This Little Light of Mine
If a song is a snapshot of a cultural moment, then a folk song is a collage; each performance adds new context, creating a tapestry of ideas and perspectives woven into the fabric of the piece. Students can understand more deeply and perform more authentically when they examine some of the threads bound up within a song’s cultural history. “This Little Light of Mine” is a prime example: Predating the struggle for civil rights, it takes on new shades of meaning every time it is sung. Students can participate in this tradition by understanding its heritage and re-imagining it in a new generation of social-justice seekers.
Many students will be familiar with a traditional melody of “This Little Light of Mine.” Play Doris McMurray’s 1939 recording for students. How does it compare to what they expected to hear?
Introduce John Lomax’s field notes; how does this new information add to students’ understanding of the recording? What new questions arise? How does the additional biographical information affect their interpretation of the recording?
Contrast Doris McMurray's recording with that of the Independence Church congregation in Tyro, Mississippi, collected by Alan Lomax in 1959 or John Lomax's recording of Jim Boyd in Huntsville, TX in 1934. What differences stand out to students? What can we learn about the singers from these differences?
The recollections of Jamila Jones, who began singing for civil rights at the age of eleven, add to the song’s history. To understand the context in which she was singing, begin listening around 23:16; she mentions “This Little Light of Mine” around 26:00. How does she describe the evolution of her music in response to current events? How was her music-making influenced by performers and composers in her community? If time allows, encourage students to continue listening through the 35 minute mark. How did communal singing – and creating new music – empower the activists?
Or consider, how do the lyrics of Ada Turner (on p. 20 of the linked PDF)reflect her unique perspective and values?
Resources available through the American Archive of Public Broadcasting can help students see how the piece continued to evolve through the decades in the arena of mass media. Why was the song chosen as the epilogue to Maya Angelou’s reading of Still I Rise? Why was it performed by such a diverse ensemble of musicians on San Francisco’s KQED in 1977? How do Bernice Johnson Reagon’s [begin 31:00] new lyrics reflect the changing context surrounding the song? In all the recordings, how do performance choices such as style, instrumentation, lyrics, and tempo inform students’ interpretations of the song’s message?
The tapestry continues to be woven today. Students may have background knowledge about some of the song’s more contemporary appearances. In each case, musical choices provide insight into the performer’s perspective.
Through performance, students can be empowered to make the song their own. Inspired by the primary sources, students may compose new verses, instrumentations, and arrangements to reflect their own unique priorities for social change. Through creative music-making, students can weave themselves into the tapestry of the piece. The song can summon the voices of the past – and the voices of the future.
View a Library of Congress webinar about teaching social justice through the arts, centered on This Little Light of Mine primary sources. Use the password Library123!