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Singing History: New Course Focuses on History of Civil Rights Songs

(Posted September 15, 2003)


HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Marrying musicology and history, two Juniata College professors are using the history of civil rights protest songs ranging from Billie Holliday?s ?Strange Fruit? to Sam Cooke?s ?A Change is Gonna Come? to give students a glimpse into how the power of song was used to effect change in the civil rights era.

?The music is the history -- you can listen to live recording of the songs and speeches at a civil rights rally and learn more than you can (by) reading a couple of books,? explains Russell Shelley, Elma Stine Heckler Associate Professor of Music, who is teaching the course with David Hsiung, Charles A. Dana Professor of History. ?I don?t think the civil rights movement would have achieved its goals as fast without using music. The music and songs gave the movement momentum.?

The semester-long course, ?Civil Rights and Songs,? will examine the modern civil rights movement from roughly 1950 to 1970 and also reach back to trace the roots of both the civil rights era and the protest music that helped fuel the movement. Unlike many music history courses, the students will not just listen to historic recordings -- they will be expected to learn and sing at least 20 of the era?s classic protest songs.

?On the first day I sang ?Swing Low, Sweet Chariot? to show that singing would be part of the class right from the start,? says Hsiung, who admits that harmonizing is not his strong suit. ?By the second line of the song, they had all joined in! Our point is that you don?t have to be a good singer to participate. Not all the civil rights activists in the Selma (Ala.) jails were good singers, either.?

The class will watch several films documenting the civil rights era, most notably Spike Lee?s ?Four Little Girls,? and listen to historical recordings. Both Shelley and Hsiung hope that the performance aspect of the course will help the students connect to the historical material.

?If, at the end of the course, some of the students can sing these songs while empathizing with the emotional weight of these songs, then I?ll feel pretty good,? Shelley says. ?Music is important to college students, but in general they tend to be observers of music.?

In the hope that the class will go well beyond observation, Hsiung and Shelley will assign each student to write their own protest song. ?The civil rights protest participants often adapted traditional songs or spirituals by changing lyrics to fit a situation,? Hsiung says. ?We are assigning the students to adapt a civil rights song to fit an issue they feel strongly about.?

In addition, the students also will make a public presentation that explains the significance of a protest song or group of songs that were not covered in the class. The presentation can either be a 30-minute show on the Juniata student radio station, WKVR-FM or a presentation in front of the class. ?I think it would be great if everyone did a radio show,? Hsiung says.

The course also will incorporate some local history. In the ?60s, several groups of Juniata students, including current Trustee Harriet Richardson Michel, traveled to Selma as Freedom Riders. A Huntingdon Area High School history teacher, Sylvia Kurtz, a 1994 Juniata graduate, has allowed Hsiung and Shelley to use her master?s degree thesis on those Juniata Freedom Riders. ?If we can connect current Juniata students to a common history, perhaps it will inspire them to ask what they can do about the issues of today,? Hsiung says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.