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Music & Social Reform

Music & Social Reform

By Catherine A. Paul

“Every participant in revolutionary activity knows from his own experience that a good mass song is a powerful weapon in the class struggle. No other form of collective art activity exerts so far-reaching and all pervading an influence” – Aaron Copland, American composer  (Copland, 1934).


Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, leading Moore Shipyard workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, 1942
“Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, leading Moore Shipyard workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, 1942”
Photo: National Archives Catalog
National Archives Identifier 535874

Throughout the history of the United States, music has been used to bring people together. By singing together, people are able to form emotional bonds and even shape behavior. For example, when citizens sing their country’s national anthem, they are filled with a sense of shared identity and patriotic pride. Likewise, military music, marching cadences, and chants help to build unity, strengthen morale, and emphasize discipline among soldiers. In many religious communities, congregational hymn singing is regarded as both educational and uplifting (Rosenthal & Flacks, 2011).

Therefore, it is unsurprising that social movements have similarly interwoven music and action to create and sustain commitment to causes and collective activities. Anyone who can speak, can sing, making music an accessible and powerful way to express identity. Songs are easy to learn and adapt, and lyrics are portable, allowing individuals to carry their beliefs and passions with them into everyday life (Rosenthal & Flacks, 2011).

Thus, the following sections briefly explore the rich history of American music being used to rally and inspire groups of people as they worked for social change.

Temperance Movement

Gone are the days when saloons were on our street  

Gone and for aye, they have made their last retreat.

Gone from our land to return, no, nevermore!

The Constitution now has banished from our shore

Drink demons,

Drink demons!

And their wicked work is done!

Our hearts rejoice, our homes are free,

For rum is gone!

“Temperance Rally Song” [Tune: “Old Black Joe.”], by C. A. Russell

Between 1840 and 1860, schools around the United States began incorporating music instruction into their curricula. Simultaneously, temperance songs became popular, with new words being added to old, familiar, and oftentimes religious tunes. Inspired by Protestant Christian morality, these secularized temperance-themed songbooks were distributed in schools in hopes of shaping future citizens who never drank alcohol. Furthermore, children could help reach adult audiences. By learning these temperance songs in school, children were able to persuade, or even shame, their parents and other family members into abstaining from alcohol (Sanders, 2015).

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

For further reading:

Temperance Lyre

Temperance Song-Herald

Temperance Flashlights in Story, Song and Poetry

Suffrage Movement

Day of hope and day of glory! After slavery and woe,

Comes the dawn of woman’s freedom, and the light shall grow and grow

Until every man and woman equal liberty shall know,

In Freedom marching on!

Woman’s right is woman’s duty! For our share in life we call!

Our will it is not weakened and our power it is not small.

We are half of every nation! We are mother of them all!

“Song for Equal Suffrage” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The suffrage movement began in 1948, and for the next 50 years women’s rights activists worked tirelessly to secure women the right to vote. These women faced fierce opposition by many, especially those in power. Thus, activists needed music to make themselves heard, to lift their spirits, and to keep people focus on their mission.

Suffragists faced many unique obstacles as they strove for the right to vote. One of these hurdles was having to balance their desire for further citizen rights with their cultural gender expectations. In order to succeed in gaining the right to vote, suffragists realized they had to reassure society that political change would not lead to a decay in the moral, spiritual, or domestic virtues typically attributed to women. Therefore, suffrage music simultaneously rejected the image of the defiant wife while asserting that women should not be slaves to their husbands. Unity, patriotism, and nationalism were common themes, and the lyrics appealed to ideals of tradition, religion, and family values. This strategy sought to demonstrate that giving women the right to vote would resolve domestic and social issues, such as drunkenness and domestic violence, without compromising the self-image of the conservative American middle-class (Hurner, 2006).

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

For further listening:

Songs of the Suffragettes

Hull House Music School

“Why do I pick the threads all day,

Mother, mother,

While sunshine children are at play?

And must I work forever?

Yes, shadow-child; the livelong day,

Daughter, little daughter,

Your hands must pick the threads away

And feel the sun shine never.”

“The Shadow Child,” by Harriet Monroe

The Hull House Settlement was founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 on the Southside of Chicago. An important component of the Hull House’s mission was the creation of its Music School, which, under the direction of Eleanor Smith, contributed to the development of talented working-class musicians throughout Chicago. Between 1900 and 1915, Eleanor Smith wrote and composed numerous social protest songs. These songs were typically performed during Hull House concerts and were attended by other residents, neighbors, and even prominent members of Chicago society. This collection of songs, titled Hull House Songs, is a critique of capitalism as a system, rather than capitalists as individuals. By articulating through music the woes of class struggle against capitalism and exploitation, Jane Addams and Eleanor Smith hoped to bridge the void between American art and political cultures (Cassano & Payette, n.d.).

For further reading, and to listen to Eleanor Smith’s Hull House Songs:

Labor Strikes & Child Labor

“Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top,

When you grow up, you’ll work in a shop;

When you are married, your spouse will work too,

So that the rich will have nothing to do.

Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top.

When you grow old, your wages will stop;

When you have spent the little you’ve saved –

Hush-a-bye baby, off to the grave.”  

“Rock-A-Bye Baby,” author unknown.

The United States’ labor history is a combination of its slave labor, plantation-based economy and its wage labor, industrial economy (Rojas & Michie, 2013). The transition between these economies was fraught with oppression and exploitation, leading to the creation of unions. Unions sought to address social problems that accompanied the industrial revolution, such as the treatment of factory workers, fair wages, child labor, and safe working conditions. These issues frequently converged with the fight for women’s rights and racial equality, which is demonstrated in the music of this time (Library of Congress, n.d.).

By the early 1900s, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor union committed to racial equality, was using songs during strikes, picket lines, and rallies to promote their message of developing “one big union.” These songs were organized into a collection called the “Little Red Song Book” (Dreier & Flacks, 2014).  The lyrics were often religious, but also spoke of difficult times, hard work, sorrow, and death. (Roscigno & Danaher, 2004).

Similarly Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lee Hays, amongst others, created the People’s Songs, an organization that published a monthly bulletin of labor songs and stories from 1946 through 1949. Pete Seeger is especially notable for his performances around the country at Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) benefits and progressive organizations, reinforcing the belief that folk music could be a powerful tool for social change (Sing Out!, n.d.).

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

For further reading & listening: 

“American Industrial Ballads”

“Katie Phar: Songbird of the Wobblies,” courtesy of the UNC Chapel Hill Libraries

Civil Rights Movement

“We shall overcome

We shall overcome

We shall overcome someday

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome some day”

“We Shall Overcome,” adapted from Charles Tindley’s gospel song “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (1900).

The civil rights movement is perhaps the best example of integrating music and activism, drawing heavily on slave songs and spirituals to raise hope and morale during times of intense struggle. “We Shall Overcome,” originally a church hymn, became the movement’s anthem as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) embarked on sit-ins and freedom rides (Dreier & Flacks, 2014). These freedom songs were crucial in bridging the cultural gap between Southern Black and middle class activists, building relationships while conveying values and specific tactics of the movement (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1997). Thus, as described by the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (1997):

When Black students sat in and were beaten at segregated lunch counters across the South, they sang. They sang as they were dragged across the streets. They sang in the paddy wagons and in the jails. And they sang when they returned to the Black community’s churches for strategy rallies. When the buses carrying the Freedom Riders were stopped and burned, when the riders were pushed to the ground and beaten, they sang. When the Freedom Riders were jailed in Mississippi’s Hinds County Jail and Parchman Penitentiary, they sang again. During the summer of 1961 when students in McComb, Mississippi, were suspended from school for participating in SNCC’s first voter education project, they sang.

In the 1960s, there were two categories of freedom songs: professionally composed commentaries on protest events, and gospel songs adapted for group participation. By adapting “I” to “we,” these songs fostered the belief that when a community overcame oppression, each individual would thrive (Kernodle, 2008).

This work may also be watched through the Internet Archive.

For further listening:

Freedom Singers

“Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama”

“Lest We Forget, Vol. 1: Movement Soul, Sounds of the Freedom Movement in the South, 1963-64”

Highlander Folk School

“Ain’t you got a right to the tree of life

My life will be sweeter (ain’t you got a right)

So sweet some day (ain’t you got a right)

Ain’t you got a right (ain’t you got a right)

To the tree of life”

“Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life” by Guy Carawan

The Highlander Folk School, located in Monteagle, Tennessee was created in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West to educate “rural and industrial leaders for a new social order” (One Thousand Little Hammers, 2010). From its creation through the mid-1940s, the Highlander Folk School worked to build a progressive labor movement in the South. Then, in the 1950s, Highlander became a popular meeting place for civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Carey, 2013).

Highlander helped to make music the central activity of social movements. The school’s leaders worked with unions, farmers, community groups, churches, and civil rights organizations to challenge power structures and foster empowerment. Although most of Highlander’s leaders were white, their unfaltering commitment to racial inclusiveness and equality earned them the support of black progressives. The Highlander Music School included and encouraged music-making in its leadership and organizational skill building trainings. These workshops were designed to provide participants a place in which they could safely discuss community problems and brainstorm solutions. Musicians on staff helped participants learn how to lead community singing and how to utilize song as an effective form of protest (Roy, 2010).

This work may also be watched through the Library of Congress.

The American Indian Movement (AIM)

Maamwi g’da maashkozimi. Together we should be strong.

Niizhwaasing shkode gii boodawewaad. The seventh fire has been lit by them.

Boochigo Anishinaabemyaang. We have to all speak.

Anishinaabemowin. Mino bimaadziyaang. We are living well.

Mino bimaadziyaang. We are living well. – “Aim Song”

Music and dance have been representative of the American Indian resistance to Euro-American culture for more than a century. The initial inspiration for Native activism was drawn from outrage at the misrepresentation of Native culture and daily life as depicted in Wild West shows and World Fairs in the early 20th century. Thus, by embracing traditional powwow music and dance, Native Americans are able to embody their cultural past and identity. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, powwow became both a symbol of cultural militancy, as well as an avenue for cultural activism. AIM songs typically addressed several themes, including police brutality, but also celebrated specific accomplishments such as the establishment of the first Indian urban-based health care provider in the nation, the installation of the legal rights center to address legal issues facing the Indian people, and the founding of the Red School House, which offers culturally-based education services (Rojas & Michie, 2013).


Carey, B. (2013). Highlander Folk School. The Tennessee Magazine. Retrieved from

Cassano, G. & Payette, J. (n.d.). Eleanor Smith. Hull House Songs by Eleanor Smith: The Music of Protest and Hope in Jane Addams’ Chicago. Retrieved from

Copland, A. (1934, June). Workers sing! The New Masses, pp. 28. Retrieved from

Dreier, P. & Flacks, D. (2014). Music and movements: The tradition continues. New Labor Forum, 23(2), 99-102. doi: 10.1177/1095796014524537

Hurner, S. (2006). Discursive identity formation of suffrage women: Reframing the “cult of true womanhood” through song. Western Journal of Communication, 70(3), 234-260. doi:10.1080/10570310600843512

Kernodle, T. (2008). “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free”: Nina Simone and the redefining of the freedom song of the 1960s. Journal of the Society for American Music, 2(3), 295-317. doi:10.1017/S1752196308080097

Library of Congress. (n.d.). Songs of unionization, labor strikes, and child labor. The Library of Congress. Retrieved from

One Thousand Little Hammers. (2010). A brief history of the Highlander Folk School. One Thousand Little Hammers. Retrieved from

Rojas, E. & Michie, L. (Eds.). (2013). Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Vol. 1). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Roscigno, V. & Danaher, W. (2004). Social movements, protest, and contention: Voice of southern labor: Radio, music, and textile strikes, 1929-1934. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Rosenthal, R. & Flacks, R. (2011). Playing for change: Music and musicians in the service of social movements. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Roy, W. G. (2010). Reds, whites, and blues: Social movements, folk music, and race in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Sanders, P. (2015). Temperance songs in American school songbooks, 1840-1860. Journal of Historical Research In Music Education, 37(1), 5-23. doi:10.1177/1536600615608464

Sing Out! (n.d.). The People’s Songs archive. Sing Out! Retrieved from

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (1997). Voices of the Civil Rights Movement. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkway Records.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A.  (2017).Music & social reform. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from


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