Arts Post
Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 08/11/2011

Music of the Movement: Bernice Johnson Reagon and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

In the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement grew and as the civil rights workers moved from community to community, a strong body of music grew also.

A number of songs were directly linked to the freedom songs, born in slavery, and kept alive through the informal oral traditions and the melodies of the southern black churches. Some were updated for the fight against segregation.

Others responded to a tragedy in a community, and were written out of anger or love for a person on the civil rights battlefield. As the dedication of the memorial to Rev. Martin L. King approaches, Arts Post reviews music from the period.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of the Freedom Singers organized in 1962, sang in those community meetings and says the “physical images and the sonic energy” are windows into understanding and hearing the power of the songs.

“You have to understand the range, depth and power,” Reagon said, when asked about the creation and legacy of those songs.

“Another thing that is very important is that when people went into the movement there were no promises people were to survive. As we go into the 21st Century, people might lose what a break that was in your life. You are going to take action against a system, you didn’t know if you would survive. The risk is immense,” Reagon said.

As a historian and vocal bridge to the 1960s Freedom Songs, Reagon is an authority on the authentic settings that created the songs and the experience of passing around a song.

“There is such a process of sharing. I might start a song and someone would pick it up. Then I backed up. I would back up and join the harmonizing. And always when the leader calls into a song, they are bringing a new text,” Reagon said. The sound of the distinct voices would vary from Selma to Hattiesburg.

Reagon, who lives in Washington, founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, the a capella women’s group in 1973, and was a MacArthur Fellow in 1989. She retired from Sweet Honey in 2004.

Music was also an integral part of King’s life and was part of the program at the March on Washington in 1963 when thousands marched for jobs and freedom. Some of the music Arts Post will review in the next few days, leading to the King memorial dedication Aug. 28 demonstrate what Reagon calls “a style born out of an unrehearsed tradition.”

Others are popular songs inspired by the risks and deaths the civil rights workers experienced. Others became anthems of the period. The movement was expansive and complex, with thousands of people on the ground. Reagon says to understand the power of the music you have to hear “something inside of that singing.”

In the video Reagon sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

By  |  12:30 PM ET, 08/11/2011

Tags:  Music of the Movement

 
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