Pete Seeger and “We Shall Overcome”

31 Jan

Noted folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of America, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). First lady Eleanor Roosevelt seen at center. By Joseph A. Horne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger has died at age 94. Seeger became well-known for his folk songs “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which were covered by many popular groups including Peter, Paul, and Mary, and The Kingston Trio. But it was his involvement  in the civil rights movement and his connection to the song “We Shall Overcome,” that had a lasting impact.

The Film & Media Archive holds a copy of the documentary We Shall Overcome produced for PBS by Ginger Group Film Productions. This film traces the history of the song which had its roots in African American spirituals and union songs and went on to became the anthem of the civil rights movement both nationally and internationally. The Archive holds footage and interviews with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Freedom Singers, about the song and the civil rights movement. Blackside purchased the materials and elements for the film in 1989, and they are now housed in the Film and Media Archive.

In the clip below from Pacifica Radio, Seeger traces the history of the song, “We Shall Overcome,” from its early beginnings as a more up-tempo union solidarity tune to the slower version first arranged and sung by Zilphia Horton and Septima Clark, who were teachers at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center), in Tennessee.

The roots of the song have been debated and studied and some scholars feel it was inspired from a gospel song by “I’ll Overcome Someday” by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley. Several versions of the lyrics existed as well, from “I’ll overcome someday,” to “We will overcome,” to the version used today, “We shall overcome.”

In an interview on Democracy Now he talked about how first heard the song at the Highlander Folk School and how it caught on in the civil rights movement,

It was a friend of mine, Guy Carawan, who made it famous. He picked up my way of singing it, “We Shall Overcome,” although Septima—there was another teacher there, Septima Clark, a black woman. She felt that “shall”—like me, she felt it opened up the mouth better than “will,” so that’s the way she sang it. Anyway, Guy Carawan in 1960 taught it to the young people at the founding convention of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short. And a month later, it wasn’t a song, it was the song, throughout the South.

In 1957, I went down to Highlander. Zilphia was dead, and Myles Horton, her husband, said, “We can’t have a celebration of twenty-five years with this school without music. Won’t you come down and help lead some songs?” So I went down, and Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy came up from Alabama to say a few words, and I sang a few songs, and that was one of them. Ann Braden drove King to a speaking engagement in Kentucky the next day; and she remembers him sitting in the back seat, saying, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” But he wasn’t the song leader. It wasn’t until another three years that Guy Carawan made it famous.

After that the song was performed and sung at numerous events by everyone from Seeger to Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, and Louis Armstrong among many others. The phrase “We Shall Overcome,” also became a rallying cry in the movement from Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington to President Johnson’s speech to Congress on March 15, 1965 when he said “We shall overcome,” aligning himself with King and voicing his support for voting rights of African Americans. The song, popularized by Seeger and many others, shows no signs of disappearing and continues to be sung by groups around the world at protests and meetings.

As a last note, Seeger’s first love was music and from 1965-1966 he hosted a show called Rainbow Quest that featured many artists including Johnny Cash, June Carter, Bernice Reagon Johnson, and Mississippi John Hurt. Originally broadcast on a small station in New York not many people saw the show at the time. The tapes were later salvaged and preserved with a National Endowment for the Arts grant. This clip from Rainbow Quest features an excellent version of “Rock Island Line,” a Leadbelly song sung by Seeger, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.


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