chronicles the history of the civil rights struggle: The events, tactics and emotions of the movement are documented in songs of the era. From The Freedom Singers to Sam Cooke, historian Charles L. Hughes explains how your students can use music for both historical insight and evidence in the classroom.
Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast! Use the code CIVILRIGHTS for a 30 percent discount on this book from the University of Wisconsin Press.
- Teaching Tolerance, Music and the Movement (lesson)
- Teaching Tolerance, Sounds of Change (lesson)
- Teaching Hard History, Song Playlist
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A couple of years ago, on March 23rd, 2018, to be exact, I had a chance to sit with, listen to, and learn from, Charles “Chuck” McDew, the second chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. The occasion was a gathering of SNCC veterans in Durham, North Carolina, for a conference on preserving and promoting SNCC history.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: McDew wasn’t on the official program, but that didn’t keep him from holding court between panel presentations and during meals. His personal recollections of the movement were always poignant, capturing the fierce urgency of then, as well as the fierce urgency of now. One reflection he often shared was especially moving. It was about freedom songs.
Charles “Chuck” McDew: There was one song that we would always sing after SNCC meetings, which was "This May Be The Last Time.” This may be the last time, this may be the last time. May be the last time, brothers this may be the last time. It may be the last time. I just don't know. May be the last time we all sing together. It may be the last time, I don't know.” Even when I hear it today, I can remember times I’ve heard it in the past when it was the last time I saw somebody whose hand I was holding alive.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of those “somebodies” was Herbert Lee, a Black Mississippi farmer who was gunned down in 1961 in broad daylight by his white neighbor, a state legislator, because he attempted to register to vote. He shared the same story in a deleted scene from the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution.
Charles “Chuck” McDew: And I remember going to his funeral, and his wife coming up to me and slapping me, saying, "You killed my husband! You killed my husband! You killed my husband!" And I thought, "Yeah, that’s true. In a way, we did kill your husband." Had we never come here, had we never convinced him to register, then you would have a husband, your 10 kids would have a father, and can we do this? Can we keep asking people to do this? Herbert Lee was one of the hundreds of thousands of really brave people who stood up. When you sang "This May Be The Last Time," and thought it would be, it was tough.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The civil rights movement had a soundtrack comprised of freedom songs such as "This May Be The Last Time." Sung at gatherings large and small, freedom songs stirred the soul. They served not only to remind activists of the gravity of the situation, but also to strengthen their resolve, to bolster their determination, to not let anybody turn them 'round. And freedom songs were just part of the picture. Music was central to the civil rights struggle. To understand and teach the movement, we have to understand and teach movement music. Chuck McDew taught me that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That conference was the last time we all sat together. Less than two weeks later, on April 3, 2018, Charles "Chuck" McDew, a civil rights revolutionary, passed away. He was 79 years old.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Teaching Tolerance—a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we'll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle—or the U.S. civil rights movement. In each episode, we'll explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, we’re going to talk with historian Charles L. Hughes about the importance of music in the movement. And we’re going to hear all about his many innovative strategies for engaging students in musical analysis and interpretation. I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we began to map out this season, there were two things that I knew were must haves. The first was an episode on music in the movement. And the second must have was that when we did that episode, we were going to have my man Charles Hughes on as a special guest to help us navigate and make sense of the music. And I'm happy to say that's what we're about to do right now. So my man, Charles, how are you doing? It's great to have you. Thanks for joining us.
Charles Hughes: Oh, it's so great to be here. Thank you, Hasan, and I definitely do not deserve that hype, but I will do my best to ...
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's music, baby. It's music. I'm your hype man today, my man.
Charles Hughes: Yeah, there it is. There it is. I'll do my best to not let the people down too much.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There we go. Well look, I love playing music in the classroom. I start with a song, especially in the civil rights class, I start with music. We analyze music. And I do that in part because I believe that music was just so central to the movement, and understanding the movement. Now I could be wrong, Charles. You tell me. You tell me.
Charles Hughes: You're definitely not wrong. In fact, I think that there are few things that we can use in the classroom that permeated the movement to the degree that music did. When we think about how many of our own cultural understandings of the movement or other documentaries, television shows, other things, when we think about the civil rights movement, we often think of it accompanied by a song, whether that's a freedom song, "We Shall Overcome," those kinds of songs. Or whether it's "Respect" by Aretha Franklin or "A Change Is Gonna Come," or whatever it may be, music was everywhere. And I think that it makes sense for us when we're teaching the movement or trying to understand it, that we consider all the different ways that music is so important in thinking about how the movement went, how the movement felt, and also how we can understand it.
Charles Hughes: Whether it's the way that activists used music as part of rallies and protests to keep the rhythms of the crowd going, to articulate the demands, to keep the energy up at times when the energies for very justifiable reasons may have flagged. Whether we're thinking about all the legendary artists of the civil rights and Black power period who incorporated the movement into the music they were making, who were very much in conversation with movement activists and the energies of the movement. To this day the anthems of the civil rights era are really, really crucial to help students of all different ages and teachers of all different backgrounds to figure out what the movement meant and why it still matters. So, yeah, music is crucial and I think it's a great way to teach.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned some of the anthems of the era. What are one or two that just come immediately to mind that you associate with the movement when you hear movement and think movement music?
Charles Hughes: Well, certainly a song like "We Shall Overcome." That's probably the one that is most commonly associated and for very good reason. It became quite literally the anthem that would be sung at mass meetings, at different protests, and during different movement activities, but also as a way to try to express the energies and the demands of the movement to an audience of non-activists. You would have musicians, whether they were musicians connected to the movement like the SNCC Freedom Singers, or whether they were musicians who were allies of the movement, like Joan Baez or other folks who would sing "We Shall Overcome" as a way to demonstrate their connection to the movement and also to try to bring other folks into the beloved community. "We Shall Overcome" is a great one also, because it so clearly and so repeatedly maps out the reasons why the movement was taking place. It talks about the fact that overcoming and living free and being free from fear, it allows people to literally sing the movement into existence. So that's a great one.
Charles Hughes: And then on the other side, if we're thinking about the pop side of the conversation, one song that I think about all the time is James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," which emerges very much as a product of the civil rights and Black power era, not only because of what it was talking about and how it laid out so many of the things that movement activists were calling for, but also the fact that it was getting on the radio and it was reaching a wide audience including white people, and that itself was a victory of the movement. There's no way that a song with that direct a political message and that funky a sound would have been getting such wide airplay even a few years earlier. So I love that one too, because it expresses both through its lyrics and also through its sound, the way that the movement happened and why it mattered. But those are just a couple. There are tons of different songs that could come to mind just as quickly as those two.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I love playing James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" in my civil rights class, because by the time we get to that part of the semester where I play it, we've spent a couple months together, we've built this rapport. And if you can imagine a class that's 80 percent white, 60 students, and we crank up the volume and sing it, "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud," it doesn't get any better than that.
Charles Hughes: That's right. Yep. The energy of that song and of so many of these movement songs is such a great way to, again, create that community, right? So, yeah, it's a wonderful thing when you can get all of these students, most of whom are not Black, to get into that song and understand where that song is coming from, for sure.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But something like "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," you know, when James Brown sings this, '68, just 10 years earlier, that would not have been produced.
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So should we just be thinking about the impact that music has on the movement, or is there another dimension that we should be thinking about too, when we introduce music into our classroom around civil rights?
Charles Hughes: That's such a great question. I think the default position for a lot of us when we're using music in a movement curriculum is to think about how the music is reflecting the movement. And that is absolutely justifiable, right? That makes a lot of sense, because it very much did. It transformed American popular music, and not just genres that were associated with Black folks. But there is a very important way in which that conversation, that call and response between the music and other aspects of the movement was not just reflected in the music, but also the music was shaping other aspects of the movement. Sometimes this played out in terms of audiences insisting that their access to certain kinds of music was a civil rights battlefield. Whether it was Black Vietnam soldiers who quite literally fought with their white counterparts over what music would be available on the jukeboxes or in the PX stores. And also in the ways that record labels often took the lead in trying to demonstrate how the goals of equality and autonomy and ownership could be figured in. Whether it's Motown or Stax Records in Memphis or other places, record labels really understood themselves, particularly when they were led by Black folks and owned by Black folks. They understood themselves as a cultural front for the movement.
Charles Hughes: So the music and the other aspects of the movement were in a conversation, were in call and response. And movement leaders, people like Martin Luther King or like Jesse Jackson or others, very much understood this and tried to create quite direct, but also maybe more indirect connections, bringing the musicians into the broader fight for freedom.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. This podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays, which I edited. From now until the end of the year, the University of Wisconsin Press is offering a 30 percent discount for listeners who order this collection. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Tolerance.org/Podcasts. Just use the promotional code CIVILRIGHTS, all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Dr. Charles Hughes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So if we're going to, as teachers, use music in the classroom, it's important for us to think about in advance what is it that music can help us teach?
Charles Hughes: Yeah, there's a lot. So music helps us chronicle the history of the movement. It literally narrates what's going on. Music also helps communicate its underlying dynamics. So in other words, the music helps us feel what is going on beyond the specifics of particular campaigns or the specifics of particular strategies. We can think about what kind of energies are underlying the civil rights and Black power movement. The energy of a song like "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" for example, tells us a great deal about the propulsive and assertive energy of that phase of the movement, right?
Charles Hughes: So we can communicate underlying dynamics so that we can ask students things like, "Okay, what is this song saying? But how does it feel? What does that tell us about the way that activists or community members were living through these moments?" And it also helps us understand the importance of different kinds of politics than we might normally think of. That the movement wasn't just about sit-ins. It wasn't just about voter registration. It was also about representation. It was about ownership of Black art, right? Both in the economic and artistic sense. And it was about recreating a tradition. One of the things that music does so powerfully, right up including and into the hip hop era, right, is it tells a story about the past and it tells a story about how the past relates to the present. And I think one of the ways that we can use music and that I've used music very effectively is actually getting folks to think about what is the story of the movement that the music itself is telling? And how does it differ, but also what does it share with maybe more sort of standard narratives? So from the most kind of specific, like here's what it was like in Birmingham or here's what it was like during Freedom Summer, to deep abstract but really important questions like how did the movement feel? Music is a great way to illustrate all of those things.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It sounds as though music can be used in the classroom as a primary source to offer a counter-narrative to the master narrative.
Charles Hughes: Absolutely. It is a wonderful way to complement the standard story, to complicate the standard story or the master narrative, and sometimes to contradict it. And it can do all of those things in ways that are very effective in terms of getting the point across, but also really resonate with students. Students remember the music, and they remember why it matters.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Okay, so now what we've all been waiting for. We get that the music is central, we understand how it can be used as a primary source. I love this idea of recognizing and keying in on the way music narrates history and communicates these underlying dynamics, and also illuminates these critical messages that we often don't get when we think about that standard narrative. Okay, we get that. We're all excited. Now Charles, what do we do with it? How do we teach this in the classroom?
Charles Hughes: Right. I think that it is really useful when you're teaching the civil rights movement to make music a part of everything you teach, to bring the music into conversation with every element of the curriculum. And one way that I found very effective is to not even think about, "Okay, what song from the movement am I going to use in this particular lesson as a definitive example of something?" But instead, to create what I have called the playlist model. Rather than the professor or teacher or instructor kind of creating a small list of the definitive songs, the definitive anthems, instead work with students to try to think about what is the variety of music that we can bring into these conversations?
Charles Hughes: The playlist model creates a great opportunity to bring students into the building of the curriculum. One of the things that I often do is I ask students to create playlists with me, to bring in the songs that they are responding to from whatever we're reading or whatever moment historically that we're looking at. And you get this really wonderful conversation going, this really wonderful call and response. Students will bring in songs from the period, right? Whether it's the definitive anthems that are great and enduring, or the deep cuts, you know, if they're kind of music heads and they have done a little bit more digging. But they will also bring in songs that don't necessarily have anything to do with that particular time and place. I've noticed in my teaching that a lot of younger students, particularly if they're into hip hop, bring in not only hip hop records that are responding to the movement or to the movement music, but that are responding to what's going on in the world right now. So it's a way to create a cross-generational conversation, it's a way to create a cross-stylistic conversation, and it is more broadly a way to de-center the classroom.
Charles Hughes: I try to use the playlists as much as possible, whether in class, building them together, so we kind of build our understanding as we go, or as an assignment. It not only introduces students to the range of music and why it mattered outside of just the most obvious connections to the movement, but it also, I believe, recreates the spirit of call and response that was so central to movement politics. Call and response, which emerges out of the Black church in the United States as a form of communication, as a cultural practice, and ultimately as a political practice in which the leader of a conversation is not given all the power. Instead, there is a dynamic flow between the leader and the congregation or the audience or the community. That is something that we hear in the music, it's something that we see playing out in the movement. And by letting students help kind of create their own soundtrack, their own playlists, regardless of what kind of songs they choose, I found that it actually really kind of almost surreptitiously kind of teaches them something about the spirit of call and response and about the beloved community.
Charles Hughes: So I recommend that educators think about the songs they want to choose and the way they want to deal with music very much outside of the one representative example. But there are still a ton of representative examples that you could use too, if you're just getting your feet wet or if you don't have enough time or energy, which is perfectly understandable.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That makes so much sense. Charles, as you pointed out, there's something unique about the music that reflects the movement and comes out of the movement. And one of those unique aspects is the call and response.
Charles Hughes: Yeah, call and response is very observable in the freedom songs. You hear the marchers singing these songs. You hear folks in mass meetings singing these songs. You see folks sitting in jail cells singing these songs. Oftentimes, people will suggest a new verse that maybe calls out a different element of the struggle. "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, ain't gonna let segregation turn me 'round, ain't gonna let Governor Wallace turn me 'round," right? But also the energy of the community determines where the songs go. So sometimes songs will shift into other songs. Sometimes you'll hear tempos change. Sometimes you'll hear different segments of the crowd trying to start a different song, and ultimately the community decides on one of them, right? It's just a wonderful demonstration of that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, myself having come up in the Black church, I'm certainly familiar with that. But is there a song that really embodies this as an example?
Charles Hughes: One that I love that indicates how this works and also indicates how the call and response and the energy of the freedom songs is as much about the sound and as much about what is going on musically is, "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Freedom." Yeah, it's just such a great example. It's got the rhythm of the march. It's got the rhythm of that energy. And it's also directly calling back to the spirituals, directly calling back to the gospel church, while also very, very specifically about what's happening in the movement. And there's a great recording of it by the SNCC Freedom Singers, recorded in the early-1960s at the moment where they were the primary musical ambassadors of the freedom songs.
Charles Hughes: The SNCC Freedom Singers, who were activists, they emerged out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They had all been very, very involved in the other aspects of SNCC campaigns, and they also became an internationally-recognized performing group that would go around the country and go around the world singing the songs of the movement to try to raise awareness, to try to raise money, and to try to bring more folks into the conversation.
Charles Hughes: I love "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Freedom" for so many reasons, but how I've used it in class is not just to give a sense of that call and response lyrically, but also because the rhythm of this song and the way in which the voices and the handclaps interact quite literally sound like the movement to me, sound like those moments of perseverance and of energy and of action.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And, you know, there is such power, as you were saying, to the way in which that particular song captures the rhythm, the energy, the sound, the feel, the pulse of the movement itself, but then also the language. You know, Charles, we often—we talk about in the master narrative certainly, that this is a civil rights struggle, but we're talking about freedom songs, right? Mind stayed on freedom. I mean, the idea of freedom itself. I mean, so that language, the lyrical choices are so important.
Charles Hughes: Yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Charles, you can really hear exactly what you were talking about, that rhythm of the movement. You feel like you are not just tapping your toe or clapping your hands, but if you close your eyes that you're actually moving. It has a certain movement, that sound and that song.
Charles Hughes: I just love in the middle of the song, how they really quite literally break down the lyric to being about the essential thing, which is "I'm gonna walk, walk. I'm gonna talk, talk." It's an assurance and it's a promise. One of the things the freedom songs do is they force the singers, they force the participants to say, "I'll be there. I'm gonna walk and I'm gonna talk." And you hear it in that deliberate, straightforward, energizing rhythm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, it reminds me of so many other freedom songs that ask you to be accountable. Another one, "Which Side Are You On?" I mean, these aren't just lyrics. These are statements. These are declarations. These are questions. They're forcing you, as you say it, as you sing it, to decide how are you going to fight? Which side are you on?
Charles Hughes: Yes. It is a call, and it demands both a communal commitment, but also individuals within that. It's not singling you out. It's not saying you have to go do this by yourself. We'll be with you, but you better be there, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, exactly.
Charles Hughes: Or if not, you need to say that you're not going to be there. And it's a really great way to kind of enact that movement politics and the strategy through the music and through the energy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. Check out the Spotify playlist that Charles has curated for this episode. In addition to the songs that he discusses, you’ll hear more music inspired by our conversation. There’s a link in the show notes and on the landing page for this episode at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Now back to my conversation with Dr. Hughes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Charles, we've been talking about freedom songs and movement music coming out of the church, but that's not the only source in sight of movement music. Should we be thinking about it more expansively?
Charles Hughes: Absolutely. There is, I think, a danger or at least a risk in assuming that the only movement music is music that comes out of the church or that is distinctly, directly protest-based, just as there is danger in assuming that the movement in general can be limited to those things, too. One of the most powerful demonstrations of how important the movement was to the music and why the music was able to shape the movement in so many ways, is that this call and response between musicians and other movement activists was happening throughout genres. We can hear artists in the pop world in conversation with the freedom songs, whether it's Sam Cooke or Chuck Berry or The Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield and others who were quite literally and directly drawing on Black musical and political currents in the music they were creating, signifying, sometimes directly invoking. Even before James Brown could get on the radio with "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," there was this very direct attempt by Black pop artists to speak back and forth with the movement.
Charles Hughes: We can also hear this very much in the folk revival. The SNCC Freedom Singers, for example, their primary milieu, the place where they did most of their performance outside of the movement was for folk audiences, for young kids, most of whom were white, although certainly not all, who were listening also to people like Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and also to Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan very much emerges and distinguishes himself in the early '60s directly because he is in call and response with the civil rights movement. We kind of forget that now because he's gone in so many directions, right? But in his early days, one of the ways that Bob Dylan really established himself on the national scene was being in direct conversation with the kinds of freedom songs and protest music that were coming out of movement spaces. And he was doing this very, very directly.
Charles Hughes: One of the songs that he did that most powerfully with was his song "Blowin' In The Wind," which I think to this day is understood as his most powerful anthem. So Bob Dylan in these lyrics of "Blowin' In The Wind," saying things like, "How many roads must a man walk down before we call him a man? How many years must some people exist before they're allowed to be free?" These really powerful questions that were picked up by movement activists, that were picked up by Black pop artists who were engaged in the conversation. But the call and response with Bob Dylan in "Blowin' In The Wind" goes even deeper. And I've used this song in the past to actually talk about the early 1960s, both musically and politically, a period when a lot of white folks were becoming involved in the civil rights movement and where American culture was starting to shift in terms of its relationship to the movement, but also a period in which African American activists and African American musicians were drawing on much deeper, older Black political and cultural traditions as well.
Charles Hughes: And what makes that song, I think, even more powerful is that Dylan based that melody very consciously on "No More Auction Block," which is a post-emancipation song most famously recorded by the great Paul Robeson, in which he and the other folks who have performed it sing about the dreams of freedom, what they are hoping to come in this new moment, the relief that they feel, the celebration of freedom, but also a real reckoning with the pain and with the sacrifice and what has been lost. Dylan using this melody line, I would argue is a really powerful way to call back into a historical conversation that Robeson's recording and other versions of "No More Auction Block" enacted.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I almost feel the need to put some more bass in my voice after you hear that version of "No More Auction Block."
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But you know, one of the things that "No More Auction Block" always reminds me of, and I put it in this category of, "Oh, freedom," that other sort of Negro spiritual, that you have folks singing at the moment of emancipation, at the daybreak of freedom. And it's both looking back and looking forward, and is drawing our connection, which is so critically important, to the era of slavery. And reminds us through song that those who are now in freedom and are trying to define that freedom, they're basing their understanding of freedom on what they had endured in slavery, on those rights that they had been denied.
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To see "No More Auction Block" being performed by a Paul Robeson in the 1930s and then to have Bob Dylan drawing on it, that is that continuity of struggle, of music, of ideas, of freedom, from that moment of emancipation, both backward and forward in time.
Charles Hughes: And I think that music does that more generally, right, by when you have shared melodies and when you have shared lyrics, when you have covers or samples or all of these ways that we talk back and forth. And I think it's fair to say too, we can have a conversation also about appropriation, right? And about the way that Dylan is taking that melody. What are the things that white folks do when white folks come into a Black-centered movement or a Black-centered music?
Charles Hughes: But at the same time, I think that conversation is legitimate and important and can exist alongside the way in which, with "Blowin' In The Wind," Dylan is also trying to add a chapter into a longer conversation that was responded to and picked up then by The Staple Singers, by Stevie Wonder, who recorded a great version of "Blowin' In The Wind" a few years later, and who himself, of course, is such a key figure in the movement music story. And then by Sam Cooke, and the way that Cooke hears that song as a challenge, and hears it as a call for him to more fully and explicitly address the politics and also the energies of the moment. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is kind of like "No More Auction Block" in that way, right? That it's got that deep sense of the weight of the past and this idea that a change is gonna come and this incredible hope that exists and this assurance that exists at the center of "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right.
Charles Hughes: When you hear it paired with that melody and that amazing performance by Cooke, who was drawing on all of the Black gospel traditions, but all of the also the pop traditions that he was so conversant in, that song becomes so deep when you pair that central sentiment of "A Change Is Gonna Come" with the verses around it that are really about pain and struggle, but also with the voice. You know, Cooke, like Paul Robeson, it's just a voice that cuts through.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I just want us to pause for one brief moment. You've called the name of the great Sam Cooke. I just want to make sure that everybody knows who Sam Cooke is and why we all should know him and his music. So tell us, who was Sam Cooke?
Charles Hughes: Sam Cooke is one of the really key and great figures in 20th-century popular music. Born in Mississippi, he first gains fame as a member of the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group in which he is known as just a knock 'em dead lead singer. But eventually, he decides to leave gospel and record secular music, which for any gospel singer, particularly in this period, was always a big choice. But when he starts making pop records and starts having hits, he initially is very much in the model of the pop crooners that you would hear on the radio, but he's bringing in gospel influences, he is creating songs that are subtly signifying a little bit on not only the gospel tradition, but also African-American experiences.
Charles Hughes: But he grows increasingly convinced, even as he's becoming a huge star in the late '50s and early '60s, that he needs to use his position, use his music to try to affect greater change. That's within the recording industry, so he begins to set up his own recording company, which he eventually hopes to record himself on, but also in terms of his connection to the movement. He becomes very close to Malcolm X. He starts thinking about how he can use his music to try to provide inspiration, but also a soundtrack to the movement as it continues.
Charles Hughes: Unfortunately, he's killed in 1965, and so we don't really get to understand what would have happened. But the last song that he records and releases posthumously is "A Change Is Gonna Come," which he wrote as an attempt to capture the energies that he heard starting to bubble up through "Blowin' In The Wind" and other things. But also that reflected his understanding of the way that Black musical tradition and the way that Black political tradition were coming together in this moment. And it's all centered through a narrative of struggle, through a narrative of journey, through this assurance that a change is gonna come, even though his voice is kind of saying maybe he doesn't fully believe that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So let's listen to Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Charles Hughes: Even for one of the great singers of all time, vocally he is just next level. He is drawing on a full range not only of gospel and blues and these other roots for his art, but also what he understood about being a recorded singer in a pop context. You hear these huge, sweeping lines. He is bringing together all of the elements of his musical personality. And it's such a powerful statement, and it's really sad that it was his last release. But there's also something tragically fitting about it. And it's just one of the really enduring songs.
Charles Hughes: The thing that always strikes me and it struck me again, and I've listened to that song probably thousands of times by this point, is just how deeply vulnerable his performance is, even as it is also filled with strength. And I think that's not a bad metaphor for how most people in the movement had to work through what they were doing. It took tremendous bravery and courage and sense of purpose, but they were people. And there was tremendous tragedy and violence and fear as well. And I just think he nails something so deep about that. And I love that we played that segment also because he's talking about feeling alone and he's talking about feeling marginalized. He goes to the movie. He goes downtown. That's a universal statement in a sense, but, you know, "Everybody's telling me don't hang around," could be very specifically about the experience of living in a segregated world or in a racist world. So I just think that the depth of that song is just really amazing.
Charles Hughes: And, you know, Sam Cooke was also very close to Muhammad Ali, right? When Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay, wins the world championship, Sam Cooke's there and Malcolm X is. And so there's this whole cultural world that is built. And by a year later, with both Malcolm and Sam Cooke gone, it's totally changed. So yeah, there's so many connections to draw. The Beatles even fit into this because the Beatles go to Miami and see Muhammad Ali in his gym right around the time that Sam Cooke and Malcolm—like, it really was that close. And so if you're looking for ways to tie different threads of this together, Sam Cooke is kind of perfect, maybe even in ways that we didn't originally expect.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So are you saying that we shouldn't put music and various songs into discrete areas? I mean, certainly there are protest songs for sure and there's also popular music, but it sounds that you're saying that there's more to it than just these categories or bins that we might have found them in an old record store.
Charles Hughes: Yes. And that's a great way to put it. The way that we think about movement music has to include all the music that people in the movement were listening to, right? And that includes a lot of music that wouldn't necessarily be filed in the protest music box, right? Or be found in the "Freedom Songs" section of the record store. And again, many of the artists of the period who are the most enduring and who did the most great work, understood that they wanted to be in conversation with the movement but also, because of the way the record industry worked, could not necessarily be as direct or explicit as they wanted to.
Charles Hughes: Sam Cooke is a great example. Chuck Berry is a great example. Both of them put lyrical and musical shout-outs to the movement in their songs, knowing full well that most white folks wouldn't know what they were talking about, but Black folks would. And the white folks involved in the movement and the other folks who are neither Black nor white but who get it, they would understand. But it wasn't direct enough that they would get in trouble, because you couldn't get on the radio if you were making a political statement of that kind.
Charles Hughes: I love R&B for this. R&B in the early 1960s, late '50s, this sort of Motown era and just before, because it is filled with songs in which Black singers talk about identity, talk about gender, talk about sexuality, talk about having to hide who they truly are, talk about the need to stand by me, to use one of the great R&B hits by Ben E. King. And none of these are directly commenting on what's happening in the movement or among Black folks more generally, but they all kind of are anyway. I use "The Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, "The Great Pretender" by The Platters, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" or "Mama Said" by The Shirelles. These early-'60s artists, none of whom are making, quote, "protest music," but all of whom are resonating with those energies, who are speaking to dynamics that are present within the movement and more broadly within African American history, right? The notion of double consciousness, W.E.B. Dubois's formulation, right? Or the concept of masking. These are things that I hear most powerfully in music that isn't directly commenting on those topics.
Charles Hughes: Another reason why we have to take music seriously that we wouldn't initially think is protest music or directly related to the movement, is that this is exactly what movement activists and audience members did, taking songs that were not designed to be directly political and making them nonetheless anthems of the movement or important within a movement context. My favorite example of this is Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," a huge hit on Motown Records. Motown, which is a symbol of Black success in the United States, a demonstration of just how powerful this conglomeration and consolidation of Black genius can be. But Motown very, very wisely in the early days was very reluctant to put political messages in their music because they wanted their music to reach as wide an audience and as white an audience as possible. So they very much tried to downplay it in the early days. That changes later.
Charles Hughes: So, Martha and The Vandellas's song "Dancing in the Street" is very much designed to be a kind of party song for the summer. And it is released and it becomes a hit during the time period when we started to see urban uprisings throughout American cities during the summer. And there are shout-outs to various cities that have largely Black populations, so there’s a little bit of a wink towards what’s going on in the movement, but it’s not meant to be political at all. Audiences and community members who were participating in some of those actions started to hear this song as a call to rise up and a call to fill the streets and take over the space. You know, "Calling out around the world. Are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street." So for folks who were involved in Watts and Newark and Detroit and other places, this song that was about celebrating oneself and having a good time, also became about this moment of very confrontational activism.
Charles Hughes: I love that example because it's such a powerful song, and also because there was absolutely no plan for that to become the soundtrack of, quote, "riots and urban rebellions."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it's also a sound.
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That you can just close your eyes and let your body just—you can just groove to. I mean, you feel it, right?
Charles Hughes: Yeah, yeah.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so one of the things certainly, you know, protest music, civil rights music, movement music is serious music, right? "No More Auction Block" is serious music. But, you know, when we're talking about, you know, rock and roll, we're talking about R&B, funk and hip hop, that's also soul-releasing music.
Charles Hughes: Absolutely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You just got to be able to get down, just feel it. And you needed that release. Yeah, they're having—there’s movement music played at mass meetings, and there's also movement music played at parties, right?
Charles Hughes: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we have to see the connection between the two because they are connected and they're speaking to each other, and activists and people are enjoying it all.
Charles Hughes: That's such an important point. And I think even beyond that, the celebration and the joy and the pleasure, right? Like, that in itself is a political act. In this particular context, the notion that Black folks are allowed to live in a space where they don't have to worry and where we can have a good time and things can be celebrations and we can dance and all this stuff, like, that in itself is a political act. And so much of white supremacy from the beginning is built on the idea that we should not allow Black folks to simply be. And I think you're absolutely right, because there's a temptation that I think is very dangerous, where we're much better, and I'm speaking here for white folks. I'll speak for white folks for a second, if I can. We are much better with dealing with Black pain than we are with Black pleasure.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right. And that Black pleasure, and you're absolutely right, we don't deal with the Black pleasure aspect of it, the Black joy, and that's so critically important because that is what allows Black people to endure the pain.
Charles Hughes: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But I think part of the challenge, part of the difficulty or even part of the reluctance for us to deal, for white people in particular, to deal with the Black pleasure aspect of it is because it de-centers white people, it de-centers whiteness.
Charles Hughes: Absolutely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it's like, this ain't about white people. "Dancing in the Streets" is we're gonna lead a revolution, but we just gonna groove right now, we just gonna feel, we just gonna—we just gonna love, we're just gonna do what we need to do right now. This ain't about y'all.”
Charles Hughes: Exactly.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, when you start talking about de-centering white folk then, you know, people go, "Ah, I don't know what to do with this."
Charles Hughes: Oh, totally.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So that's a critical point.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I’m your host, Hasan Kwame Jeffries. Along with a full transcript of this episode, you can find a robust selection of resources for teaching the civil rights movement at Tolerance.org/podcasts. And now back to my discussion with Dr. Charles Hughes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I've heard you talk about teaching movement music in the classroom, and you've said that we have to do more with the music than just look at the lyrics. What did you mean by that?
Charles Hughes: Obviously, for many reasons I think, we are more comfortable with talking about lyrics, and certainly there is tremendous meaning to be gained and expressed by thinking about lyrics. But I think the sound, the music is at least as significant and sometimes I think even more reflective of these changes. It is often the sound more than the lyrics that is the most directly resistant, that is the most directly innovative, that you can hear the changes in the way that musicians are playing in a much more direct and sometimes even confrontational way than you can hear through the lyrics. Particularly in those earlier eras when you couldn't be direct, you couldn't necessarily be explicit about your political platform.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I don't have any musical training, I don't know musical theory, but I still have a language for speaking about music.
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think we all have a language. How does it make you feel? You know, what does it sound like? And we just have to give ourselves permission in the classroom to access that language, and to build on that language to help the interpretation of what we're seeing. I've heard you talk about that before, and I've taken that to heart. And it really is liberating as a teacher to go into the classroom knowing that you're already equipped with this language because it's universal, and you're inviting your students to share in that. And you will have students, I guarantee, who have a greater depth of expertise. And then they draw on their expertise with a higher degree of familiarity. And it really can be some dynamic conversations.
Charles Hughes: I'm really glad to hear that you do that. That's really wonderful to hear. And I found it so useful, particularly when thinking about types of music that are connected to historical moments in which I'm looking for ways to describe a sort of broader cultural or political challenge. And one of the most effective for me in that way is the late 1950s with rock and roll, which comes out of very specifically a post-Brown vs. Board of Education moment, which is also a post-backlash to Brown vs. Board of Education, in which battles over desegregation and battles over the question of the relationship between Black and white in the United States are playing out directly through how people are responding to the music. People who loved rock and roll and people who hated rock and roll. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, those sorts of artists, whether you loved it or hated it, you tended to agree that it was reflective of some major cultural shift. And one of the ways in which it was playing out was through race. The lyrics sometimes get to that. Chuck Berry gets to that quite a bit, for example, in his clever, masked way. But the sound is where it really happens.
Charles Hughes: And the example that I've often used is Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," which is one of his great hits, which is just pure energy. It is uptempo and fun and energetic, and he's doing all the wonderful vocal things he does. He sounds completely uncontrolled and uncontained, even as he's also in total control, which is wonderful. And then I will say, "Okay, that's one vision." And then I will play the cover of "Long Tall Sally" done by Pat Boone. It's essentially the same lyrics. There are a couple small and very important changes, but it's basically lyrically the same song. But it sounds completely different, and it sounds like it was made for white folks, you know what I mean? And so here's Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally."
Charles Hughes: And now contrast that with Pat Boone's.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That Pat Boone take is so polite.
Charles Hughes: Exactly. That's exactly what it is, yeah. It is so gentle. "Contained" is a word I often use for that. Little Richard's has just got this loud blast. It's this full-throttle vocal performance, and the band behind him, they're just going at 100 miles an hour. You know, they've got it up to 11 and they're rockin'. And it's sort of this barely-controlled sense of excitement. It's exciting stuff. And he is at the center of it with a vocal performance that is loud and high and drawing on gospel traditions. And it's really, really amplified and kind of out there in the best ways. Whereas then you hear Pat Boone, it's polite. He's singing in a lower register. He's not getting out of control. The band is tight. There's no sense that the piano is not at the center or the saxophone the way it is in Little Richard's version. There are those very, very polite background vocalists, right? I love with students to just actually have them list, what did you hear? What are the differences we note? Like, what are the sonic characteristics of the Little Richard song? Okay, cool. Now we'll play Pat Boone. And usually that allows students to think about like, okay, the difference in the sound is indicative of what these songs were meant to do, what the versions were meant to achieve.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think one of the ways to get students to think critically about music and the movement is to do just what you're saying, to put songs in conversation and to ask them to think about, to listen for and to feel the difference. What are some of the differences between 1960s R&B protest music, but also what we're calling broadly as movement music, and what will come a little bit later during the Black power era in the late '60s, early '70s? It's not a long time.
Charles Hughes: No.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Not a big gap in time. And yet the sound is different. The energy seems to pulsate a little harder, you know? So what are some of those differences we should be thinking about and what accounts for them?
Charles Hughes: I think there is unquestionably a change. You can hear the difference, as you say. There are also a lot of continuities. And I think that's another way that music challenges the master narrative. Because the master narrative would hold that there was this early period of civil rights activism, and then there was this hard break and then we had Black power and that these two periods were somehow different. And usually when people are telling that version of the story, then what they are essentially saying is that the early part was better. That's normally how that plays out. And of course, the music demonstrates that that is totally a fallacy in so many different ways. But it does also tell us what's changing.
Charles Hughes: By the late 1960s, thanks in large part to the movement, including the musicians within the conversation and the audience members who are insisting that the music better reflect their understanding of the world, the music has definitely gotten more assertively direct in terms of its political messaging. Particularly big mainstream artists who may have been afraid are feeling freer by the late '60s and early '70s to do that. And then you also have so many changes within the sound itself. On one hand, you have Black musicians feeling greater freedom to explore Black musical characteristics. The musical traditions that are associated not only with Black folks in the United States, but also the African diaspora. So you have things like records getting funkier, right? More based in polyrhythm, more directly calling to what we would think of as African and African-descended musical traditions. That's one way it plays out. The other way it plays out, though, very interestingly, is at the same time as Black musicians are rejecting the idea that we must conform to European or white American musical standards, Black power music is also a moment where Black artists have greater freedom to demonstrate how good they are when they're playing music derived from European or Western or white American musical standards.
Charles Hughes: So you have things like Isaac Hayes in Memphis recording the soundtrack to Shaft, which he does with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, releasing "The Theme From Shaft" on the radio, which is almost five minutes long and doesn't have the melody or the beat kick in for two minutes. You have Black artists saying, you know, for a long time white folks have told us that Black people do not buy albums so they won't let us make albums, which was a thing. Record company people did say that. And by the late '60s, artists are saying that's not true. We are not going to play by that rule anymore and we're going to release albums. And you have this flourishing of amazing LPs by Black artists.
Charles Hughes: So Black power music is wonderful because it demonstrates that Black power as a political and cultural program was about all of these things. It was about demonstrating the breadth and the depth of Black genius and insisting on autonomy, insisting that if Black music is going to be something that is sold, then Black folks should be in charge, not just in terms of who's making the money but also in terms of how that sounds. We're not gonna let white folks tell us what Black music is supposed to sound like anymore. We're not gonna let white folks say, if you want to be on our record label, you have to sound this particular narrow understanding of what we think Black music means. So I love it. It's a great period. You can put these deep funk tracks calling out to particularly Afropop and West African music, right next to beautiful, symphonic, huge, wonderful arrangements. And it's all Black power music and it's all legitimately so.
Charles Hughes: The most enduring artists of this period, and the ones who drew the most and tightest connections to the movement, their careers themselves are a great way to trace movement history. One of the things that I think can be really valuable, especially if you're trying as a teacher to bring together the kind of history of the movement for students, is to use a musician as a symbol of the changes. Obviously, there's no definitive figure, just like there's no definitive figure within the movement, but there are several musicians that I think trace the phases of the movement and trace the way things changed in American culture through their music, through the sounds, through the lyrics and even through their iconography and how they conducted their career.
Charles Hughes: One of the greatest examples of this is Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Someone who emerges out of Detroit, growing up quite literally in the mix with the Black cultural and political traditions that birthed the movement. She is the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin, who was a very, very prominent evangelist, who welcomed into his house, when Aretha was young, everyone from Martin Luther King to James Baldwin to jazz musicians to gospel musicians like Clara Ward, who became really, really important to Aretha Franklin. So she grows up within that tradition and she understands her music as being deeply connected.
Charles Hughes: So throughout her career, you can see her embracing the opportunities that are emerging as the movement and as movement music progress. There are so many great Aretha Franklin songs, but without question, one of the kind of key moments in that story and one of the great anthems of the late 1960s, not just for the civil rights movement, Black power movement, but also for the connected campaigns in the feminist and womanist movements, is "Respect," a song that is originally written by the great soul singer Otis Redding, and that Aretha Franklin not only covers, but really transforms.
Charles Hughes: It's interesting to contrast his version and how it's got this kind of pleading, but also very male-centered vision, with the way that Aretha Franklin just totally flips the script and turns it into a powerful call for respect, which is another one, like freedom, that is at the center of the movement, regardless of its specific phases. And again, you don't just hear it in the lyrics, you hear it in the way that this driving, assertive conversation between musicians and background singers and Aretha Franklin at the center of it, drawing on gospel, drawing on blues, drawing on pop music and rock and roll, and drawing on R&B and soul music, and spinning it all together into this concentrated blast of excitement and assertion in a moment when the movement's energies may have been at their peak, 1967, early 1968. It's just one of those definitive songs, even as I say we don't want to look for only the definitive representative examples, this is one that works. And it's a great way to use a musician as a tracing figure for a larger history.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That call for that R-E-S-P-E-C-T, I mean, you're talking about getting into the basics of what people are asking for and demanding, right?
Charles Hughes: That's right. That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you could put it on a banner, you could put it—you could make it a hashtag, right? I mean, that's what it is that people are asking for.
Charles Hughes: And it's a great example of one of those continuities throughout the entirety of Black political history. And she literally spells it out. She literally says that—I will spell it for you, in case you miss it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, it's been 50 years, a half century since that transition point between civil rights and Black power-era music and today. What are some of the things that we as teachers can look for and introduce our students to through music when thinking about the Black freedom struggle in the post-civil rights/Black power era?
Charles Hughes: It's really important, and frankly, I think the year 2020 has given us a very vivid demonstration of just how powerfully music can be a part of post-civil rights, post-Black power activism and the Black freedom struggle, in the way in which the uprisings following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have created instant and diverse and widespread musical responses. So we're in a moment in which that case is a lot easier to make than maybe it would be in some other times. I think the most important thing that educators can do when thinking about how to use music to understand the Black freedom struggle post-civil rights and Black power, is to keep listening. This is something that I often talk about as another demonstration, like the playlists and the way it helps folks understand call and response. The notion to keep listening is in itself a demonstration of movement practice. Ask your students what they're listening to. Try to figure out what matters for them right now. Have them adapt freedom songs or other things to talk about what they're working through in a moment. That notion of keeping listening, the notion of continuing to understand why the music matters, I think is really important.
Charles Hughes: And I think it is particularly important as a way to understand the music of the hip hop era and maybe the—I don't know if we're in the post-hip hop era, but we are in the—we are 50 years almost now of hip hop, so it's weird to think of it as the era. But almost from the very beginning and certainly through to today, hip hop and the music that is inspired by hip hop in other genres, one of the things that is most important about hip hop is that it is based fundamentally on the idea that we must remember the past, but we also must remix it for the present and for the future. The notion of sampling, the idea that a DJ will take an existing piece of music that will be resonant to their audience, but they also have to put their own spin on it. Whether that's a musical spin, whether that's an MC offering a rhyme that recontextualizes the music, that's historical practice. And when we're thinking about how students can understand working with primary source material but making it their own, that's a great way to do it. And hip hop has been thinking about the movement era from almost the very beginning. Sometimes the musical responses are very, very direct. For example, in 1989, Public Enemy in their song that they wrote for Spike Lee's , "Fight The Power," which is attempting to update not only the language, but very much the energy of the civil rights and Black power era for the late 1980s and for the challenges of, but also the opportunities and the assertions of the Reagan era, they called back to an Isley Brothers song called "Fight The Power" that was released in the early 1970s that is pure funk-era assertion.
Charles Hughes: The Isley Brothers, who had a long career by the time they get to "Fight The Power," they had been around in the rock and roll era, they had been around in the R&B and soul eras, they really reflect the development and the emergence of Black power-era music so, so effectively. And they can symbolize all of these different moments. They record a song, "Fight The Power" that is very blunt about what is necessary for the Black community to do, but also how the music fits into it. There's a great lyric in it when they're talking about all of the various things that people are doing to try to hold them back. One of the things they say is, "I try to play my music and they say my music's too loud." "Fight The Power" in the 1970s has a specific resonance in Black power. Public Enemy in 1989 records "Fight The Power," and it's a different kind of song, but it is directly calling back. So hip hop and then the music that has emerged subsequently isn't just articulating new things, isn't just updating what's going on and updating our understanding of the cultural and political priorities of generations of Black youth and just youth in general, but it's also doing so in direct call and response with the previous eras.
Charles Hughes: It's such a direct, confrontational, assertive demand. And even the specifics of it in terms of saying time is truly wastin', we got to fight the powers that be, increasingly, the musicians in the Black power years are saying that. They're saying, you know, we got to do something. Like, there's a greater sense of urgency. To break it down even further, I mean, the idea that the word "bullshit" would be so prominently featured in a song by a major artist. Another thing that's really important about the Isley Brothers and another reason why they may have felt the ability that they could do that is that they are another example of a Black artist who, by the time they're recording this, is working for their own label. The Isley Brothers, like Aretha Franklin, you can trace the movement through how their records sound. By the time we get to the late '60s and early '70s, they are creating music that is so deeply tied to the musical and cultural and political breakthroughs of the moment. The Isley Brothers of "Fight the Power" don't sound the same as The Isley Brothers of "This Old Heart of Mine" or the early hits. But that track is so wonderfully unflinching. Like, it’s impossible to miss the message, and it's got that propulsion. It's got that sense of forward motion, that even with all of this going on and even with all of the challenges and all the bullshit, there's still this sense of we're not gonna stop.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's unapologetic as well.
Charles Hughes: And uncompromising.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And uncompromising.
Charles Hughes: Yeah, there's no quarter. And you hear it in that verse that we played, but you really hear it throughout the whole thing even more, that it's also sort of a time's up, we're fed up thing, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Charles Hughes: And so now we're not gonna pretend that we're gonna take it anymore. And we're not gonna water down or mask at all.
Charles Hughes: One of the most powerful, I think, recent examples of that has been Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar's song "Freedom," which was released on Beyoncé's album Lemonade, and is really, I think, two of the most powerful artists of their moment. Both of whom are very directly connected and very consciously so to what is happening politically and understand themselves, as their predecessors did, as Aretha Franklin did, as Sam Cooke did, as the Staples Singers did, as Nina Simone did, as being a cultural wing of this broader freedom struggle.
Charles Hughes: It's Beyoncé's song that Kendrick Lamar is featured on, and the two of them create a song that is not just lyrically signaling the language and the ideas that have gone back before the civil rights movement, are deep within the history of Black folks in the United States and the pursuit of freedom, but also musically. It's got that propulsive sound. It's got that sense of perseverance, but also of tremendous challenge. And it's resonated. It's certainly not the only song in recent years that is powerful in this context. I think there is another myth that old folks like me at this point, I've become one of them, that older generations feel like the new music or the music of the younger generation isn't as meaningful because it's not our music and because we can't connect it as directly, maybe. And that's a lie. That is not true.
Charles Hughes: And it's clear in so many of the songs that have emerged in the Black Lives Matter era, and in direct response to Black Lives Matter, and to the broader struggle represented in the movement for Black Lives, that not only are artists tapping into the energies, but they're directly calling back and they're directly calling into the conversation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, that reminds me of that old Negro spiritual, "We Gon' Be Alright."
Charles Hughes: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, that's the connection from the past to the present, drawing on that energy from the past and in the present. You know, Charles, one of the ways that I keep listening and that’s such a great admonition is by asking my students what they're listening to.
Charles Hughes: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And this just happened by happenstance, you know, I'm in the classroom selecting songs to play before class just to set the mood for the class, for the moment. And then a student asked me, "Well, Dr. Jeffries, could you play this?" Right? And so I started getting these DJ requests.
Charles Hughes: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so eventually I said, "Listen, I will play what you want. You just have to explain to the class, you know, we'll have a discussion about it. We'll take two or three minutes and talk about it." And it was wonderful because they began to think critically about the music. I began to hear what they were hearing in the music of the day.
Charles Hughes: Yes. Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it was one of the ways that we as teachers can listen and learn from our students from what they're listening to. It was a really symbiotic way of engaging and teaching and listening and learning around music.
Charles Hughes: I think there's a mistaken assumption that just because you're listening to everything doesn't mean you have to like it. That's not what it's about. It's about exactly what you describe. It's about understanding why it's resonating with the folks with whom it's resonating, taking that seriously. I will sometimes tell people if they want an understanding of kind of what's going on in the world to turn on mainstream radio. You know, the top 40 station or the mainstream hip hop station or whatever to get a sense of what is mattering to people. And it's not that you're gonna get it, it's not that you're gonna like it all, but even just being aware. I've had so many experiences as an educator over the years in which I've been introduced to music by my students in ways that has made me appreciate the music, but also understand more about my students and understand more about the world they're trying to live through. And I think that it's such a valuable thing, especially when you can do it in the context of okay, why is this song mattering in relation to the material we're looking at?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, music is one of the few points of entry into the lives of our students that we actually get.
Charles Hughes: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we should explore it, because it allows us to better understand them. And I think, Charles, if we do a better job of understanding our students, we will do a better job of teaching this material to them.
Charles Hughes: Yes. Well put. Yeah. And also we remind them that they matter. You know, I think that one of our most important jobs as educators, whatever we're teaching, but I think particularly when we're teaching something like this, like the movement, we have to remind our students that what they think is important, that what they feel is important. And music, unfortunately, can be a way that they feel dismissed, right? When we do the thing of saying, like, "Well, the music used to matter," or "Here's the music that's important. And that's not the same thing as what you like." The opposite is the way to go, and it can be so powerful. Say, like, "Okay, I don't exactly get that music. But let's talk about why you like it. Maybe I'll end up liking it, but at the very least, I will honor the fact that you like it. I will take you seriously." Which again, I think and, you know, I may be kind of sentimental or overblowing this, but I think that's part of the radical democratic vision at the heart of the freedom movement.
Charles Hughes: I think that one way to do it is by talking about why music matters, and insisting that the point is not to create a stable canon of songs from the old days. The point is to bring those songs from the old days into conversation or even set them aside if need be, with songs that are mattering to young folks now. I just think that's really important. And the music helps us do that by the way the music is created, whether it's Beyoncé and Kendrick, whether it's Janelle Monae, whether it's Noname, whether it's Rhiannon Giddens, right? Whoever it is, there's so many. As the great scholar Mark Anthony Neal would say, we're trying to understand what the music said. I just think it's a really powerful way to reach students, even outside of a specific curricular goal or a curricular element.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And now everyone knows why I wanted my man, Charles Hughes, to do this episode with us and for us. Charles, I can't thank you enough for the insights and for everything that you have shared. I'm gonna keep listening. I'm gonna keep learning. I'm gonna keep connecting with the students. I'm gonna keep playing music. Thank you, Charles.
Charles Hughes: Hey, thank you, Professor Jeffries. This has really been a thrill.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Historian Charles L. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College. He is the author of Country Soul: Making Music and Race in the American South from UNC Press. And throughout this season, Dr. Hughes will continue to inform and inspire us through a regular segment called "Movement Music" and a series of Spotify playlists curated for each episode.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at Tolerance.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we’re tracing the legacies of that era into the present day.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Hughes for sharing his insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Mary Quintas is our technical producer. And “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Our interns are Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg. And Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
- Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
- SNCC, Charles McDew
- SNCC, Herbert Lee
- PBS American Experience, Soundtrack for a Revolution
- Charles L. Hughes, Rhodes College
- NPR, Aretha Franklin, The 'Queen Of Soul,' Dies At 76
- SNCC, Freedom Singers
- Joan Baez, Bio
- James Brown, Bio
- Hasan Kwame Jeffries (editor), Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
- PBS American Experience, Freedom Summer
- ABKCO Records, Sam Cooke
- Rolling Stone, Chuck Berry, Rock & Roll Innovator, Dead at 90
- Stax Records,, The Staple Singers
- Curtis Mayfield, Biography
- The Washington Post, Why Phil Ochs is the obscure ’60s folk singer America needs in 2017
- Bob Dylan
- Smithsonian Magazine, What Paul Robeson Said
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- Miami Herald, Beatles were a knockout for Muhammad Ali in 1964
- Ali Center, Muhammad Ali
- Rolling Stone, ‘Stand By Me’ Singer Ben E. King Dead at 76
- Smokey Robinson, Bio
- NAACP History, W.E.B. Dubois
- Motown Museum, Motown Records
- Motown Museum, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas
- Teaching Tolerance, Brown vs. Board: Where Are We Now?
- Graceland, About Elvis
- The New York Times, Little Richard, Flamboyant Wild Man of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Dies at 87
- Rolling Stone, Pat Boone Remembers Little Richard: ‘He Knew He Had to Be Different’
- Malaco Music Group, Reverend C.L. Franklin
- Teaching Tolerance, The Radical Truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Teaching Tolerance, James Baldwin: Art, Sexuality and Civil Rights
- Malaco Music Group, Clara Ward
- Otis Redding Foundation
- Variety, Public Enemy Drop New Video for ‘Fight the Power 2020’
- The Guardian, 10 of the best: the Isley Brothers
- Kendrick Lamar
- Black Lives Matter
- Janelle Monae
- Bandcamp, Noname
- Rhiannon Giddens
- Mark Anthony Neal, African American Studies, Duke University
- Charles L. Hughes, Country Soul: Making Music and Race in the American South
- Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University