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.

Expressive Intent and Student Opinion

2011Symposium_1_2Expressive intent is an important element in the new core arts standards for music. Under the standards, students determine the expressive intent of the composer, and how the composer uses musical elements to achieve that intent. Students also determine how they will use musical elements to express both the composer’s and their own intent. When listening to a performance of a musical work, expressive intent can be the basis of evaluating the performance. Questions like, “how well did the performers convey the composer’s expressive intent” are good prompts for responses. At times, the composer may have indicated what the intent was through spoken or written words. For example, several popular songwriters wrote songs in honor of Martin Luther King after he was assassinated. When a composer or songwriter states their expressive intent, then listeners can critically evaluate how successfully the song achieves the stated intent. On Monday, I posted links to several songs about Martin Luther King, anticipating Martin Luther King Day next week.

One of those songs was “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” by The Gregory Brothers. The song is just what the title implies: a recording of Dr. King giving his famous speech was processed with an auto-tuner so that both pitch and timbre were altered to create a melody sung with the typical electronic timbre we are used to hearing in contemporary popular music. The song was intended to honor Dr. King, but has always been controversial. I played the songs mentioned in last Monday’s post, including “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” for my middle school students. I told them what the intent was, to honor Martin Luther King, and what the song was, a recording of Dr. King run through an auto-tuner, and then asked them to give me their opinion as to if The Gregory Brothers succeeded in honoring Martin Luther King with the song. Of the approximately 80 students I played the song for and asked their opinion of, only two thought the song was honoring, and one of those was not sure. Interestingly, a mitigating factor for those two was when the song was written. If it was written close enough to the event so that it was a reaction to it, then the song might be honoring; but if it was written far removed from the event, then it would not be honoring. I asked them if the song were written in the 1980s would it be honoring, and they though it would. Then I told them it was written in 2009, and they wavered. This example is a good illustration of one way expressive intent can be combined with student opinion to teach students about music.

Many times, expressive intent will be more concerned with emotional expression than paying homage to an anticipateindividual. Because most of the music students listen to are popular songs, and those songs have lyrics, an issue they often encounter is how well the music expresses the emotions of the words. Popular music, because it is so mainstream, is also prone to be cast in predictable forms that anticipate continued popularity but dull expressive impact with musical cliches and intra-song similarity within the work of individual artists. If it worked to produce the last hit, it will work again to produce the next one. In this context, it is a valid question to ask how well each melody suits the lyrics to which it is set. Similar musical settings suggest similar lyrics. The relationship between variety of lyrics and song topic and variety of music for those songs can begin fruitful inquiries for students. One song will often be more successfully expressive than a similar song with lyrics or music that is dissimilar and from the same artist. Composition projects can spring from realizing that a particular lyric could be more effectively set to different music, or that a particular melody could be more effectively set to different lyrics. All of this creative output is started with evaluating the success of the realization of the expressive intent. Expressive intent and related student opinion is a powerful resource in the music classroom.

Songs for Martin Luther King, Jr.

2011Symposium_1_2In another week’s time, American schools will take a day on January 19th to honor Martin Luther King and his work toward achieving equality for African Americans in American society. The holiday is celebrated as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January each year. The holiday was first celebrated in 1986. At first, there was opposition to establishing the holiday. During that time, prominent musicians got involved, writing and recording songs in support of establishing the holiday. Others have written songs to directly honor Martin Luther King. Below is a sampling of some of these songs. They make excellent materials for use in music lessons leading up to the day off from school next Monday. The Gregory Brothers auto-tuned mix of the “I Have A Dream” speech is both intriguing and possibly controversial. The two songs by Bono won him recognition form the King Foundation, and “King Holiday” was recorded by an all-star cast of singers, including a very young Whitney Houston, in support of establishing the holiday.