March on Washington set the standard for songs of protest

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago was not only a galvanizing moment for African Americans and civil rights. It was also a watershed moment in popular music.

Before that hot summer day, pop music was mostly about a catchy tune and a memorable lyric. Since then, it became commonplace for songs with a social message to race up the sales charts. The Beatles and James Brown did it in the '60s, and urban rappers, country singers and alternative-rock bands continue speaking out today.

That was something new on Aug. 28, 1963. Actor and singer Harry Belafonte lined up black musicians Mahalia Jackson, Odetta and Marian Anderson for the concert on the National Mall at the end of the march, but he also included white folk artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

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Malcolm X and some others had argued against including white performers. Belafonte ignored them, saying it was not in keeping with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of inclusion.

"Nothing that made up the American mosaic was not represented," said Belafonte, now 86. "Looking out at that sea of humanity ... we were looking at what Dr. King was describing as the dream."

Gospel music had long played a part in the civil rights movement, with "We Shall Overcome" serving as the unofficial anthem of the movement. And folk music, at that time, was at the peak of its popularity.

Between Elvis Presley's induction into the Army in 1958 and the arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion in 1964, folk music exerted a powerful hold on radio and television through appearances and recordings by the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Baez; the New Christy Minstrels; Trini Lopez and others.

What came into prominence at the time of the march were songs of protest and social consciousness.

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"There was a profound shift going on in the country," said Peter Yarrow, 75, of Peter, Paul and Mary. "The people who were running record companies were deeply committed to the idea that music was part of an awakening that was happening in America. They were committed to telling the story … to people in ways that inspired them not only to think differently but to act differently."

Perhaps no performer embodied this shift more than a young folk singer from Minnesota: Bob Dylan. He was invited to sing at the march despite not being widely known outside folk circles at the time.

"He brought the content," Belafonte said. "His artistic command was necessary on that platform."

Belafonte said the importance of music in galvanizing support for the movement cannot be overestimated.

"Artists are the gatekeepers of truth," he said. "In every instance where I have been exposed to struggle, songs were an intricate part of the day." Though a huge star at the time, Belafonte declined to take the spotlight for himself, singing only in the group efforts with other singers.

Music at the March on Washington was anything but mere entertainment for the hundreds of thousands of onlookers.

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"Music was the lifeblood of the civil rights movement," said Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum. "Without the music, which gave the movement its courage and its soul, I don't know whether the civil rights movement could have succeeded.

When you are facing a line of armed police, fire hoses and German shepherds baring their teeth, you have to muster courage, and oftentimes it was through music that they did that."

Santelli noted that music has long been used to express protest.