Music, Religion, and Community - Lesson Plan for Adults
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Sing a New Song.”
Note to Educator: In preparation for this lesson, you may want to read the information about Congregational Singing found in the liner notes of Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966.
Using the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide, provide the group with a brief overview of the history of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement and Congregational Singing. Encourage participants to offer any additional information they may know.
The Power of Music
- Distribute copies of the “We Shall Overcome” song lyrics so visual learners can follow along as they listen to the opening lines, and everyone has the chance to revisit and take home the text.
- Play the audio clip of “We Shall Overcome.” (It's the last track on this Smithsonian Folkways collection. You can also download a full length version there, or find another version online.)
- Note: The lyrics linked to from this lesson plan may not match every recording you listen to of “We Shall Overcome.” Consider raising this issue and explaining that one characteristic of freedom music was that these songs came from a variety of places including hymns, gospels, and labor songs. Before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement, many people added and changed the verses of these songs to fit their needs. As a result, variations on each song can be found. For instance, the verse “Black and white together” in “We Shall Overcome” has been credited to the white folk singer, Pete Seeger.
Questions for discussion:
- What pictures, ideas, time, and/or places did this music evoke for you?
- What emotional response did you have to it? Why?
- What other kinds of music bring you back to another time or place (for example, your youth, a social justice project, a different country, camp)? Why do you think music can have this effect on us?
- Returning to “We Shall Overcome,” how would you describe the structure of this song? (You might want to think about song leaders, group singing, repetition, patterns.)
- Over the years people have talked about how this song helped to create a sense of community. How, if at all, do you think the structure of this song is related to a sense of community?
- What kind of imagery does this song use? How does this imagery reinforce the idea of community?
- Note: various features of the song can be interpreted as particularly suitable for group singing and/or related to a sense of community. The words of the song are repetitive, the lines are short, and the vocal range is limited, which together make it relatively easy to follow along and join in singing a few lines or verses in. The prominent use of the word “we”—the first person plural—could be interpreted as both suggesting a shared struggle and encouraging participation in the song. You may want to mention some of this musical analysis with the group if these points have not already been made, and then ask if members of the group agree with this analysis, or have a different take on the song. Invite group members to share other aspects of the song that are relevant to a sense of community.
- The last verse of the written lyrics on your handout begins, “Black and white together.” What idea(s) about the Civil Rights Movement does this imagery reinforce? Why do you think it might have been added? Why do you think it might have been added by a white folk singer? What happens when the approach of the Civil Rights Movement changes (with the rise of Black Power) and “Black and white together” is no longer a primary goal? How might this change the use or power of the song? Do you think the song becomes less powerful or effective when it is “dated” in this way or when certain lyrics are changed/omitted?
“We Shall Overcome” became the “theme song” of the Civil Rights Movement. The lyrics come from an African American gospel, “I'll Overcome Some Day,” while the melody was partly based upon another African American gospel, “No More Auction Block for Me.” (Learn more.) It also uses the structures of congregational singing commonly found in African American churches such as repetitions, and call and response between the song leader and the congregation. (Learn more on page 5 here.) This musical style is known for drawing people in and encouraging everyone to sing. Since freedom music used a familiar language, it is not surprising that it gave African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement strength, comfort and a sense of community. It will be interesting for us to consider further how these songs, often based on Christian images, gospels, and African American spirituals, also strengthened, comforted, and drew whites and Jews into that same community.
Breaking Boundaries and Providing a Sense of Purpose
Using the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide, explain who Heather Booth is, her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and where she was when she wrote the letter to her brother.
Distribute copies of Heather Booth's letter to her brother so visual learners can follow along as they listen, and everyone has the chance to revisit and take home the text. Have one or two people read Heather Booth's letter aloud.
Questions for Discussion:
- Based on your interpretation of her letter, what response did Heather Booth have to singing and listening to “We Shall Overcome?”
- How are her feelings similar and different to your reaction to the song today? (If anyone present has memories of listening to or singing “We Shall Overcome” during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, encourage them to share how it made them feel at the time.)
- Heather Booth was one of many young Jews who went to Mississippi during Freedom Summer. What does it mean to you knowing that this letter was written by someone who was Jewish? How, if at all, does it change the way you feel about or understand the letter?
- Knowing that “We Shall Overcome” and many other freedom songs were based on Christian hymns and spirituals, and knowing that Heather Booth was Jewish, are you surprised that she was so moved and comforted by these songs? Why or why not?
- Where and when in your own Jewish community (your synagogue, your school, your camp) is there group singing?
- When a congregation is worshipping and chants the V'ahavta together, is that group “singing” or something else? How is it similar or different from other group singing that we do in the Jewish community?
- Heather Booth describes a “religious quality” to some of the freedom songs. How can a song, not a prayer, give you a religious feeling? What is the difference? (The group also may want to look again at her description of the “concept of god” that she connects to these freedom songs.)
- How would you describe the singing you do in Jewish settings? (Perhaps within a congregation or havurah; at a seder or Shabbat meal; at a camp or retreat.) How is it similar to or different from what you think of as civil rights or freedom music? Ho do you think the similarities helped make Jews comfortable with freedom music even if the words were sometimes outside their comfort zone?
- Civil rights activists did not necessarily share the same religion. Some were Christian, some were Jewish, some were other religions, and some identified with no religious traditions. The movement itself has been said to have became a “religion” for some people. What do you think of this assessment? Why do you think that? (How is this reflected in Heather Booth's letter?)
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential 20th century theologian and civil rights activist, talked about “praying with my feet” when he went on Civil Rights marches. What do you think he meant? How might it be applied to what Heather Booth was talking about in her letter?
- Have you ever felt that you were doing holy work? What were you doing? What made it feel holy? OR Have you ever felt like god was on your side? When? Where? Was this the Jewish god or another concept of god?
Freedom Music: Reprise
- Distribute copies of the “We Shall Not Be Moved” song lyrics so visual learners can follow along as they listen to the chorus, and everyone has the chance to revisit and take home the text.
- Play the audio clip of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” (It's last track 202 on this Smithsonian Folkways collection. You can also download a full length version there, or find another version online.)
Questions for Discussion:
- How would you describe the structure of this song? (You might want to think about song leaders, group singing, repetition, patterns.)
- What kind of imagery does this song use? What message does this imagery convey?
- Take another look at the lyrics. How do you think the specificity of the people mentioned in the song (who were seen as opponents of the Civil Rights Movement) affects its overall impact?
- How are “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome” similar and/or different?
- Based on our discussions and the freedom songs you've heard today, why do you think this music was effective in bringing different kinds of people together and crossing religious boundaries?
- What were the limitations of the uniting power of these songs?
- What role does nostalgia play in the way we think about these songs today?
- Can you think of any songs that function in this way today? (Either for you, or for other groups?)
- One of the themes of our discussion today was Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think the history of the Civil Rights Movement is an important topic for Jews to discuss? Why or why not? Should we be discussing it on our own or with African Americans or other groups?
- How does a discussion about Jews and civil rights make you feel? (e.g. proud, sad, nostalgic, confused about why Jews and blacks are no longer seen as allies, etc.)
- What can we learn from this period of history? How can we apply these lessons to our own lives?