“We’ll walk hand in hand someday” – Music and the March on Washington

“Civil rights march on Washington, DC” by Warren K. Leffler, August 28, 1963 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Our nation is in the midst of commemorating one of the single most significant days in our history, the March on Washington of August 28, 1963. That momentous occasion has shaped generations of Americans, from activists to community leaders and the President of the United States to the singer-songwriter performing original songs in an eclectic café in the Village in New York City. Many social, economic and political issues were symbolically thrust on to a national and global platform on that day.

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Americans are contemplating what social progress has occurred since 1963 and where our future as a community will lead us. People of all backgrounds are engaging in a timely dialogue that balances introspection, reflection and prospection. Historically, one of the barometers of change in American society is our musical culture. Since the days of our nation’s infancy, our founding fathers and mothers sang songs that united them in their causes for freedom, liberty and equitable representation, such as Thomas Paine’s Revolution era song “The Liberty Tree” (1775), lyrics of which include “…Let the far and the near all unite with a cheer, In defense of our Liberty Tree.”

“Portrait of Marian Anderson” by Carl van Vechten, January 14, 1940 (Music Division, Library of Congress)

Music played a pivotal role in the March on Washington, which was about more than just the speeches. Often times a “supporting cast member” in large civic events, the music that was included in the March on Washington was and remains indicative of a people reaching for and achieving progress. The official program line-up for the events at the Lincoln Memorial featured legendary American singer Marian Anderson’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the March’s anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Many other musicians and songs were heard at and around the March’s activities, including performances by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Lena Horne and Mahlia Jackson.

The symbolism of Marian Anderson, who fought against Jim Crow oppression and was famously barred from performing at the D.A.R.’s Constitution Hall in 1939, was as a beacon of progress. Her scheduled performance of the national anthem, a song common to all Americans regardless of race, color or creed, was a statement of the oppressed taking ownership of their citizenship and fight for equality. Unfortunately Ms. Anderson arrived late to the Lincoln Memorial and was unable to lead the performance of the anthem. She did, however, sing a version of Hamilton Forrest’s concert arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (this is not listed on the printed program from the Lincoln Memorial on August 23, 1968). Thanks to a tip from my colleague Ray White, it turns out that the manuscript copyright deposit of the Forrest arrangement is held by the Music Division (call number: M1671.F).

Sheet Music: “We Shall Overcome” (Music Division, Library of Congress)

“We Shall Overcome,” which originated as an African-American hymn in the early twentieth century, embodied the spirit of the March, exclaiming “We’ll walk hand in hand someday…” It was appropriated as a protest song beginning in 1945 by tobacco workers at a picket line in Charleston, South Carolina, and was appropriated by the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s on. Fifty years later this song exists as part of American folk culture and is about so much more than protesting inequality. Without knowing the song’s origins, most children learn the song through various means. It is sung as a hymn in churches of denominations ranging from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist. It was recorded by folk legends like Pete Seeger. This song tells the story of an America that was, is now and will be.

We are a people that believe in a constant pursuit of equality as it is defined by an evolving society. The sentiment of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the famous words that were boldly stated as unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, is engrained in “The Star Spangled Banner” and “We Shall Overcome.” These two songs are prime examples of the distinctly patriotic American zeal for equal rights that serves as the foundation of our nation and are also indicative of the critical interaction between song and American society.

For more on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, visit the Library of Congress’ new exhibition A Day Like No Other, Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington” featuring photos of the 1963 march by photographers including Leonard Freed, ‘Flip’ Schulke, Danny Lyon and Roosevelt Carter.” Open Monday-Saturday, 8:30am-5:00pm in the Graphic Arts Galleries of the Jefferson Building.


The 50th Anniversary at the Library of Congress

On Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm Concerts from the Library of Congress will present a roundtable discussion entitled “March on Washington: Protest Songs of the 1960s that Shaped American Culture.” I will lead a conversation with my colleagues Todd Harvey (American Folklife Center), Francisco Macias (Law Library/Hispanic Cultural Society) and James Wintle (Music Division) about the music from several of the major protest movements from the 1960s. This event will take place in the Whittall Pavilion of the Jefferson Building and is free and open to the public. For more information, view the event flyer here and visit loc.gov/concerts.

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