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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Singing Out for Social Justice

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Throughout the month of March, Teaching with the Library of Congress celebrates Music In Our Schools Month by recognizing America’s Changemakers in Song.

If you want to discuss social justice and the arts please join us for an educator webinar on March 26th at 4pm ET.

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

If a song is a snapshot of a cultural moment, then a folk song is a collage; each performance adds new context, creating a tapestry of ideas and perspectives woven into the fabric of the piece. Students can understand more deeply and perform more authentically when they examine some of the threads bound up within a song’s cultural history. “This Little Light of Mine” is a prime example: Predating the struggle for civil rights, it takes on new shades of meaning every time it is sung. Students can participate in this tradition by understanding its heritage and re-imagining it in a new generation of social-justice seekers.

Field Research

Excerpt from 1939 Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes, John and Ruby Lomax

Many students will be familiar with a traditional melody of “This Little Light of Mine.” Play  Doris McMurray’s 1939 recording for students. What do they notice about it? How does it compare to what they expected to hear?

Introduce John Lomax’s field notes; how does this new information add to students’ understanding of the recording? What new questions arise? How does the additional biographical information affect their interpretation of the recording?

The recollections of Jamila Jones, who began singing for civil rights at the age of eleven, add to the song’s history. To understand the context in which she was singing, begin listening around 23:16; she mentions “This Little Light of Mine” around 26:00. How does she describe the evolution of her music in response to current events? How was her music-making influenced by performers and composers in her community?  If time allows, encourage students to continue listening through the 35 minute mark. How did communal singing – and creating new music – empower the activists?

Mass Media

Resources available through the American Archive of Public Broadcasting can help students see how the piece continued to evolve through the decades in the arena of mass media. Why was the song chosen as the epilogue to Maya Angelou’s reading of Still I Rise? Why was it performed by such a diverse ensemble of musicians on San Francisco’s KQED in 1977? How do Bernice Johnson Reagon’s [begin 31:00] new lyrics reflect the changing context surrounding the song? In all the recordings, how do performance choices such as style, instrumentation, lyrics, and tempo inform students’ interpretations of the song’s message?

Contemporary Connections
The tapestry continues to be woven today. Students may have background knowledge about some of the song’s more contemporary appearances. In each case, musical choices provide insight into the performer’s perspective.

Through performance, students can be empowered to make the song their own. Inspired by the primary sources, students may compose new verses, instrumentations, and arrangements to reflect their own unique priorities for social change. Through creative music-making, students can weave themselves into the tapestry of the piece. The song can summon the voices of the past – and the voices of the future.

Comments (2)

  1. See American Masters on PBS: Holly Near – Singing For Our Lives
    for more Singing for Social Justice

  2. I love the idea of studying the performer’s perspective, especially for songs that have been sung repeatedly over time. Great resources…thank you! I also found a segment from public radio that shows a video of a modern performance of “This Little Light of Mine”. The video helps share how their time shaped their use of the song. After students study several performances over time, I’m going to see what melody and images they can use to represent what the song means to them today in 2019. Thanks again for a great teaching idea!

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