[1962:] This song has become the anthem of the movement against race discrimination in the southern United States. It is an adaptation from a mid-19th century revival hymn that sprang to the attention of the world in the 1950s, when the Rev. Martin Luther King led the dramatic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and We Will Overcome, sung by the demonstrators surrounded by an angry white-supremacy mob, was heard on the nation's TV sets. (A. L. Lloyd, notes Ian Campbell Folk Group 'Songs of Protest')
[1964:] This song, which has become almost an unofficial theme song of the integration movement in the South, is an adaptation of an old hymn. A number of years ago, members of the CIO Food and Tobacco Workers Union introduced the song at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. At the height of the successful Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, a few years back, it was sung by Negroes in the face of a hostile mob - and television cameras caught the simple, moving dignity of the song and the people who sang it for the entire nation to see and hear. (Reprint Sing Out 6, 372)
[1967:] 1936 hörte eine Gewerkschaftsorganisation dieses alte Spiritual: Farbige Tabakarbeiter, die Streikposten bezogen hatten, sangen es, um warm zu werden; doch sie hatten das Lied verändert: Statt des früheren 'Ich' sangen sie 'Wir werden überwinden' - die wichtigste Änderung, sagte Pete Seeger, der das Lied 1946 lernte und dann weitertrug. [...] Das Lied wurde zur Kampfhymne im Ringen um eine Welt des Friedens und ohne Diskriminierung der Rassen. (Victor Grossman, notes Pete Seeger 'We Shall Overcome')
[1982:] [Zilphia Hortons] Name ist eng verbunden mit der heutigen Fassung des Liedes. Streikende Tabakarbeiter hatten die alte Hymne der Baptisten 'I'll Be All Right' in 'We Shall Overcome' umgesungen, und Zilphia Horton hatte diesen Text in eins ihrer 'Highlander Songbooks' aufgenommen. Als 1959 Guy Carawan nach 'Highlander' kam, lernte er das Lied und brachte es im April 1960 achtzig aktiven 'Freedom Fighters' bei, die durch Sitzstreiks und Busboykotte für die Gleichberechtigung der Neger eintraten. Von dort aus und durch Pete Seeger wurde 'We Shall Overcome' [...] "nicht nur zu einem Lied der Bürgerrechtsbewegung, sondern zu dem Lied des Jahres 1953" (Pete Seeger). Carawan führte singend eine Demonstration nach der anderen nach Nashville, später auch in andere Städte des Südens. Indem er 'We Shall Overcome' [...] sang, brachte er den jungen Leuten die alten Lieder und ihre neue Bedeutung bei. Guy Carawans unermüdliche Präsenz war ein hervorragender und mächtiger Katalysator für die Bürgerrechtsbewegung. (John Dunson, 'Freedom In the Air', zit. in Linde 23f)
[1985:] Pete had first heard 'We Shall Overcome' in 1947, when Zilphia Horton (one of the founders of Highlander) had taught him a version from striking tobacco workers in North Carolina. The song was originally an old gospel tune, 'I'll Overcome' or 'I'll Be All Right'; Zilphia sang it 'We Will Overcome'. Pete made a few key alterations: "I changed it to 'We shall'. Toshi kids me that it was my Harvard grammar, but 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 [...]."
He also added new verses: "We'll walk hand in hand" and "The whole wide world around". In the Fifties Pete taught the song to Frank Hamilton, a singer in California, who in turn taught it to Guy Carawan, a lean-looking sociology M.A. from Los Angeles who ended up at Highlander in 1959. Carawan had reintroduced the song to the community which had started it - black labor and civil-rights workers. Since then, without a recording, 'We Shall Overcome' had traveled orally across the south, a widely known non-hit. "The song was different than in union days," one organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) remembered. "We put more soul in, a sort of rocking quality, to stir one's inner feeling. When you got through singing it, you could walk over a bed of hot coals, and you wouldn't notice."
By the time Peter performed in Albany, 'We Shall Overcome' had evolved from a song to a ritual, where the audience stood and swayed, crossing hands. Seeger kept the song in his armory for tense situations like this one. Here in Georgia, its meaning reinforced by distant police sirens, the song brought hope and community. (Dunaway, Seeger 222f)
Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone [...]. We shall overcome!" (Dunaway, Seeger 237)
Less than a year after [the civil rights march on] Selma [in March 1965], [...] black songwriter Julius Lester wrote [...], "Those northern protest rallies where Freedom songs were sung [...] began to look more and more like moral exercises: 'See, my hands are clean.' Now it is over: the days of singing freedom songs and the days of combating bullets and billy clubs with love. 'We Shall Overcome' (and we have overcome our blindness) sounds old, out-dated, and can enter the pantheon of the greats along with IWW songs and the union songs. As one SNCC worker put it after the Mississippi March, 'Man, the workers are too busy getting ready to fight to bother with singing anymore.'" [...]
'We Shall Overcome' fell out of vogue. Yet as American blacks gave [the song] up [...], South Africans picked it up. On April 1, the song was sung on the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison by one John Harris, just before the freedom fighter was hanged for having planted a bomb in Johannesburg. Agents of the South African security police searched record stores in Johannesburg, according to 'The New York Times': "They were especially interested in one version of 'We Shall Overcome' recorded by the American folk singer Pete Seeger." It contained the last words the hanged man had sung: "We shall all be free". Soon 'We Shall Overcome' ceased to be heard in public, and Pete's recording disappeared under the counter. But the song had a new life, in South African prisons. (Dunaway, Seeger 243)
Seeger sang 'We Shall Overcome' in East Berlin, creating a headache for leaders who assumed protest songs only applied to Capitalist countries: For years afterwards young East Germans sang the song. (Dunaway, Seeger 257)
[1989:] The civil rights campaign was run by black Americans for black Americans, and the freedom songs, the gospel and spirituals were a natural and spontaneous part of it. [...] It was also a campaign in which - in the early years, at least - white sympathizers were welcome [...]. Leading the white singers south was Pete Seeger, who had first sung for Martin Luther King back in the mid-fifties [...]. Seeger did badly in Albany, and found that favourites like 'If I Had A Hammer', or the union song 'Hold On', simply weren't adequate for the occasion. Only when he played the gospel-influenced 'We Shall Overcome' did he really communicate with his audience. (Denselow, Music 38)
[1993:] In 1947 [Seeger's 16-page 'People's Songs' bulletin] printed a song called 'We Will Overcome'. I started singing it to audiences up north and out west [...]. I'm only one of thousands of people who have added verses to this now world-famous song. Here's some of its disputed history. First I give you a song written by the gospel songwriter Rev. Charles Tindley of Philadelphia in 1903. Rev. Tindley [...] wrote many famous hymns, including We'll Understand It Better Bye and Bye, which includes the use of the word, "overcome", without saying who or what is overcome: "[...] We will tell the story of how we overcome and we'll understand it better bye and bye." He published a book, 'Gospel Pearls', in 1921. Soon the term 'gospel songs' was used to describe the new religious songs being written by him and others. This world is one great battlefield, with forces all arrayed
If in my heart I do not yield, I'll overcome some day
I'll overcome some day (some day), I'll overcome some day
If in my heart I do not yield, I'll overcome some day
Tindley's song has by and large been forgotten. [...] But next I show you a very well- known up-tempo gospel song, with similar words, but different music.
I'll be all right, I'll be all right I'll be like him ... some day
I'll be all right some day
Deep in my heart, I do believe I'll overcome ... some day
I'll be all right some day
Which song came first?
I have friends who have spent a life researching African-American religious songs, and they are convinced that Tindley wrote his more European-style song with its four verses after hearing an older folk "spriritual". But others are certain that Tindley's song came first, and that perhaps in a spirited prayer service someone improvised I'll be all right. Which is right? I don't know that field of music well enough to say, except that down through musical history, borrowing has been a two-way street. In any case, we do know the next step in the story. In 1946 several hundred employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, S.C., were on strike. Most were women, most African-Americans. To keep their spirits up, they often sang hymns on the picket line. Lucille Simmons especially liked to sing this song, but she sang it very, very slowly ("long meter style"). [...] And Lucille changed one important word, from "I" to "we".
Zilphia Horton, a white woman, learned it when a group of strikers visited the Highlander Folk School, the labor education center in Tennessee. Zilphia also had a beautiful alto voice, and she also sang it very slowly. It became her favorite song. She taught it to me. So we published it as 'We Will Overcome' in our little song newsletter, 'People's Songs'. I sang it medium tempo, with a banjo rhythm in back of it. I didn't have her voice. In 1952 I taught it to Frank Hamilton and Guy Carawan in California.Zilphia Horton died in '56. In '59 Guy Carawan came to work at Highlander as a songleader. In 1960 he organized an "all-South" workshop for some 70 young people to talk and explore "singing in the movement". They latched on to the song immediately, but during the next year, as it moved into the deep South, it took on a more pronounced rhythm [...]. Three weeks later these young people and Guy introduced the song to the founding convention of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) at Raleigh, N.C. A few months later across the entire South, it was not "a" song. It was "the" song.
In the early '60's our publishers said to us, "If you don't copyright this now, some Hollywood types will have a version out next year like 'Come on Baby, We shall overcome tonight'. So Guy, Frank and I signed a "songwriter's contract". At that time we didn't know Lucille Simmons' name. Now we try to credit the African-American people, as you see here. And someone should murmur a word of thanks to the great little Food and Tobacco Workers Union of the 1940's and '50's.
All royalties and income from the song go to a non-profit fund, the 'We Shall Overcome' Fund, which annually gives grants to further African-American music in the South. No one is sure who changed "will" to "shall". It could have been me with my Harvard education. But Septima Clarke, a Charleston schoolteacher (who was director of education at Highlander [...]), always preferred "shall". It sings better.
No two people sing the exact same verses. [...] Now it's been sung around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America (where it's sometimes sung 'Todos venceremos'). Incidentally, not everyone has been enthusiastic about the song. Lillian Hellman once scornfully remarked to me, "[...] overcome someday, someday?" But Bernice Reagon, when I told her this, replied, "If we said 'next week', what would we sing the week after next?" (Seeger, Flowers 32ff)
[1994:] But there was another strand which gave a particular character to the ballad movement in Ireland, and that was the rising political consciousness of young people. As we developed a specifically Irish social purpose and political direction, the ballad movement became our own means of expression. [...] This mood penetrated the mass media and entered into the popular mainstream. Even the financial institutions who made so much money out of entertainment were suddenly obliged to take on board the protest movement - the Bob Dylans, the music of people in the mould of Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger. Only in these unique circumstances could a song like 'We Shall Overcome' become universal, applicable to all those suffering, as likely to be heard on the airwaves and in entertainment halls far removed from any particular social upheaval as at a civil rights meeting in Belfast or a Dublin housing march. (Geraghty, Luke Kelly 58ff)