We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World by Stuart Stotts“We Shall Overcome” isn’t a complicated piece of music. The first verse has only twenty-two words, most of them repeated. The melody is straightforward. The chords are basic. Yet the song has had a profound effect on people throughout the United States—and the world.
In clear, accessible language Stuart Stotts explores the roots of the tune and the lyrics in traditional African music and Christian hymns. He demonstrates the key role “We Shall Overcome” played in the civil rights, labor, and anti-war movements in America. And he traces the song’s transformation into an international anthem. With its dramatic stories and memorable quotes, this saga of a famous piece of music offers a unique way of looking at social history.
Author’s note, bibliography, source notes, index.
We Shall Overcome
The song is most commonly attributed as being lyrically descended from "I'll Overcome Some Day", a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley that was first published in The modern version of the song was first said to have been sung by tobacco workers led by Lucille Simmons during a cigar workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina. In , the song was published under the title " We Will Overcome " in an edition of the People's Songs Bulletin a publication of People's Songs , an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director , as a contribution of and with an introduction by Zilphia Horton , then-music director of the Highlander Folk School of Monteagle, Tennessee an adult education school that trained union organizers. Horton said she had learned the song from Simmons, and she considered it to be her favorite song. She taught it to many others, including Pete Seeger,  who included it in his repertoire, as did many other activist singers, such as Frank Hamilton and Joe Glazer , who recorded it in The song became associated with the Civil Rights Movement from , when Guy Carawan stepped in with his and Seeger's version as song leader at Highlander, which was then focused on nonviolent civil rights activism. It quickly became the movement's unofficial anthem.
In April , young civil-rights activists joined together in song in Raleigh, N. Joined there by banjo-player Pete Seeger, Carawan and the group had sung numerous fast and slow protest songs that would come to be repeated over and over as the civil-rights struggle gained momentum. But it had been a new version of an old African-American spiritual that Seeger crafted that had been the highlight of the weekend. Now, at the SNCC founding convention, they wanted to sing it again. Its simple words and music would go on to become the anthem of the civil-rights movement, sung at rallies and marches, and even in jails. When the movement for racial equality lost steam in the next decade, it became the marching song in battles for freedom around the world. How that happened reminds us that music has long been intertwined with protest.
History of an American Folk Song
But few Americans know the background of the song, which links together Black trade union activists, a radical training school for activists, college students who started the Southern sit-in movement, two folk singers, and a president of the United States. The story of that song, which has became an international anthem for human rights, reveals the civil rights movement's remarkable and complex tapestry and its lasting influence. The song's origins go back to a refrain that slaves would sing to sustain themselves: "I'll be all right someday. In , Black members of the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union from Charleston, South Carolina revised the song as part of their struggle and sang it on their picket lines. They sang: "We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.
When masses of people in Northern Ireland gathered to demand equal rights from the British, they rallied together singing a song of hope. After the Cold War era came to an end, people in Eastern European countries protested communism by organizing huge demonstrations and singing a song to inspire courage. At a recent International Conference of Buddhist Women held in Malaysia, young Tibetan nuns linked their arms and broke out in a song of freedom. The song they sang was "We Shall Overcome. When the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley first wrote the song, he had no idea of the far-reaching and enduring impact his song would have on people all over the planet seeking basic human rights and freedom. Tindley was born on July 7th, near Berlin, Maryland. Though the elder Tindley was owned by farmer Joseph Brindel, his son's free status was recognized.