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.
The Little-Known Story of 'We Shall Overcome'
The first verse of the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome is no longer under copyright, a New York federal judge ruled on Friday. Lawyers leading the class action against the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music, claimed We Shall Overcome was an adaptation of an African American spiritual and therefore in the public domain and had only later been adopted by folk singer Pete Seeger , copyrighted, and established as an anthem of the s labor protest movement. Elements of the song, which Martin Luther King referenced in his final sermon, have also been traced to a Beethoven hymn. In her decision, US district judge Denise Cote wrote that the existing copyright holders had not clearly identified the original work on which their derivative was based nor demonstrated that changes Seeger allegedly made to the first — and identical fifth — verse rose to sufficient originality to merit copyright protection. Folk music does not observe such grammatical formalities; rather folk music is filled with lyrical expressions that do not conform to grammatical rules or norms.
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.
We Shall Overcome Song With Lyrics and Action for Kids -- We shall Overcome Someday
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.
While most people attribute the song to Seeger, however, it had a half-century or so to evolve and expand its meaning before revivalists like Seeger, Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Joan Baez popularized it during the folk revival. It was , 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. The song they emerged with was titled "We Will Overcome. 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.
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.