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Looking back on the music that accompanied the march on Washington 60 years ago

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Monday marks the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. August 28, 1963, was the day America first heard some of the most stirring and indelible words of history. Martin Luther King delivered what's become known as his I Have a Dream speech in which he said, I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. But the throngs who gathered in that moment at the Lincoln Memorial had also been uplifted by music.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: The music was one of the things that held it together because people were coming from all different parts of the country. And there was this desire to make this a unifying event.

SIMON: Clayborne Carson was in that crowd of about 200,000 people. He was just 19 years old, just out of high school, and had hitched a bus ride to Washington, D.C., from New Mexico. He would later become a Stanford University scholar, asked by Dr. King's family to be the editor of his official papers.

CARSON: In some ways, the music was the message of the march in the sense that a lot of them were singing "We Shall Overcome."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) We shall overcome.

SIMON: Joan Baez led the crowd in singing "We Shall Overcome."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

BAEZ: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood. A finger fired the trigger to his name.

TAMMY KERNODLE: You have Dylan performing some of his most radical songs from this period, like "Only A Pawn," which was a song that highlighted the assassination of Medgar Evers, which was one of the ignition points for the March on Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME")

DYLAN: (Singing) Only a pawn in their game.

SIMON: Tammy Kernodle is a musicologist and professor at Miami University in Ohio. She says the presence of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary embodied how folk music helped document the history of the civil rights movement as it unfolded. Notably, the speeches at the March on Washington included only one woman, Josephine Baker, the great singer who came over from her exile in France, where she'd been a member of the resistance.

KERNODLE: Daisy Bates, Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks - none of them are able to speak.

SIMON: But the voices of women electrified the crowd with their music, much of which grew out of marches, vigils, social and religious movements.

KERNODLE: You have these concert artists, like Camilla Williams and Eva Jessye, who are performing the spiritual being realized through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance - you know, a previous wave of protests and activism, one that is centered around the amplification of Black folks' idioms in these European forms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Of the free and the home of the brave.

KERNODLE: And then you have Mahalia Jackson...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT OVER")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Tell me how we got over.

KERNODLE: ...Who chooses to perform "How I Got Over," a gospel song that's written by Clara Ward that is inspired by her own experiences of racial intimidation and discrimination in the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW I GOT OVER")

JACKSON: (Singing) Soon as I can see Jesus, the man that died for me.

KERNODLE: And then she performs "I've Been Buked," which clearly illustrates how the spiritual tradition of enslaved Africans is one of the foundations of what becomes this urbanized, Black, sacred idiom that we call gospel music in the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN BUKED")

JACKSON: (Singing) I've been buked.

SIMON: As Clayborne Carson said...

CARSON: Music of the movement was the glue of the movement that held people together. It shaped their identities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

BAEZ: (Singing) We shall overcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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