Connecting the American Civil Rights Movement with Music of the South Africa

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, after doing a week of music classes on music honoring or about Martin Luther King, (see related post here), I realized that songs sung by civil rights protesters in South Africa bore a striking resemblance to those used in the American civil rights movement. I planned music lessons around a few of those songs, and would like to share some of them with you today. They make excellent material for music classes during Black History Month, which is February. These songs were all recorded by Pete Seeger in 1960 on an album entitled South African Freedom Songs, released as a 45 rpm records by Folkways Records (EPC-601).

My favorite of the set is a relatively well-known song called “Asikatali.” The music is reproduced in the album notes. (Click here to view the album notes.) The English translation is “We don not care if we go to prison, we are determined to get freedom (nkululeko is the word for freedom), This load is heavy, it needs real men.” The reference to men sounds dated in our time, but it is worth discussing with students how attitudes and times have changed, and the idea that men were needed for acts of strength was common in the 1960s. The mention of going to prison for protesting in the civil rights movement easily connects to the protests led by Martin Luther King, and the numerous imprisonments that resulted.

Teach this song with students reading the melody (lead) from standard music notation. I wrote it out on my whiteboard. First, have them chant the words slowly in rhythm until they can do it fluently. Next, sing the song for them several times, still at a slow tempo. When they have heard it two or three times, let them try singing it as a class on their own. When they can do that, sing it for them up to tempo two or three times, and then have the class sing it at your tempo, but again on their own. I successfully did this with a second grade class. With older children, the two sections of the song can also be sung at once, as a partner song, or you can teach the other two vocal parts. If two-part singing is desired, teach the bass and lead lines only. The highest part is typically a harmonization of the melody at the interval of a third.

A very different sounding song is “Tina Sizwe.” Upon hearing the melody, one immediately hears the  resemblance to3042301 a Christian hymn, and in fact the song is based on one. The words are a supplication, fitting for a hymn melody. The English translation, again reflective of the 1960s, is “We , the brown nation, we cry for our country that was taken by the white people. They must leave our land alone! We, the children of Africa, are crying for Africa that was taken by the white people. They must leave our land alone!” This song espouses a different approach and attitude to the civil rights movement. Here, segregation is viewed as a form of freedom, evidenced in the demand that the white people leave. The eventual abolition of “Apartheid” there, and segregation in the United States would demonstrate that segregation does not solve discrimination, and is no substitute for freedom.

This song makes an interesting lesson in musical meter. Though the version in the liner notes is in triple meter, Seeger originally transcribed it in common time. He found it easier to learn in triple meter, and changed it over afterwards. Once your students have learned it in triple meter, have them learn it in common meter, and then compare the affects of each meter. It is instructive to consider why it may be easier to learn in triple meter.

These songs from South Africa, along with Seeger’s own “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had A Hammer” make an excellent collection to study music in Black History. It is also noteworthy to point out that Seeger, along with other folksingers of the 1960s, worked tirelessly for the cause of African American freedom and equality. These white musicians had a lasting impact on gains made for African Americans during the American Civil Rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” in particular became an anthem for the movement, and was the basis for Dr. King’s last and highly powerful speech. In teaching Black History in America, focus is often placed on traditional spirituals. While this music is both beautiful and historically important, it does not celebrate freedoms won as the protest music does. To offer a balanced approach, this music should be included in Black History Month lessons.

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