Pete Seeger Tells the Story Behind “We Shall Overcome”


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 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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pete Seeger Dies at 94: Remem­ber the Amer­i­can Folk Leg­end with a Price­less Film from 1947

94-Year-Old Pete Seeger Sings “This Land is Your Land” at Farm Aid

Willie Nel­son, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie at Occu­py Wall Street

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Isaias Gamboa says:

    We now live in the age of infor­ma­tion. Empir­i­cal research has uncov­ered and proven the fol­low­ing facts:

    Some­time between 1932 and 1942, an African Amer­i­can woman named, Louise Shrop­shire com­posed and pub­lished a sacred hymn enti­tled, “If My Jesus Wills”. Her lyrics:

    “I’ll Over­come, I’ll Over­come, I’ll Over­come Some­day
    If My Jesus Wills, I Do Believe, I’ll Over­come Some­day”.

    Sound famil­iar?

    “If My Jesus Wills” was per­formed all over the coun­try dur­ing the 1950’s and 60’s includ­ing the Nation­al Con­ven­tion of Gospel Choirs and Cho­rus­es. It was copy­right­ed in 1954–six years before “We Shall Over­come”. We Shall Over­come was copy­right­ed as a deriv­a­tive work with no orig­i­nal author list­ed.

    As a copy­right claimant, Pete Seeger’s “sto­ry” of the song’s ori­gin must be con­sid­ered objec­tive­ly.

    in 2012, after stud­ding Louise Shrop­shire’s hymn in detail, Pete Seeger admit­ted (on film) that it’s very prob­a­ble that Louise Shrop­shire’s hymn was the song from which We Shall Over­come was derived. What more is there to spec­u­late on?

    More facts:

    Filmed inter­views and pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence con­firm that since 1951 and until his assas­si­na­tion in 1968, Louise Shrop­shire was a close friend and men­tor of Rev. Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was very famil­iar with Mrs. Shrop­shire’s, “If My Jesus Wills” long before Pete Seeger sang We Shall Over­come for him.

    Could her song and her affil­i­a­tion with Dr. King have all been a mere coin­ci­dence? Of course not?

    Its 2015. We need to wake up and share all the facts. Let the world decide what to believe.

  • jerro says:

    Par­don me, but the song “we shall over­come” has a dif­fer­ent mean­ing than what you think. Peo­ple sing the song with mal­ice in their heart. We shall over­come means we are fed up with what’s going on and one day will over­take their adver­saries and destroy them. Blacks want to over­come whites and take over the ships steer­ing wheel and be their mas­ters. Oth­ers from oth­er coun­tries sing the song and mean “we will take over some­day”. Make no mis­take this song is pow­er­ful just because of the real mean­ing!

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