Music Lesson: Protest Songs and the Civil Rights Movement


In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., today’s music lesson will touch on protests songs during the civil rights movement. As previously mentioned I host a folk show at my college radio station. During my research and investigation into the history of the genre I quickly learned that folk music has constantly been a medium for social and political activism since the birth of this country. Traditionally, folk songs tend to be simple in composition but poetic and meaningful in their lyrical content, providing the natural genre for songs of protest. 

During McCarthyism folk music was shoved into hiding, but its dissolve in the late fifties gave birth to a new era of folk music often referred to as the “folk revival”. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and plenty more wrote songs encouraging peace, freedom, and equality. With folk reviving on college campuses and big cities in the north and the civil rights movement erupting with sit ins and marches in the south the two groups quickly merged together.
Folk artists penned anthems for the movement and updated negro hymns and spirituals. They performed at rallies and were vocal supporters of equality. In August of 1963 Joan and Bob even took the stage at the march on Washington. Folk music was the soundtrack to their movement.
The track below is written by Bob Dylan, and is a response to the experience of James Meredith as the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi.
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