We Shall Overcome

"We Shall Overcome" is a protest song that became a key anthem of the US civil rights movement. The lyrics of the song are derived from the refrain of a gospel song by Charles Albert Tindley The song was published in 1947 as "We Will Overcome" in the People's Songs Bulletin (a publication of People's Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director and guiding spirit). It appeared in the bulletin as a contribution of and with an introduction by Zilphia Horton, then music director of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, Tennessee, a school that trained union organizers. It was her favorite song and she taught it to Pete Seeger,[1] who included it in his repertoire, as did many other activist singers, such as Frank Hamilton and Joe Glazer, who recorded it in 1950. The song became associated with the Civil Rights movement from 1959, when Guy Carawan stepped in as song leader at Highlander, and the school was the focus of student non-violent activism. It quickly became the movement's unofficial anthem. Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s, such as Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies, folk festivals, and concerts in the North and helped make it widely known. Since its rise to prominence, the song, and songs based on it, have been used in a variety of protests worldwide.



The phrase "I'll Overcome Someday" first appears in print in the published lyrics to a 1901 hymn or gospel music composition by Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia. Tindley was an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister who composed many hymns and lyrics, some 50 of which are known to have survived. Over time, others added newer lyrics from the common store of stock phases used in spirituals, including the phrase, "Deep in my heart." Various versions of the spiritual were sung in black churches in the 1800s and at integrated meetings of black and white coal miners in the early 1900s.[2] According to music historian James J. Fuld, although Tindley's lyrics are similar to those sung today, his tune was not the one now associated with the song.[3]

Sometime between 1900 and 1946, someone, most likely Atron Twigg, married Tindley's lyrics to the opening and closing melody of the famous nineteenth century spiritual, "No More Auction Block For Me",[4] also known as, "Many thousands Gone".[5] This song, or rather the lyrics to this song, under the title "Many thousands Gone", was number 35 in Thomas Wentworth Higginson's collection of Negro Spirituals that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly of June, 1867, with a comment by Higginson on how such songs were composed:

Even of this last composition, however, we have only the approximate date, and know nothing of the mode of composition. Allan Ramsay says of the Scotch songs, that, no matter who made them, they were soon attributed to the minister of the parish whence they sprang. And I always wondered, about these, whether they had always a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind, or whether they grew by gradual accretion, in an almost unconscious way. On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last, one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort to Ladies' Island, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song. One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession. "Some good spirituals," he said, "are start jess out o' curiosity. I been a-raise a sing, myself, once."

My dream was fulfilled, and I had traced out, not the poem alone, but the poet. I implored him to proceed.

"Once we boys," he said, "went for to tote some rice, and de nigger-driver, he keep a-callin' on us; and I say, 'O, de ole nigger-driver!' Den another said, 'First thing my mammy told me was, notin' so bad as a nigger-driver.' Den I made a sing, just puttin' a word, and den another word."

Then he began singing, and the men, after listening a moment, joined in the chorus as if it were an old acquaintance, though they evidently had never heard it before. I saw how easily a new "sing" took root among them.[6]

Coincidentally, Bob Dylan claims that he used this very same tune from "No More Auction Block" for his composition, "Blowin' in the Wind." [7] Thus similarities of melodic and rhythmic patterns imparted cultural and emotional resonance ("the same feeling") to three different, and historically very significant songs.

It has also been pointed out that the note progression of the tune has a noticeable family resemblance to the famous lay Catholic hymn "O Sanctissima" (also known as "The Sicilian Mariner's Hymn") collected (or composed) in Italy by Johann Gottfried Herder in the late Eighteenth Century.[8] Arguably an even closer resemblance is to Caro Mio Ben attributed to Neapolitan composer Giuseppe Giordani; this is also a late 18th Century Italian song and was a staple of 19th century voice teachers.

Role of Highlander Folk School

In the fall of 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina, members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union (who were mostly female and African American), began a five-month strike against the American Tobacco Company. To keep up their spirits during the cold, wet winter of 1945-46, one of the strikers, a woman named Lucille Simmons, led a slow "long meter style" version of the gospel hymn, "We'll Overcome" (I'll Be All Right") to end each day's picketing. Union organizer, Zilphia Horton, who was the wife of the co-founder of the Highlander Folk School (later Highlander Research and Education Center), learned it from Lucille Simmons. Horton was (1935-56) Highlander's music director, and it became her custom to end group meetings each evening by leading this, her favorite song. During the Presidential Campaign of Henry A. Wallace, "We Will Overcome" was printed in Bulletin No. 3 (Sept., 1948), 8, of People's Songs with an introduction by Horton saying that she had learned it from the interracial Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) Food and Tobacco Workers' Union workers and had found it to be extremely powerful. Pete Seeger, a founding member, and for three years Director of People's Songs, learned it from Horton's version in 1947.[9] Seeger writes: "I changed it to 'We shall'... I think I liked a more open sound; 'We will' has alliteration to it, but 'We shall' opens the mouth wider; the 'i' in 'will' is not an easy vowel to sing well [...]."[10] Seeger also added some verses ("We'll walk hand in hand" and "The whole wide world around").

In 1950, the CIO's Department of Education and Research released the album, Eight New Songs for Labor, sung by Joe Glazer ("Labor's Troubador"), and the Elm City Four (songs on the album were: "I Ain't No Stranger Now," "Too Old to Work," "That's All," "Humblin' Back," "Shine on Me," "Great Day," "The Mill Was Made of Marble," and "We Will Overcome"). During a Southern CIO drive, Glazer taught the song to country singer Texas Bill Strength, who cut a version that was later picked up by 4-Star Records.[11]

The song made its first recorded appearance as "We Shall Overcome" (rather than "We Will Overcome") in 1952 on a disc recorded by Laura Duncan (soloist) and The Jewish Young Singers (chorus) conducted by Robert De Cormier co-produced by Ernie Lieberman and Irwin Silber on Hootenany Records (Hoot 104-A) (Folkways, FN 2513, BCD15720), where it is identified as a Negro Spiritual.

Frank Hamilton, a folk singer from California who was a member of People's Songs and later The Weavers, picked up Seeger's version. Hamilton's friend and traveling companion, fellow-Californian Guy Carawan, learned the song from Hamilton. Carawan and Hamilton, accompanied by Ramblin Jack Elliot, visited Highlander in the early fifties and would also have heard Zilphia Horton sing the song there. When, in 1959, Guy Carawan succeeded Horton as music director at Highlander, he reintroduced it at the school. It was the young (many of them teenagers) student-activists at Highlander, however, who gave the song the words and rhythms we know it by today, when they sang it to keep their spirits up during the frightening police raids on Highlander and their subsequent stays in jail in 1959-60. Because of this, Carawan has been reluctant to claim credit for the song's widespread popularity. In the PBS video We Shall Overcome, Julian Bond credits Carawan with teaching and singing the song at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, N.C., in 1960. From there, it spread orally and became an anthem of Southern African American labor union and civil rights activism.[12] Seeger also has publicly, in concert, credited Carawan with the primary role in teaching and popularizing the song within the Civil Rights Movement.

Widespread adaptation

In August 1963, folksinger Joan Baez memorably led a crowd of 300,000 in singing "We Shall Overcome" at the Lincoln Memorial during A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington. President Lyndon Johnson used the phrase "we shall overcome" in addressing Congress on March 15, 1965,[13] following violent, "bloody Sunday" attacks on civil rights demonstrators during the Selma to Montgomery marches, thus legitimizing the protest movement. Farmworkers in the United States later sang the song in Spanish during strikes and grape boycotts of the late 1960s.[citation needed] The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association adopted "we shall overcome" as a slogan and used it in title of their retrospective autobiography publication, We Shall Overcome - The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 19 68-1978.[14][15] The film Bloody Sunday depicts march leader MP Ivan Cooper leading the song shortly before the Bloody Sunday shootings. In 1997, the Christian men's ministry, Promise Keepers featured the song on their worship CD for that year - The Making Of A Godly Man featuring (black) worship leader Donn Thomas (along with the Maranatha! Promise Band). Bruce Springsteen re-interpreted the song, which has been included on Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Tribute to Pete Seeger and his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made use of "we shall overcome" in the final Sunday March 31, 1968 speech before his assassination[16] In a 1965 speech[17] King explained the reasons why he believed "we shall overcome" in terms very similar to those used in a 1957 speech to support his belief in "an other-loving God working forever through history for the establishment of His kingdom".[18] These were:

  • Quoting 19th century radical Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
  • Quoting Thomas Carlyle, because no lie can live forever.
  • Quoting William Cullen Bryant, truth crushed to earth will rise again.
  • Quoting James Russell Lowell, truth is forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne - yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, stands God within the shadow keeping watch above His own.

"We Shall Overcome" was notably sung by the U.S. Senator for New York Robert F. Kennedy, who led anti-apartheid crowds in choruses from the rooftop of his car while touring South Africa in 1966.[19] It was also the song Abie Nathan chose to play as the Voice of Peace on October 1, 1993.[citation needed], and as a result it found its way to South Africa in the later years of the anti-apartheid movement.[20]

"We Shall Overcome" later was adopted by various anti-Communist movements in the Cold War and post-Cold War. In his memoir about his years teaching English in Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, Mark Allen wrote:

In Prague in 1989, during the intense weeks of the Velvet Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people sang this haunting music in unison in Wenceslas Square, both in English and in Czech, with special emphasis on the phrase 'I do believe.' This song's message of hope gave protesters strength to carry on until the powers-that-be themselves finally gave up hope themselves.

In the Prague of 1964, (former Communist) Seeger was stunned to find himself being whistled and booed by crowds of Czechs when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. But those same crowds had loved and adopted his rendition of 'We Shall Overcome.' History is full of such ironies – if only you are willing to see them.

–'Prague Symphony', Praha Publishing, 2008

[citation needed]

In India, renowned poet Girija Kumar Mathur composed its literal translation in Hindi "Hum Honge Kaamyab / Ek Din" which became a popular patriotic/spiritual song during the 1980s, particularly in schools. In Bengali-speaking India and in Bangladesh there are two versions, both popular among school-children and political activists. "Amra Karbo Joy" (a literal translation) was translated by the Bengali folk singer Hemanga Biswas and re-recorded by Bhupen Hazarika. Another version, translated by Shibdas Bandyopadhyay, "Ek Din Surjyer Bhor" (literally translated as "One Day The Sun Will Rise") was recorded by the Calcutta Youth Choir arranged by Ruma Guha Thakurta during the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence and became one of the largest selling Bengali records. It was a favorite of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and regularly sung at public events after Bangladesh gained independence.[citation needed]

In the Indian State of Kerala, the traditional Communist stronghold, the song became popular in college campuses in late 1970s. It was the struggle song of the Students Federation of India SFI, the largest student organisation in the country. The song translated to the regional language Malayalam by N. P. Chandrasekharan, an activist of SFI. The translation followed the same tune of the original song, as Nammal Vijayikkum. Later it was also published in Student, the monthly of SFI in Malayalam.[citation needed]

The melody was also used (with due credit to Tinsley) in a symphony by American composer William Rowland[citation needed]. In 1999 National Public Radio included "We Shall Overcome" on their NPR 100 list of most important American songs of the 20th century.[21]. As a reference to the line, on January 20, 2009, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th U.S. President, a man holding the banner, "WE HAVE OVERCOME" was seen near the Capitol, a day after hundreds of people posed with the sign on Martin Luther King Jr. day [22]

Copyright and royalties

"We Shall Overcome" was originally written by Rev. Charles Tindley, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the work was composed in 1901, it is now in the public domain, according to US Copyright law. The present version is an adaptation by Zilphia Horton, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Pete Seeger, who share the artists' half of the rights, and TRO (The Richmond Organization, which includes Ludlow Music, Essex, Folkways Music, and Hollis Music), which holds the publishers rights (or 50% of the royalty money). Pete Seeger explained that he took out a defensive copyright on advice of his publisher, TRO, to prevent someone else from doing so and "At that time we didn't know Lucille Simmons' name."[23] Their royalties go to the "We Shall Overcome" Fund, administered by Highlander under the trusteeship of the "writers" (i.e., the holders of the writers' share of the copyright, who, strictly speaking, are the arrangers and adapters). Such funds are used to give small grants for cultural expression involving African Americans organizing in the U.S. South.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography by Pete Seeger, 1993-97, p. 34
  2. ^ We Shall Overcome, Bruce Springsteen's official website.
  3. ^ Fuld, James J., The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (1966; Dover, 1995).
  4. ^ According to Alan Lomax's The Folk Songs of North America, the song originated in Canada and was sung by former slaves who fled there after Britain abolished slavery in 1833.
  5. ^ Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, Second Edition (Norton, 1971): 546-47, 159-60.
  6. ^ http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/1867jun/spirit.htm
  7. ^ From the sleeve notes to Bob Dylan's "Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3" - "...it was Pete Seeger who first identified Dylan's adaptation of the melody of this song ["No More Auction Block"] for the composition of "Blowin in the Wind". Indeed, Dylan himself was to admit the debt in 1978, when he told journalist Marc Rowland: "Blowin' in the Wind" has always been a spiritual. I took it off a song called "No More Auction Block" - that's a spiritual, and "Blowin in the Wind sorta follows the same feeling..."
  8. ^ No one has ever found published versions of the tune in Italy, though a version antedating Herder's by a few years was published in London. In any case, whether he composed or collected it Herder had based his song on the Italian folk tradition).
  9. ^ Dunaway, 1990, 222-223; Seeger, 1993, 32; see also, Robbie Lieberman, My Song is My Weapon: People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, [1989] 1995) p.46, p. 185
  10. ^ Seeger, Pete and Blood, Peter (Ed.), Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies (1993). Independent Publications Group, Sing Out Publications, ISBN 1-881322-01-7
  11. ^ Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson, Songs for Political Action: Folkmusic, Topical Songs And the American Left 1926-1953 (This lavish book is published as part of Bear Family Records 10-CD box set published in Germany in 1996. It includes a selection of satirical Trotskyist songs from 1953 by Joe Glazer and Bill Friedland that are bitterly critical of the Popular Front from the point of view of the ultra-left (for example, for cooperating with FDR and for agreeing not to strike during the war) and makes fun of folk singers and folk songs.
  12. ^ Dunaway, 1990, 222-223; Seeger, 1993, 32.
  13. ^ Lyndon Johnson, speech of March 15, 1965, accessed March 28, 2007 on HistoryPlace.com
  14. ^ CAIN: Civil Rights Association by Bob Purdie
  15. ^ CAIN: Events: Civil Rights - "We Shall Overcome" published by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA; 1978)
  16. ^ "A new normal". http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=06&year=2008&base_name=a_new_normal. .
  17. ^ "A New Addition to Martin Luther King's Legacy". http://hearingvoices.com/transcript.php?fID=314. 
  18. ^ ""Give Us the Ballot,"". Address Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington D.C.. 1957-05-17. http://www.mlkonline.net/ballot.html. 
  19. ^ Thomas, Evan. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 322. ISBN 0-7432-0329-1. 
  20. ^ Dunaway, 1990, 243.
  21. ^ The NPR 100 The most important American musical works of the 20th century
  22. ^ We Have Overcome Washington Bureau Herd in Washington | Washington Bureau.January 20, 2009 - 10:35 AM
  23. ^ Seeger, 1993, p. 33
  24. ^ Highlander Reports, 2004, p. 3.
  25. ^ http://www.svd.se/nyheter/inrikes/artikel_1811227.svd


  • Dunaway, David, How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger, (orig. pub. 1981, reissued 1990). Da Capo, New York, ISBN 0-306-80399-2.
  • Seeger, Pete and Blood, Peter (Ed.), Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies (1993). Independent Publications Group, Sing Out Publications, ISBN 1-881322-01-7
  • ___, "The We Shall Overcome Fund". Highlander Reports, newsletter of the Highlander Research and Education Center, August-November 2004, p. 3.
  • We Shall Overcome, PBS Home Video 174, 1990, 58 minutes.

External links

Further reading

  • Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs: Compiled and edited by Guy and Candie Carawan; foreword by Julian Bond (New South Books, 2007), comprising two classic collections of freedom songs: We Shall Overcome (1963) and Freedom Is A Constant Struggle (1968), reprinted in a single edition. The book includes a major new introduction by Guy and Candie Carawan, words and music to the songs, important documentary photographs, and firsthand accounts by participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Available from Highlander Center.
  • We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement: Julius Lester, editorial assistant. Ethel Raim, music editor: Additional musical transcriptions: Joseph Byrd [and] Guy Carawan. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.
  • Freedom is a Constant Struggle, compiled and edited by Guy and Candie Carawan. Oak Publications, 1968.
  • Alexander Tsesis, We Shall Overcome: A History of Civil Rights and the Law. Yale University Press, 2008.[1]
  • We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World, by Stuart Stotts, illustrated by Terrance Cummings, foreword by Pete Seeger. New York: Clarion Books, 2010. [2]
  • Sing for Freedom, Folkways Records, produced by Guy and Candie Carawan, and the Highlander Center. Field recordings from 1960-88, with the Freedom Singers, Birmingham Movement Choir, Georgia Sea Island Singers, Doc Reese, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Len Chandler, and many others. Smithsonian-Folkways CD version 1990.
  • We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert, June 8, 1963, Historic Live recording June 8, 1963. 2-disc set, includes the full concert, starring Pete Seeger, with the Freedom Singers, Columbia # 45312, 1989. Re-released 1997 by Sony as a box CD set.
  • Voices Of The Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 [BOX CD SET] With the Freedom Singers, Fanny Lou Hammer, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, Smithsonian-Folkways CD ASIN: B000001DJT (1997).

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Alternatives  –  Civil Rights  –  Civil Rights Movement (U.S.)  –  Folk Music  –  Left History  –  Music  –  Popular Music  –  Social Change  – 

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