How The Civil Rights Movement Transformed 'This Little Light Of Mine'

Dec 24, 2018
Originally published on December 27, 2018 10:13 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You may recognize this as a beloved children's song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.

SHAPIRO: "This Little Light Of Mine" is also a spiritual, transformed by the nation's civil rights movement into something more.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Earlier this year, as part of NPR's American Anthem series, critic Eric Deggans looked at the history behind the song. It's a story worth hearing again.

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RUTHA MAE HARRIS: (Singing) Oh, this little light.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Ask Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris, and she'll answer plainly. You can't just sing "This Little Light Of Mine," you've got to shout it.

HARRIS: (Singing) Everywhere I go, Lord.

DEGGANS: Harris is facing a tour group at a small church next to the Albany Civil Rights Institute in Georgia, showing them how she and her fellow Freedom Singers belted out songs to get through protests in the early 1960s. "This Little Light Of Mine" helped steady their nerves as abusive police officers with billy clubs threatened to beat them or worse.

HARRIS: It kept us from being afraid. We'd start singing a song, and somehow those billy clubs would not hit you. It played a very important role during the movement.

(Singing) I've got the light of freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

DEGGANS: Harris's voice gives the crowd a taste of that feeling from the 1960s. It's a unifying affirmation that's contagious. And the song has the same impact in today's times, where demonstrators still leverage its power to push back against injustice. Last year, Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou used "This Little Light Of Mine" to curb passions during a counterprotest before a crowd of white supremacists and "alt-right" supporters in Charlottesville, Va.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you guys sing?

DEGGANS: The group of clergy and volunteers who sang, including academic Cornel West, were captured in a YouTube video. You can hear chants from "alt-right" supporters yelling, you will not replace us.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

DEGGANS: Leading the singing was Reverend Sekou, a recording artist and activist.

OSAGYEFO UHURU SEKOU: Well, we had originally said we were going to stand silently, but the Nazis were marching past us cursing and yelling mostly homophobic slurs at us. And I do know that, you know, Pentecostals, we talk about changing the atmosphere. And so I know song could do that. So I just broke out into "This Little Light Of Mine."

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing) It's all I feel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

SEKOU: And it shook the Nazis. They didn't know what to do with that joy. We weren't going to let the darkness have the last word.

DEGGANS: It makes sense that a song with this much power would also be one of the most versatile anthems around, inspiring all kinds of musical artists. Bruce Springsteen used "This Little Light Of Mine" to take audiences to church on his tour with The Seeger Sessions Band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE (LIVE IN DUBLIN)")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE SEEGER SESSIONS BAND: (Singing) Well, now this little light of mine, yeah, I'm going to...

DEGGANS: The Disney Channel built a 2012 movie around the song called "Let It Shine" that added rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT SHINE")

TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS: (Rapping) And belief is the key, so open up your heart and let your life free.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) This little light of mine.

DEGGANS: And it even brought a little soul music to the last royal wedding courtesy of British gospel artist Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir.

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KAREN GIBSON: (Singing) This little light of mine.

THE KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) This little light of mine.

GIBSON: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

THE KINGDOM CHOIR: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

DEGGANS: Sometimes, experts say, songs like "This Little Light Of Mine" start off as children's folk songs which become spirituals sung everywhere from churches to prison work camps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

DORIS MCMURRAY: (Singing) Everywhere I go, I'm going to let it shine.

DEGGANS: Like this version, sung by Texas prison inmate Doris McMurray recorded in 1939 by folklorists John and Ruby Lomax.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

MCMURRAY: (Singing) Everywhere I go, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

DEGGANS: So who created "This Little Light Of Mine"? Some books credit Harry Dixon Loes, a teacher and composer born in 1892 whose obituary says he wrote 3,000 songs and edited at least a dozen hymnals and songbooks. That would be an interesting cultural crosspollination - a white composer creating a song popular in black churches and credited in some books as an African-American spiritual. But researchers at Moody Bible Institute, where Loes taught for 21 years, say they found no evidence he wrote the song or claimed to write it. They note that he did create a popular arrangement of it in the 1940s, performed here by noted gospel singer George Beverly Shea in 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

GEORGE BEVERLY SHEA: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

DEGGANS: And once the song was popular, it belonged to everyone. As the civil rights movement grew in the 1950s and '60s, singers changed the lyrics to reference their struggles. These new versions were known as freedom songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

FANNIE LOU HAMER AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine. Oh, I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine.

DEGGANS: Activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, heard here, and Zilphia Horton sang freedom song versions of "This Little Light Of Mine" and taught it to others. One place where a lot of this sharing occurred was the Highlander Folk School, a cultural center in Tennessee where activists like Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King Jr. gathered to trade ideas. Candie Carawan, who worked with her late husband Guy, Highlander's music director and song leader, said songs like "This Little Light Of Mine" could be nonviolent weapons.

CANDIE CARAWAN: You know, it's a way to speak to power in a way that is not going to get you shot, kind of a nonviolent tool. It's a way to say, this is what we think, this is what we feel - but, you know, you're singing it.

DEGGANS: It might seem odd to call such an innocent-sounding song defiant, but that's exactly how blues singer Bettie Mae Fikes felt when she created her classic version of "This Little Light Of Mine" in 1963. She improvised the lyrics after a protest in which several of her friends had been attacked.

BETTIE MAE FIKES: And I'm thinking, you know, how is the light shine when they're trying to put our lights out? So everybody was taking verses. And in order to come in, I just went into the slave call. (Singing) Whoa.

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FIKES: (Singing) Whoa, tell Jim Clark that...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

FIKES: And all of a sudden, I just started adding our oppressors in the song. Tell Jim Clark I'm going to let it shine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

FIKES: (Singing) Tell Jim Clark.

And as I added my oppressors, here other people in the audience began to shout out, tell the KKK, tell our president. It was like being free.

DEGGANS: Still, one question persists. Why has "This Little Light Of Mine" survived for so long? Robert Darden, a professor at Baylor University who's written about the song in at least two books, has a theory.

ROBERT DARDEN: If you've asked some of the survivors of the civil rights movement, as I did, survivors who sang the songs for protection and courage why "This Little Light Of Mine" survives and is still sung, they would look at me straight in the eye and say, because those songs are anointed. And as an academic, I have no way to refute that, nor do I want to.

DEGGANS: It's obvious this American anthem sparks a feeling which made so many who sing it feel a little less alone and a little more free, which probably explains the enduring power of "This Little Light Of Mine" better than any other reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) This little light of mine.

DEGGANS: Eric Deggans, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.