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Song of Hope

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:00 AM


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Mississippi Summer Project (a.k.a. Freedom Summer) workers link arms and sing during their efforts in 1964 to register black voters denied the vote by discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Its lyrics aren't political, and its roots are as linked to church pews as picket lines. But "We Shall Overcome" is among the most important protest songs of all time, not to mention the most famous. But it probably wouldn't be if it weren't for troubadour, folklorist and social-justice advocate Guy Carawan '52.

Raised in California by Southern parents, Carawan's DNA was deeply rooted in the South. His first trip to the region in 1953 "was a homecoming," in fact, says UCLA Professor William Roy, chair of the university's sociology department and author of Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States.

Hear, Hear

Listen to the music of Guy Carawan, and learn more about Highlander's rich history.

That trip cemented Carawan's commitment to the emerging civil rights movement and, six years later, he relocated to rural Tennessee and signed on as music director and song leader at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center), a race- and class-defying training center for nonviolent activists. There, he taught students regional folk songs, traditional music of the rural black church, adapted to be religiously and racially inclusive. Many, such as "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved" became the era's Freedom Songs.

An earlier version of "We Shall Overcome" was brought to Highlander in 1947 by former striking tobacco workers. It's commonly believed to be a mash-up of the spiritual "No More Auction Block For Me," the Catholic hymn "O Sanctissima" and the 1900 gospel composition "I'll Overcome Someday" by Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley (plus a few notable tweaks by Pete Seeger).

But it was Carawan who enhanced the song's musicality. And it was Carawan who, in April 1960, introduced his revamped version to founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, N.C. Even more important, perhaps, it was Carawan who taught those students — and thousands more — how to "do" the song.

"Joining arms, forming a circle, singing 'We shall overcome' while your body sways: That's doing the music together," explains Roy. It's that shared experience, he says. "That's the real power of the music. Its ability to bring people together."

Armed with the anthem, hundreds of SNCC activists rallied through the segregated South at sit-ins, on picket lines, at demonstrations and marches. Throughout the early '60s, singing and doing "We Shall Overcome" became a movement ritual, helping to bridge the gap between colors and classes. The song provided a sense of unity even when participants couldn't literally join hands — jailed Freedom Riders kept up their spirits and dignity, and thoroughly provoked guards, by singing endless refrains of "We Shall Overcome" from their jail cells.

The song is still sung from Northern Ireland to Lebanon, Iran to Haiti. And while group singing may not be used much for social protests in the U.S. anymore, says Carawan's daughter Heather, "music and cultural expression will always have a role in motivating and reflecting social change."

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