Singing to Freedom: Song Leader and Scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon on What Music Teaches Us about Democracy, Leadership, and the Meaning of "We."

Sojourners Magazine, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Singing to Freedom: Song Leader and Scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon on What Music Teaches Us about Democracy, Leadership, and the Meaning of "We."


One of the things about the singing in the [civil rights] movement was that it was more powerful, almost, than any singing I had heard in church. It was basically church singing, a cappella singing, but there was a power that really was different for me.

Pete Seeger, who was a supporter of SNCC, reminded the organization that there had been singing groups in other movements. Cordell Reagon put together the first group of singers. We traveled all over the country. We ran into people in this country who were as desperate as we had been to not let this movement pass without participating. We became a window through which they could get information and get connected. Sometimes we also were sending the only money that went back to the office to keep things going in the field. It's an interesting way for a singer to take music to a concert stage.

I'm basically a 19th century, singer, which means that I'm not a soloist, I'm a song leader. Song leaders start songs, but you can't finish them without some help. So singing does not make sense to me without the congregation. The song is not a product. The song exists as a way to get to the singing. And the singing is not a product. The singing exists to form the community. And there isn't anything higher than that that I've ever experienced.

In Western formal choral tradition, there's an aim for a blend so you cannot distinguish where the parts are coming from. With congregational singing, I could drive up to the church and they could be singing and I could tell you who was there, because the individual timbres of a voice never disappear. That congregational style is one of the things I think is important for democracy--the individual does not have to disappear, and it does not operate as an anti-collective expression.

If you've got a group of people and all of them are saying "I," you actually have a group. If yon have a group of people and they are saying "we," you don't know who is going to do what. Just try to organize something. You say, "We gon bring food tonight." If you are the nervous wreck organizer, you will leave that meeting and you will end up bringing enough food for everybody because you won't know who or if anybody's going to bring anything. So you've got the vegetables, and the chicken, and the cake just in case because nobody said, "I'm bringing this," "I'm bringing that." You don't get a group until you get some individuals who will say "I'm in."

"We Shall Overcome" was originally "I Will Overcome," "We Shall Not Be Moved" was "I Shall Not Be Moved." I'm so glad they didn't change "This Little Light of Mine/I'm Gonna Let It Shine." So you've got these collective expressions in the African-American tradition that are "I" songs, Those songs are a way to express the group. However, one of the wonderful things about evolution of songs is that the change of some of the songs to "we" documents black people coming together with a predominantly white Left that was heavily intellectual about collectivism. They told us very quickly, "T means individualism and 'we' expresses the group. 'We' means we're together." We said, "Okay, if you need it--'We.'" Because the important thing is that you're here and if in order to be here you need this "we," we're going to give you this "we." We'll do all the "we's" you need. You get a document of when another presence joined in collaboration and commitment against racism by following the changes in the words of the songs.

THERE ARE SO many different ways to deal with developing leadership, but first you have to not trust yourself as a leader. …

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