Freedom songs were songs which were sung by participants in the civil rights movement. They are also called "civil rights anthems" or, in the case of songs which are more hymn-like, they are called "civil rights hymns."
Freedom songs were an important feature of the way of life which existed during the civil rights movement. The songs contained many meanings for all of the participants in the civil rights movement. Songs could embody sadness, happiness, joy, or determination among many other feelings. Freedom songs served as mechanisms for unity in the black community during the movement. The songs also served as a means of communication among the movement's participants when words were not enough. The song "We Shall Overcome" quickly became the unofficial anthem of the movement. Guy Carawan taught the popular freedom song during the spring of 1960 in a workshop held at Highlander Folk School, making the song extremely popular within the community.
Music of the civil rights era was crucial to the productivity of the movement. Music communicated unspeakable feelings and the desire for radical change across the nation. Music strengthened the movement, adding variety to different freedom progression strategies. Music was highly successful in that the songs were direct and repetitive, clearly and efficiently getting the message across. The melodies were simple with repetitious choruses, which allowed easy involvement within both black and white communities, furthering the spread of their message. There was often more singing than talking during protests and demonstrations, showing how powerful the songs really were. Nurturing those who came to participate in the movement was vital, and it would be done with songs. Participants in the movement felt a sense of connectedness with one another and through the songs, they also felt a sense of connectedness with the movement . Politically, freedom songs were often sung in order to grab the attention of the nation and force it to address the severity of racial segregation in the United States.
Frequently, the songs had a Christian background, they were usually based on hymns. The words of hymns were slightly altered so their wording could be incorporated into civil rights protests, and reflect current situations as they were sung outside churches, particularly in the streets. Although most freedom songs were derived from hymns, some freedom songs were also derived from other genres. In order to accommodate people who were not very religious, rock and roll songs were altered and turned into freedom songs, this allowed a large number of activists to partake in the singing.
In several cases, these songs began as gospel songs or spirituals, the most famous of these songs were "We Shall Overcome," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize", "This Little Light of Mine", and "Go Tell it on the Mountain".
Nina Simone and other professional artists are also known for either writing or singing such songs. Two of these songs are:
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer is known for singing songs at marches or other types of protests, particularly "This Little Light of Mine." Zilphia Horton also played a role in the conversion of spirituals to civil rights songs.
Some 100 or so songs were commonly sung during the Civil Rights Movement protests which occurred during the 1960s. Some of the best-known or the most-influential songs are: