Songs of Freedom and Justice: 150 Years of American History in Song

creativeorganizing_freedomandjustice1(copyright registration PAu3-064-494, July 10, 2006)

Ken Giles, music teacherG

Shepherd Elementary School

Washington, DC

Five students announce time-travel through 150 years of American history in songs; then chorus sings medley: John Brown’s Body, We Shall Not be Moved, Lift Every Voice, Johnny B Goode, This Little Light of Mine. Costumes: 1/5th in bib-overalls and white t-shirts; 1/5th girls in long work dresses or skirts with headscarves or bonnet, and boys in jeans and t-shirts; 1/5th in international costumes; 1/5th in poodle skirts, bobbie socks, black pants, loafers, white dress shirts, skinny black ties; and 1/5th in dress and church clothes. Props will be determined in collaboration with classroom teachers.

Student 1: We are going to take you on a time travel through American history. We will introduce more than 30 historic people and 25 songs that tell about history. Starting 150 years ago, we will meet people who were in the anti-slavery movement. For example, we will meet John Brown and sing this song: “John Brown’s Body.” (chorus sings)

Student 2: Then 100 years ago, because workers did not have rights, safe working conditions, and fair pay, they came together into groups called unions. The union movement was trying to help workers. We will meet union activists such as Lucy Parsons and sing songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved.” (chorus sings)

Student 3: About 60 years ago, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll became popular. We will meet Chuck Berry and sing “Johnny B Goode.” (chorus sings)

Student 4: And 50 years ago, the civil rights movement started a campaign for equality that is still alive in human rights efforts today. We will meet activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and hear the song “This Little Light of Mine.” (chorus sings)

Student 5: About 80 years ago, blues and jazz became popular. New music, art, and poetry reached national audiences. People started campaigns against racism and in favor of equality. We will meet James Weldon Johnson and hear his song “Lift Every Voice.” (chorus sings)

1850s-1860s: Anti-Slavery 1st Grade costumes: girls in long work dresses or skirts with headscarves or bonnet; boys in jeans and t-shirts

John Newton: “Amazing Grace”

Harriet Tubman: “Harriet Tubman” (by Walter Robinson)

Sojourner Truth: Speech; “Steal Away”

Frederick Douglass: “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”

John Brown: “John Brown’s Body”

1880s-1930s: Pro-Union 2nd Grade costumes: bib-overalls and white t-shirts

Lucy Parsons: Haymarket Demonstration on May Day, 1886; “We Shall Not be Moved”

Joe Hill: “Joe Hill” (by Earl Robinson)

Lawrence, Massachusetts, women strike in 1912: “Bread and Roses” (by Mimi Farina)

“Solidarity Forever” (by Ralph Chaplin)

1920s-1930s: Blues and Jazz 3rd Grade costumes: dress clothes

Louis Armstrong: “Saints Go Marchin’ In”

Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly): “Bourgeois Blues”

Bessie Smith: “St. Louis Blues” (by W.C. Handy)

Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton: Videotape

Duke Ellington: “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”

1920s-1940s: Fighting Racism, Supporting Equality 4th Grade costumes: international costumes

Marian Anderson: “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”

Jacob Lawrence: painter during Harlem Renaissance

James Weldon Johnson: “Lift Every Voice”

Paul Robeson: “Old Man River”

Ida Wells: Anti-lynching articles

Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit” (by Abel Meeropol)

Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”

1950s: Rhythm and Blues, Rock, Gospel 5th Grade costumes: poodle skirts, bobbie socks, black pants, loafers, white dress shirts, skinny black ties

Chuck Berry: “Johnny B Goode”

Ray Charles: “None of Us Are Free”

Mahalia Jackson and Thomas A. Dorsey: “Precious Lord”

Aretha Franklin: “Respect” (recording)

1960s-Present: Civil Rights; Women’s Movement; Human Rights 6th Grade costumes: dress and church clothes

Freedom Singers (Bernice Johnson Reagon): “This Little Light of Mine”

Fannie Lou Hamer: “Go Tell it On the Mountain”

Martin Luther King Jr.: “Oh Freedom”

Marian Wright Edelman: Testimony about poverty and children’s health and education

“We Who Believe in Freedom” (by Bernice Reagon, using Ella Baker’s words)

“We Shall Overcome”

Narrator: The anti-slavery movement began more than 200 years ago. We are going to meet John Newton, an Englishman who wrote the song “Amazing Grace.” Then we will meet several Americans who worked to end slavery: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass.

John Newton

I was a minister against slavery. I lived in England in the mid-1700s. My song “Amazing Grace” found its way into the traditional music of all churches in the United States. But I had not always been against slavery. Years before, as the captain of a slave ship, my job was to take stolen men, women, and children from Africa to America. One day, I realized that it was wrong to steal people and make them slaves. So I turned my ship around and returned the people to Africa. From that day on, I fought against slavery. My song, “Amazing Grace,” has traveled all around the world.

Harriet Tubman

I was born a slave in Maryland around 1820. When I was in my 20s, I escaped from slavery and followed the Underground Railroad to freedom in the north. But I returned to the south over and over again to help lead other slaves to freedom. I used the words of spirituals (such as “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Steal Away”) to help guide the slaves to freedom. I was never caught, and I never lost a single passenger on my Underground Railroad. I died at 90 years of age in Auburn, New York.

Sojourner Truth

I had been a slave, but I escaped and found freedom in the north. I often spoke to many people who were against slavery. In addition, I worked so that women could get the same rights as men. During the Civil War, I provided advice to President Lincoln.

Frederick Douglass

I was born a slave but escaped to freedom in the north. As a Black man, I started a newspaper named “The North Star” and traveled to many meetings in the U.S. and in England against slavery. During the Civil War, President Lincoln listened to me and allowed African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. After the war, I became the federal marshal for Washington, DC. I also served as U.S. ambassador to Haiti. You can come visit my home, Cedar Hill, in Southeast Washington. It is open to visitors.

John Brown

I was against slavery and tried to get guns for slaves to help them fight against slave-owners. I organized a group of slaves that fought at Harpers Ferry in 1858. This was my last fight against slavery. People all over the country heard about this fight. After I was gone, people made up a song about my fight against slavery.

Narrator: At the beginning of the 20th century, the union movement was trying to help workers. In this segment of American history, we will meet union activists such as Joe Hill, Lucy Parsons, and the women strikers in the “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912.

Lucy Parsons

I was a union activist at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. I was married to Albert Parsons, a labor organizer who was one of the “Haymarket” demonstrators in 1886. He and several other activists were executed after the Haymarket riot. I spent the rest of my life carrying on the union work my husband and I had shared. I also fought for civil rights and human rights. I lived to be 89 and died in 1942.

Joe Hill

I wanted to help improve wages and working conditions for the average workers, so I became a union organizer in the early 1900s. I was an organizer for the International Workers of the World, the IWW, also known as the “Wobblies.” This was a dangerous job. I wrote several songs for the union movement that are still sung today. My last will and testament sent a message to union activists for the next 100 years: “Don’t mourn, organize.”

The Women Strikers in the “Bread and Roses” Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts

In the 1800s and early 1900s, in the textile mills of New England, women had the worst jobs and were paid less than men. When we, the women millworkers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, went on strike in 1912, we expressed our goals in a poetic way: “We march for a better day. We march for women and for men too. We want bread… and roses too.”

“Solidarity Forever”

A few years after the “Bread and Roses” strike, Ralph Chaplin – a union organizer and musician – wrote the words to “Solidarity Forever.” This song eventually became the anthem of the labor movement, and even today when union members sing it they stand up and link arms to show solidarity.

Narrator: In the early 1900s, blues and jazz became popular. Starting in New Orleans, the music quickly spread to Chicago, New York, and other cities. In this segment, we will meet Huddie Ledbetter (whose nickname was “Leadbelly”); Louis Armstrong; Bessie Smith; Duke Ellington; and the jazz band represented by Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton.

Louis Armstrong

I grew up in New Orleans where I learned the powerful musical mix that created the blues, ragtime, and jazz. More than anyone, I helped popularize jazz – which started in the African American community and spread all over the world. I played trumpet. I sang. I improvised. I used my horn like a singer’s voice and used my voice like a musical instrument. I became known as “Ambassador Satch” spreading goodwill for America around the world.


My name is Huddie Ledbetter, but I was known as “Leadbelly.” I was a blues/folk singer in the early 1900s. My songs and style have influenced folk, blues, and rock music. I played a big 12-string guitar, wrote most of my songs, and sang with a strong voice. Some of my songs such as “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special” became hits after I died. In the 1940s, my wife Martha and I visited Washington, D.C. We looked for a rooming house where we could stay for a few days. No landlord would rent to us. Over and over again, we were turned away. I wrote “Bourgeois Blues” about my experience in D.C.

Bessie Smith

I was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” In the 1920s, I was considered the greatest blues singer and was the highest paid Black entertainer in the country. My recording of the “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong was one of the best recordings of the 1920s, and it sold nearly a million copies.

Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton

Segregation was still the norm in the 1930s, even in the progressive world of jazz. I am Benny Goodman, a white jazz clarinetist and bandleader, who finally helped change that. I am Teddy Wilson, a jazz pianist who joined the Benny Goodman band which also included Gene Krupa on drums. And I am Lionel Hampton, a vibraphonist who also joined the Benny Goodman band. Our band broke the color barrier, showing audiences that race should not keep musicians apart. We proved that you could have a better jazz band with the best players. (show video on screen)

Duke Ellington

I was born and raised in Washington, DC, on T Street. I learned to play piano and first wrote a blues composition while living here in D.C. I became the most important composer in the history of jazz. In the 1920s, I went to New York City, organized a jazz band, and eventually became the music leader at the Cotton Club in Harlem. I became known as the “Duke.” I took jazz into new areas, composing longer pieces for large orchestras to play. I traveled all over the world, bringing American jazz to a worldwide audience.


Narrator: The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were a time when musicians and artists fought racism and supported equality. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance. This was the time when Black History observances began. In this historical segment, we will meet the artist Jacob Lawrence; the poet James Weldon Johnson; the singer and actor Paul Robeson; the opera star Marian Anderson; the journalist Ida Wells Barnett; the jazz singer Billie Holiday; and the folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Marian Anderson

I had a beautiful contralto voice, and I became the first African American to join the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City. I symbolized achievement for African Americans. In the late 1930s, I was not allowed to sing at Constitution Hall here in Washington, DC. The Daughters of the American Revolution, who own the hall, could not bring themselves to approve a concert by America’s leading female opera star because I was African-American. But Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband was President Franklin Roosevelt, loved my singing and was committed to racial equality. She arranged for me to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Thousands of people came to that historic concert.

Jacob Lawrence

I was a visual artist who used bright, bold colors to tell a story in my paintings. My paintings had a flat appearance and told stories of Black History. My art related untold stories about working class Blacks in America. My paintings showed the important people and struggles in Black America. I was the first African American to achieve international fame.

James Weldon Johnson

I was the author and activist who wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice.” My brother Rosamond Johnson wrote the music to the song. It was the early 1920s, and African American intellectuals were studying and teaching the history of their people. My song was used in many early African American history events in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, the NAACP declared “Lift Every Voice” as the “Black National Anthem.”

Paul Robeson

I excelled at everything I did. At Rutgers University, I was an All-American football player. I was at the top of my class in law school. I became famous for the spirituals which I sang in concerts all over the world. I acted in movies, and was even a Shakespearean actor. I was able to sing in a dozen languages and knew folk songs of people around the world. Indeed, in the 1930s, I was probably the most famous, respected American in the world. When I sang “Ballad for Americans,” I symbolized America, showing that anyone could achieve greatness. However, the U.S. government distrusted my peace activism and my insistence on racial equality. I was accused of being unpatriotic. The State Department took away my passport, depriving me of the ability to travel and earn a living. But eventually the court ordered that my passport be returned to me. I changed the lyrics of my signature song “Ol’ Man River” to say that I would keep fighting for freedom until I died.

Ida B. Wells Barnett

I worked as a journalist and an activist for racial equality. I lived in Tennessee and courageously wrote responses to each lynching that occurred. I fought against segregated transportation, prejudice in the Memphis school system, and lynching. I also fought for women’s rights. I became the co-founder of the NAACP.

Billie Holiday

In 1939, I was only 24 years old but was already acknowledged by my contemporaries on the jazz scene as a brilliant and innovative musician. That year, I recorded “Strange Fruit,” a radical and defiant cry against lynching. Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher and political activist opposed to lynching, wrote the words for me. I sang “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, the first interracial jazz club in New York City. Columbia, the recording company with which I was under contract, refused to let me record “Strange Fruit.” So, I recorded it with Commodore records instead. Millions of people eventually heard this recording.

Woody Guthrie

I wrote nearly a thousand songs during my life. Probably my best-known song is “This Land is Your Land.” It was written as an answer to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and it came to symbolize America’s openness to everyone, regardless of race, national origin, or other identity. Children in the 1950s and 1960s sang “This Land” so much that many first graders thought it was the national anthem!

Narrator: The 1950s saw widespread popularity of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock ‘n roll. In this segment, we will meet Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

Chuck Berry

I am truly the father of rock ‘n roll. I took the blues, sped it up, and added a strong back-beat. I wrote several early rock ‘n roll hits, such as “Maybellene” and “Roll over Beethoven.” The Beatles and the Rolling Stones sang several of my songs on their early recordings. “Johnny B Goode” is my semi-autobiographical song. You can count the 12-bar blues in this song. By the way, I am still alive and rocking in my home in St. Louis, Missouri!

Ray Charles

I was the musician most responsible for developing soul music. I helped create a new form of Rhythm and Blues with my gospel-powered vocals and adding plenty of flavor from jazz, blues, rock, pop and country. The song “None of Us Are Free” is a simple but powerful message about universal freedom.

Mahalia Jackson

I had a huge voice, and I used that voice to sing gospel songs like “Precious Lord” by Thomas A. Dorsey. I was gospel music’s first superstar. I became a star in the 1950s and 1960s, inspiring Aretha Franklin and other singers who started in their churches and then moved on to other venues.

Aretha Franklin

I grew up listening to Mahalia Jackson and other gospel singers who came to my father’s Baptist church. I started singing gospel songs when I was 12 years old. Eventually, I combined gospel words with blues rhythms and helped create Soul Music. I became known as the “Queen of Soul.” My songs crossed over all of the popular music charts, reaching a very large audience.

Narrator: The modern Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s and continued in the following decades. In fact, the basic goals of the Civil Rights Movement have become the goals of the women’s movement and human rights efforts throughout the world. In this final historical segment, we will meet Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers; Fannie Lou Hamer; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Marian Wright Edelman; and Ella Baker.

Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a group of activists from the south came together to sing civil rights songs. We rewrote labor union songs to criticize segregation, and we rewrote spirituals to focus on freedom and equality. We called ourselves The Freedom Singers and we took our songs to demonstrations in the south and to concerts in the north, raising money for the civil rights movement. I, Bernice Johnson Reagon, was one of the original Freedom Singers. When I eventually moved to Washington, DC, I founded the African-American women’s a capella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” Sweet Honey expanded the topics addressed by songs to include women’s rights and human rights in general. I recently retired as head of “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” but the singing group continues to be very active.

Fannie Lou Hamer

I was a sharecropper in Mississippi, where I worked for years in the cotton fields. I finally decided to speak up for voting rights and equal rights for all people. In 1964, I led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white traditional Democratic Party at the presidential nominating convention in Atlantic City. I spoke to the credentials committee, telling them that I had waited all my life for equality and I was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I often sang “Go Tell it On the Mountain.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was first and foremost a minister. In 1956, I was the head of a successful, year-long boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to end segregated seating on public buses. “I Have a Dream” was the title of the speech I gave at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1964, I was presented the Nobel Peace Prize. I was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. One of my favorite songs was “Oh Freedom.”

Marian Wright Edelman

I was the first African American woman lawyer admitted to the Mississippi Bar. In the 1960s, I directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Office in Jackson, Mississippi. I am the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Even today, I continue to be a strong advocate for disadvantaged Americans.

Bernice Reagon and Ella Baker

After I created the singing group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” I, Bernice Johnson Reagon, wrote many songs about people and struggles for freedom and justice. My song “We Who Believe in Freedom” is a tribute to Ella Baker. I am Ella Baker, a mentor to many during the Civil Rights Movement. The words of the song are my words, written shortly after the nationwide publicity about the murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. While the nation mourned the brutal murders of these three young men, less attention was paid to the bodies of African Americans discovered during the search for the three activists. In other words, there was not equality even in death. I said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes for all.”

Closing song: “We Shall Overcome”

“We Shall Overcome” comes from gospel songs. One source is a 1903 song by Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia containing the repeated line “I’ll overcome some day.” Another source is a song containing the line, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, I’ll overcome some day.” In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1946, striking employees of the American Tobacco Company – mostly African-American women – were singing hymns on the picket line. A woman named Lucille Simmons sang a slow “long meter” version of the song as “We’ll Overcome.” Zilphia Horton, a white woman and one of the founders of the Highlander Folk School, learned it from her. The next year, she taught it to Pete Seeger. The song spread orally and became an anthem of southern African-American labor union and civil rights activism. Please stand, cross your arms and hold hands, and sing with us.