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"We Shall Not Be Moved" - Traditional

History of an American Folk Song


"We Shall Not Be Moved" is a traditional American folk song whose lyrics probably stretch back to the slave era, although there is no indication of when the song was written or who wrote it. It is a spiritual song that was adapted by the activists of the 1930s, with lyrics changed to "We Shall Not Be Moved," similarly to how "We Shall Overcome" took on the collective voice in protest rather than its original singular voice.

"We Shall Not be Moved" Lyrics

Typical of traditional spiritual songs, "We Shall Not be Moved" consists of a series of verses wherein a single line changes for each verse. This folk song style is typical probably because it makes the song easy to remember and even easier for a song leader to sing with a group of people. The verse of "I Shall Not Be Moved" repeat the song's title a number of times, inserting one changing line:

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's standing by the water
We shall not be moved

Also typical of many traditional folk songs, the lyrics have evolved through time to apply to the various causes about which the song has been sung. When the tune became an anthem of the labor movement, verses were adjusted to be appropriate to union organization. When the song was sung during the civil rights movement, verses were adjusted to reflect racial unity. Because of the song's structure, only one line per verse needed to be refashioned to be appropriate for the new context.

Some of the the third lines that have been appropriated for different movements and contexts are:

The union is behind us
We're fighting for our freedom
We're fighting for our children
We're building a mighty union
Black and white together
Young and old together
When my burden's heavy
The church of God is marching
Don't let the world deceive you
If my friends forsake me

Who Has Recorded "We Shall Not Be Moved"?

Johnny Cash (purchase/download) and Elvis Presley (purchase/download) recorded two of the most notable versions. Other great recordings of the song have come from the Harmonizing Four, the Jordanaires, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Ricky Van Shelton, and numerous others. Maya Angelou also titled a book of her poetry I Shall Not Be Moved as a tribute to the defiant American folk song and the movements it has inspired and accompanied.
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