Remembering Guy Carawan: The Lasting Legacy Of “We Shall Overcome”

By on May 8, 2015

We learned today of the passing of Guy Carawan, the singer-songwriter/folk musician/ethnomusicologist/activist/author who helped to transform “We Shall Overcome,” which began as an olde-time slave spiritual, into a civil rights anthem in the sixties; the transmogrification of the song, it’s lasting legacy and its impact will not be forgotten, and neither will Carawan’s involvement.

Carawan died on Saturday, May 2, 2015 — at age 87.

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Guy Carawan singing “We Shall Overcome” with protesters at Virginia State University in 1960 (Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos)

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared before Congress and 70 million Americans watching on television, using the song’s words in a speech calling for legislation that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would ensure that every citizen was given the right to vote.

“It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” Johnson declared in the speech. “Their cause must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

“We Shall Overcome” was sung on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery led by slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The song rose in air that was tinged with tear gas, an affirmation sung by hundreds of thousands within sight of the Capitol dome.

Three years later, in 1968, Dr. King cited its chorus — “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome” — in one of his final speeches.

It went on to be performed by Tiananmen Square protesters and at the dismantled Berlin Wall.

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Carawan, shown in 2009 at his home in New Market, Tennessee (Dan MacDonald)

Guy Hughes Carawan Jr. was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 28, 1927. His parents were from the Carolinas, and he described himself as “part Southerner.” He played the ukulele in his youth, later picking up the banjo, guitar and hammered dulcimer.

Carawan moved to New York City and became active in the folk revival movement in the 1950s, before migrating to the South, where he joined the civil rights cause as a musician and an activist, after first serving in the Navy during World War II, and getting his BA degree in Mathematics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, in 1949, and then a MA degree in Sociology from UCLA in 1952.

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As for “We Shall Overcome,” the song itself has had an incredible and arduous journey on its way to becoming anthemic: the tempo marking for “We Shall Overcome” reads “moderately slow with determination” — and that is exactly how it traveled across the country. Originally titled “I’ll Be All Right Someday,” it was a spiritual sun by the slaves in the American South.

According to the New York Times obit today, “The melody recalls the opening bars of the hymn ‘O Sanctissima”’first published in the 1790s. (Beethoven would write a setting of the hymn in the early 1800s.) A version of the melody — recognizable by modern ears as “We Shall Overcome” — was published in the United States in 1794 in The Gentleman’s Amusement magazine, which titled it ‘Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners.'”

Then, modifications were made by Charles Albert Tindley, a black Methodist minister who transformed it into the church hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday.” This version was published in 1901, though, says the Times, “apparently to a different tune”; it includes the lines:’If in my heart I do not yield,/I’ll overcome some day.‘”

According to NPR, “The first political use came in 1945 in Charleston, S.C. There was a strike against the American Tobacco Co. The workers wanted a raise; they were making 45 cents an hour. They marched and sang together on the picket line, ‘We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.'”

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In 1947, two of the union members from South Carolina traveled to the town of Monteagle, Tennessee, for a workshop at the Highlander Folk Center, teaching the song to Zilphia Horton, the musician and social-justice activist who preceded him as music director of the Highlander Folk School, as it was called then. Horton had founded the Highlander center (as it was later known), with her husband, Myles, in 1932 to train social justice leaders in a racially mixed setting, and to help alleviate poverty and other social problems.

Zilphia Horton had learned the song from the picket line, hearing the song as it was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., who changed the wrods, evoking solidarity by changing the singular “I” in the various hymnal versions to the plural “we,” proclaiming, “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.”

Blacks and whites had been meeting together about labor issues at the Highlander for many years. It was believed at Highlander that the people who have the problems are the ones who have the answers. It was important to talk together, and especially to sing. Horton started using it in workshops in Tennessee and beyond.

According to NPR, in 1947, Horton went to New York City, as she did every year, to raise money for Highlander. She sang the song there for Pete Seeger, the folk troubadour who popularized tunes such as If I Had a Hammer and “This Land Is Your Land.”

NPR: Seeger added his own touches. “She had a beautiful alto voice and sang it with no rhythm,” he once said. “I gave it kind of ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump. It was medium slow as I sang it, but the banjo kept a steady rhythm going.”

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American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger (left) adopted and helped popularize “We Shall Overcome” by teaching the song at rallies and protests. Here he sings with activists in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 (Adger Cowans/Getty Images)

It was Seeger who changed the song’s lyrics from “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome,” because, he told one writer,” it “opens up the mouth better.”

Here’s more background from NPR: In Southern California in the early 1950s, the song reached Guy Carawan. He was finishing his graduate work in sociology at UCLA and doing some singing himself. He also learned about the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and that’s where he ended up, where he and his wife Candi continued teaching together at Highlander for many years. They met as the center’s focus was shifting to civil rights, and “We Shall Overcome” was about to become an inspiring force. “I first heard this song from a friend of mine, Frank Hamilton. He taught me this song, and he also had put some chords to it [on guitar],” Guy Carawan told NPR. “When I came to Highlander in 1959, Zilphia Horton had died, and I had some singing and musical skills and they needed somebody there. So by the time I came to Highlander, I was playing it with the guitar like that.”

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Candi Carawan, too, remembered the first time she heard the song. A California transplant like Guy, she’d gotten involved with sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and visited Highlander for a weekend event for students from various cities who’d been carrying on similar demonstrations.

“Guy was there trying to find out what songs we were using as part of our demonstrations — and mostly we didn’t have a lot of songs,” Candi told NPR. “He taught us a number of songs that weekend, and one of them was ‘We Shall Overcome.’ And I can remember this electrifying feeling when we heard it, that that song just said exactly what we were doing and what we were feeling.”

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Guy Carawan sings with Peggy Seeger in a photograph believed to be from the late 1950s or early 1960s (Alamy)

In 1960, Guy Carawan performed it in Raleigh, N.C., at the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization that would help fuel the civil rights movement for years.

In his excellent book Listen Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965-1975 (Fantagraphic Books, 2012), author Pat Thomas elaborates: “Originally a union organizing song based on a an African-American spiritual, it became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. As the liner notes for Freedom In The Air attest, ‘SNCC were the catalysts. Not only did they stir up the nest but they helped show the people in what direction to fly.”

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In the 1960s, Carawan, Seeger, folk musician Frank Hamilton and Zilphia Horton’s estate obtained a copyright for a version of “We Shall Overcome” and directed future proceeds to a fund benefiting art and activism in black communities.

“My job would be to help get people singing and sharing their songs,”
he said.

Carawan and his wife remained associated with the Highland center until the 1980s.

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During his life, Carawan recorded nearly a dozen albums of American Traditional Folk music, from Appalachian fiddle songs to spirituals. With his wife and chief collaborator, Candi, he wrote books including Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?, a photographic, oral and musical history of the culture of the Gullah community descended from African slaves. The Carawans also wrote two collections of freedom songs — We Shall Overcome! and Freedom is a Constant Struggle — as well as Voices From the Mountains, which chronicles the lives and music of the people from the Appalachian South.

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About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.