Poor People's Campaign
Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by SNCC
Performed by: Hollis Watkins
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Some freedom songs had been in use for decades as a means of protest, and often songs borrowed rhythms or structures from other songs.
And before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave.
These lines from "Oh Freedom" had been sung as long ago as 1906, when race riots exploded in Atlanta. Newspapers had published unsubstantiated reports of four assaults on white women by black men (in later years, hysteria over similar accusations would land the Scottsboro Boys in jail and leave Emmett Till dead).
"Oh Freedom" was used as a protest song through the 1960s. The rhythm of that couplet is found in another song, Pete Seeger's "Everybody's Got a Right to Live":
And before this campaign fail
We'll all go down in jail.
Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, organizer of the Poor People's Campaign, was also a performer and songwriter. He added new verses to Seeger's song to reflect the events of the Poor People's Campaign.
For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.