The Songs are Free

“What’s so special about African American music?”

[Like all of our assignments, this one is due on or before Sunday at 10 p.m.]


Bernice Johnson Reagon, born in Albany, Georgia, was an early member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and her impressive achievements since then are rooted in what she learned in the Movement.

Among many other accomplishments, she holds a PhD in history and spent much of her career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Her importance for our class stems mainly from her provocative answers to the question, “What’s so special about African American music?”


After completing this assignment students should be able to discuss Reagon’s understanding of African American music’s roles within the culture.


Bernice Johnson Reagon: The Songs are Free (00:57:32)

Follow the link to open the video, which is available streaming through Films on Demand in Galileo. You will need to log in using your Clayton State SWAN username and password.

Viewing Guide

Note that this guide is not meant to replace careful study of the entire video. Instead, this guide highlights some of its important ideas and information. To do well on our tests, quizzes, and class discussions, you will need a thorough knowledge of the entire video.

“You cannot sing a song, and not change your condition….And I am talking about a culture that thinks it is important to exercise this part of your being.
Reagon argues that today “African American culture is one of the most powerful in the world,” and that this is the result of a specific set of historical circumstances. What brought this about, according to Reagon?
Reagon relates a story about a sheriff stalking through the pews during Movement meetings, trying to intimidate the people who had gathered there. In defense, someone always started a song. “Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect. So, people can walk into you way before they can get close to your body. And certainly the communal singing that people do together is a way of announcing that we’re here, that this is real, and so anybody that comes into that space, as long as you’re singing, they cannot change the air in that space.
The interviewer asks about groups like 2 Live Crew, and “the anger and violence that they use to tell their stories.” He is probably thinking of 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” which was the subject of obscenity trials at the time of the interview. What is her answer?
INTERVIEWER: “Is there any music yet that is coming out [of the new struggle]?”
REAGON: “There is always music.”


In our Georgia View Discussion area, post an original thread and respond to at least one other post. Please carefully review our Discussion directions before contributing.

Topic: “The Songs are Free”

In your own life or in the lives of people you know, does music function in the ways that Reagon suggests it does? In framing your answer, remember to refer directly to one or more of Reagon’s specific statements.

You can summarize her ideas or include direct quotes, but if you do the latter remember to use quotation marks.