I drove up to Beacon, NY to chat with legendary songwriter/social activist Pete Seeger at his house in the foothills overlooking the beautiful Hudson River. It was a crisp fall day and Pete had been chopping wood all morning. He was 92 years old then. The reason for the visit was the desire to learn more about how a song spreads, how it switches hands over the years. I was filming him for a documentary I wanted to produce called “Songs that Changed America.” At this point, I had been trying to give this project life for nearly ten years. With time and some doubts from TV execs about the tangibility of songs changing the course of American history, I had begun to question the validity of my project. One sentence into the interview with Pete Seeger and clarity was restored. “Do you think songs have changed America?” I asked him. He looked out at the river and a large maple tree and said calmly, “Obviously if I didn’t think they did, I wouldn’t be spending my life making up songs and singing them.”
The first song I wanted to learn about was the great Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” The song is sung all over the world, wherever there is struggle. It’s traveled to Africa and Asia. It’s been sung in Tiananmen Square and Gaza and South Africa. It’s hard to picture the turbulent years of the battle against segregation without the image of linked arms and singing. So where did this song come from and how did it change America?
The song’s roots trace back to Gospel music of the late 1800s. It came from the church. It was called “I’ll Be Alright” then and was sung in the American South. When the Labor movement emerged from out of the pit of American industrialization, leaders saw the power of unity in song in the church and reappropriated spirituals into their movement. Often a simple switch of a word or two turned a song of a believer into an anthem on the picket line. These songs were front and center at the meetings and on strikes.
The song “I’ll Be Alright” eventually became “I Will Overcome” and was printed in a union publication called “People’s Songs Magazine” in the late 1940’s. Two young activists, Woody Guthrie (writer of “This Land is Your Land”) and the aforementioned Pete Seeger, learned the song from the magazine and added it to their repertoire of picket lines songs. It reportedly didn’t stick though at that time.
Next, In 1946, during a Tobacco strike in Charleston, South Carolina, there was an African American striker named Lucille Simmons who had a habit of slowing the songs down. “It was wintertime and they’d have a 55-gallon oil drum with a fire burning it. People could warm their hands and they were on the picket line and someone would say, “Oh here comes Lucile, now we’ll hear that song slower than anybody ever heard it sung,” Pete told me, so “I Will Overcome,” became a slow mournful “We Will Overcome” at this point. Pete eventually changed it to “We Shall Overcome.”
A little less than ten years later, at a small farmhouse school in Tennessee called the Highlander School, an activist named Guy Carawan played the song for a group of students who had just gotten back from a sit-in Nashville
.The school served as a crucial breeding grounds for social activism that would help shape the coming years. The song had been brought to Highlander by a Union organizer years prior. It’s here that it first began its association with the civil rights movement. A little later, in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. and three students from Montgomery who called themselves the Montgomery Trio, traveled to Highlander. Dr. King and the trio were coming from the heart of the Montgomery Bus Boycott meetings. It was the first time that Dr. King heard the song. He and the other attendees such as Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy were so taken by the song Dr. King was remembered as remarking “We Shall Overcome. That’s song sticks with you,” from the backseat of the car after leaving the Highlander School that evening. The Montgomery Trio would take that song back with it from HIghlander and bring it to new communities, where it was sung where activists aggressively sought to register black voters.
In 1960, three years later, the Highlander Folk School held a weekend-long workshop for the Nashville Sit-In students called “Singing in the Movement.” Pete Seeger was again called to go down. He described We Shall Overcome as “the hit of the weekend and these young people took the song back to wherever they came from. Must have been 60-70 young people there. And wherever that they went back to, whether it was Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida or North Carolina, or even Maryland, they took the song with them.”
A couple of years back, I sat down with Bernice Reagon Johnson, one of the four original members of SNCC’s The Freedom Singers, and she talked about the growth of the song and music in the movement and she discussed the role of music in the jails. In 1961, Students continued to organize and protest in bold and dangerous ways. With the Freedom Rides, the destination, after humiliation and beatings, was often jail. In jails, singing was a lifeline to the protestors.
“We maintained the space with a wall of singing,” Bernice told me. “In jail, they segregated people so if you were white and a freedom rider you were in one section, and if you were black, you were in another, but they couldn’t segregate the singing.” New songs were learned and made up and new song leaders were anointed, Bernice called it a “great leap in terms of the role of music in sustaining yourself.” The cells were full of singing and when one got tired, another one would pick it up. It quelled fears. It lessened loneliness. It was like a cultural school, and songs were passed on in the cells.
After the Freedom rides. The song continued to spread.
Pete Seeger describes how much the song had caught on by 1963.
“In 1963, I gave a concert at Carnegie Hall and I got black and white friends in Beacon to sing this song. And they came down to NY and sat on the stage, some on my left and some on my right and I said if you sing good harmony, we’ll get some of the folks out front to sing good harmony and the Columbia Record Company recorded it. It was the only record I ever made that sold very much.”
This record sold 500 thousand and this version of “We Shall Overcome” now spread over different countries.
By the time of the great March on Washington, “We Shall Overcome” was the unofficial anthem of the movement. Every mass meeting was closed with its singing. During the singing of the song, people would lock arms. Bernice talked about the importance of this, “You reached for each other, crossing hands. And the interesting thing about crossing hands is that you cannot link hands with someone unless you move and it puts you in direct contact with the person. So it’s a moving line.” “We did it without thinking but we were risking our lives. You wanted a block wall, when you link arms then you have to move side to side cause you’re not gonna stand still and sing. You were so tight, so dependent on each other, it just happened. That motion comes from us being so under pressure and we were at risk and if we had to be a solid, unified force and the singing of “We Shall Overcome” is linked to that expression and it was not like that before the Civil Rights Movement. So that whole expression is a part of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racism.”And this is the image we see so often, people standing in a line; a wall, arms locked singing defiantly at whoever stands in their way. Whether it was police officers or mobs of angry whites. “When you start to sing and it’s about the fact that you have said, “Do anything you want with me, I will not stop fighting racism. You’re basically saying, there’s nothing you can do to me that’s gonna turn me around.” “You are announcing that you are drawing a line against racism and that you are operating as a fighter.” “We Shall Overcome” was perhaps the greatest weapon they had outside of their bravery. One of the last things Bernice told me was, “If people are abusing you, locking you up, mistreating you; if you wrap yourself in a blanket of your own singing you will last longer.”
In the years that followed, turbulence continued; in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. There was an end to legal racism with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and many gains, The song will forever be linked to the movement and the struggle worldwide and is an example of how a song can take on a life of its own and can move and capture a group of people, and offer a collective voice. A song that Bernice said can “express that they cannot operate by themselves.”
Pete told me that people who were suspicious of him during the 1960s once asked him “Who do you intend to overcome when you sing this song?” “And I told them a song is not a speech. I think of a song as a basketball backboard and you bounce the experiences of your life against it and it bounces back new meanings. So I think people in Selma, Alabama probably were thinking of overcoming Sheriff Jim Clark. I think Dr. King was probably thinking of overcoming the system of segregation throughout the entire South. I’m thinking of the whole world. We are gonna have to overcome selfishness and find ways for people of different religions and different languages to work together or there will be no world here. I have no proof but that’s what I think. And I guess that ends my answer to your question, “Can Songs change the world?” You can’t prove a darn thing but obviously, if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t be singing these songs.”