Juneteenth, Black Lives Matter, Playlist

Juneteenth: A Musical History of Freedom

This Saturday, June 19, marks the 156th celebration of Juneteenth. For those who don't know what Juneteenth is, it commemorates the day when the announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army general Gordon Granger was made - thus proclaiming the end of slavery in Texas.

Back in those days, information traveled a lot slower than it does now. Although Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation officially ended American slavery in 1863, it took over two years for the rest of the United States to get the news. Therefore, Juneteenth marks the day when slavery truly ended in the United States.

To honor this special holiday, we thought we'd take a look at the musical history of Black liberation in the United States. We'll also supply a list of songs from each time period we cover so you can listen along! (And maybe even add them to your Juneteenth playlist.)

Freedom Songs During the Civil War Era

Slavery in the United States existed from the early 1600s until the first Juneteenth in 1865. Throughout those many years, music was a way of survival for enslaved African people forced to work for white plantation owners.

Those who picked cotton in the fields sang songs to make the time pass by. They'd use clapping and stomping in lieu of instruments, and used a "call and response" style in order to keep the melody going. These "field hollers and work songs" would eventually lead to the modern creation of the blues.

Additionally, enslaved persons would hold secret church services where music was sung and played. According to Dennis Simms, who was born into enslavement in Maryland in 1841, there were certain songs enslaved people loved:

"Sometimes we would, unbeknown to our master, assemble in a cabin and sings songs and spirituals. Our favorite spirituals were — "Bringin' in de sheaves," "De stars am shinin' for us all," "Hear de Angels callin'," and "The Debil has no place here." The singing was usually to the accompaniment of a Jew's harp and fiddle, or banjo."

When Harriet Tubman arrived during the Civil War era to help enslaved people escape, music became a way to supply secret coded information to those who sought freedom. The title of popular escape song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" alluded to the star formation known as the Big Dipper. It pointed to the North Star - which allowed escaping persons to travel North towards freedom.

Tubman used “Wade in the Water” to tell enslaved people to get into the water to avoid being seen or smelled by dogs. Additionally, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was used to tell enslaved persons that help was coming to save them, and they had to be prepared to leave soon. According to Sarah Hopkins Bradford’s biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was one of Tubman's favorite tunes.

Other Underground Railroad songs include:

Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Of course, we know just because the Emancipation Proclamation officially ended slavery in 1863, that didn't mean Black people in the United States were truly free. A century later, the Civil Rights Movement picked up during the 1950s and 60s to combat the racist Jim Crow laws which enforced segregation.

Music played a huge role in powering the movement. In addition to spiritual songs often sung in Black church congregations, artists like Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown created songs about freedom and revolution.

Tracks like "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," "A Change is Gonna Come," and "We Shall Overcome" became rallying cries for people who protested. Martin Luther King Jr. even considered The Impressions' "People Get Ready" the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement may have died down in the late 60s, but several of the songs created during that time remain classics today. Besides the tracks mentioned above, here are some of our favorites:

What Black Freedom in Music Sounds Like Today

With the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, songs describing Black struggles in America and Black liberation are more important now than ever before. They are necessary for combating the horrors of police brutality and creating a more antiracist society.

While many modern protest songs have been popping up in the 2010s and the beginning of this decade, modern songs about the Black experience in America have been around since the 80s and 90s. Around that time, hip hop became a new way for Black artists to voice their experiences facing white supremacy. It's still a predominant genre for protest songs today.

Below are some of our picks for modern protest music and other tracks that reflect upon the Black experience in America:

If you're looking for more songs to add to your Juneteenth playlist, check out our previous lists: 10 Songs to Learn About the Black Experience and 10 More Songs to Learn About the Black Experience.

We hope you learned a thing or two from this musical history and found some new favorite songs within our lists. Have a happy Juneteenth!

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Article Image: Billie Holiday performing in New York in 1947. (William P. Gottlieb [Available through Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey