Like nearly all folk songs, “We Shall Overcome” has a convoluted, obscure history that traces back to no single source. The Library of Congress locates the song’s origins in “African American hymns from the early 20th century” and an article on About.com dates the melody to an antebellum song called “No More Auction Block for Me” and the lyrics to a turn-of-the-century hymn written by the Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia. The original lyric was one of personal salvation—“I’ll Overcome Someday”—but at least by 1945, when the song was taken up by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., it was transmuted into a statement of solidarity as “We Will Overcome.” Needless to say, in its final form, “We Shall Overcome” became the unofficial anthem of the labor and Civil Rights movements and eventually came to be sung “in North Korea, in Beirut, Tiananmen Square and in South Africa’s Soweto Township.”
Pete Seeger—who passed away yesterday at the age of 94—has long been credited with the dissemination of “We Shall Overcome,” but he was always quick to cite his sources. Seeger heard the song in 1947 from folklorist Zilphia Horton, music director at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk Center who, Seeger said, “had a beautiful alto voice and sang it with no rhythm.” As he told NPR recently, his touches were also those of other singers:
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. I remember teaching it to a gang in Carnegie Hall that year, and the following year I put it in a little music magazine called People's Songs. Over the years, I remember singing it two different ways. I'm usually credited with changing ['Will'] to 'Shall,' but there was a black woman who taught at Highlander Center, a wonderful person named Septima Clark. And she always liked shall, too, I'm told.
According to Seeger in the interview above—conducted by Josh Baron before a 2010 performance—the person most responsible for “making it the number one song back in those days” was the Music Director of the Highlander Folk Center, Guy Carawan, who “sent messages to the civil rights movement all through the South from Texas to Florida to Maryland.” Carawan “introduced this song with a new rhythm that I had never heard before.” Seeger goes on to describe the rhythm in detail, then says “it was the hit song of the weekend in February 1960…. It was not a song, it was the song all across the South. I’ve found out since then that the song started off as a union song in the 19th century.”
In this particular interview, Seeger takes full credit for changing the “will” to “shall." Although it was "the only record [he] made which sold," he didn't seek to cash in on his changes (Seeger shared the copyright with Zilphia Horton, Carawan, and Frank Hamilton). As you can easily see from the numerous eulogies and tributes popping up all over (or a quick scan of the “Pete Seeger Appreciation Page”), Seeger deserves to be remembered for much more than his sixties folk singing, but he perhaps did more than anyone to make “We Shall Overcome" a song sung by a nation. And as he tells it, it was song he hoped would resonate worldwide:
I was singing for some young Lutheran church people in Sundance, Idaho, and there were some older people who were mistrustful of my lefty politics. They said: ‘Who are you intending to overcome?’ I said: ‘Well, in Selma, Alabama they’re probably thinking of Chief Pritchett.; they will overcome. And I am sure Dr. King is thinking of the system of segregation across the whole country, not just the South. For me, it means the entire world. We’ll overcome our tendencies to solve our problems with killing and learn to work together to bring this world together.
Via Blank on Blank