Music of the March
Some of the music of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was performed at a stage erected near the Washington Monument at 15th and Constitution Avenue before the actual march began. That’s where Joan Baez sang“We Shall Overcome” joined by the tens of thousands gathered early that morning.
When the crowd, now in the hundreds of thousands began the walk to the Lincoln Memorial there was spontaneous singing of freedom songs by the marchers.
Marian Anderson was scheduled to begin the official program on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by leading the quarter of a million people assembled in the national anthem but Anderson didn’t arrive on time so noted opera soprano, Camilla Williams filled in on that duty. Anderson would later sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The Eva Jessye Choir was personally selected by Martin Luther King, Jr. to be the official chorus for the event. Ms. Jessye was a noted choral director and had served as George Gershwin’s musical director for Porgy and Bess from 1935-1958.
Mahalia Jackson moved the crowd with “How I got Over” [see link, below] and a rendition of ‘I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned’. Lerone Bennet, editor of Ebony would later write of her performance:
‘There is a nerve that lies beneath the smoothest of black exteriors, a nerve four hundred years old and throbbing with hurt and indignation. Mahalia Jackson penetrated the facade and exposed the nerve to public view. …the button-down men in front and the old women in the back came to their feet screaming and shouting. They had not known that this thing was in them and that they wanted it touched.”
Some of the popular folk singers of the day were well represented at the March on Washington. Bob Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” written about the murder of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers; Dylan was joined by Joan Baez for “When the Ship Comes In.” Odetta performed “O Freedom”; and Peter, Paul and Mary sang “If I had a Hammer” and Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind.” Len Chandler performed “Eyes on the Prize.”
“We Shall Overcome” was taken up again by the full contingent of Marchers at the end of the program.
Lyrics: Only a Pawn in Their Game, Bob Dylan
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Eva Jessye African American Music Collection