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"We Shall Overcome"

History of an American Folk Song



"We Shall Overcome" (purchase/download) became particularly popular in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement in America, after Pete Seeger learned it, adapted it, and taught it to his audiences to sing. While most people attribute the song to Seeger, however, it had a half century (or so) to evovle and expand its meaning before revivalists like Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Joan Baez popularized it during the folk revival.

The melody dates back to before the Civil War, from a song called "No More Auction Block For Me." Originally, the lyrics were "I'll overcome someday," which links the song to a turn-of-the-20th-century hymn that was written by the Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia.

It was 1946, however, before the song evolved into some semblance of the tune we've come to know as the unofficial anthem of the American Civil Rights movement. It was sung by a group of striking workers in Charleston, South Carolina, who were embroiled in a months-long strike for a fair wage at the tobacco processing factory where they worked. They brought their version of the song to a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. The school's Culture Director Zilphia Horton was accustomed to asking workshop attendees to teach songs to the group, and these workers introduced a song they'd recently been singing, titled "I'll Be Alright." Horton was so enamored with the sentiment behind one of the song's verses, which repeated the line "I'll overcome," she worked with the union leaders who'd introduced it to her to rewrite the song so that it might encapsulate a more collective community spirit. The song they emerged with was titled "We Will Overcome." However, their version was a much slower song, drawn out and emphasizing every single word, with a sort of lilting melody that was verging on a meditation.

A year later, Pete Seeger was visiting the Highlander school, where he met and befriended Horton. She taught him "We Will Overcome" - which had become one of her favorite songs - and he adapted it for use in his shows. He also changed the "will" to "shall" and added some verses of his own. Nobody can agree on who updated the melody to the marching rhythm of triplets we know today. But, at any rate, it was Guy Carawan who introduced it to civil rights activists in the Carolinas during a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting in 1960. Carawan's performance is largely considered the "moment" when "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the movement, as it was almost instinctively met with those in attendance holding their crossed hands and swaying along to the triplet melody.

The adaptation of the song to its current lyric is often attributed to Pete Seeger, but Seeger shares the copyright with Horton, Carawan, and Frank Hamilton. The song's contributions to both the labor and civil rights movements have been palpable, and it continues to be used around the world to this day, whenever people are gathering in the name of freedom and justice.

The song was recorded by Joan Baez in 1963 and became a major anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Lyrics of "We Shall Overcome":

We shall overcome, We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace
We shall live in peace someday
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

We shall organize, we shall organize
We shall organize today
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand someday
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

We are not afraid, we are not afraid
We are not afraid today
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday

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