On an April night in 1960, Guy Carawan stood before a group of black students in Raleigh and sang a little-known folk song. With that single stroke, he created an anthem that would echo into history, sung at the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965, in apartheid-era South Africa, in international demonstrations in support of the Tiananmen Square protesters, at the dismantled Berlin Wall and beyond.
The song was “We Shall Overcome.”
Carawan, a white folk singer and folklorist who died May 2 at 87, did not write “We Shall Overcome” nor did he claim to. The song, variously a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest, had moved in and out of U.S. oral tradition for centuries, embodying the country’s twinned history of faith and struggle. Over time, it was further polished by professional songwriters.
But in teaching it to hundreds of delegates at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – held in Raleigh on April 15, 1960 – Carawan fathered the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became “the ‘Marseillaise' of the integration movement,” as The New York Times described it in 1963.
The now-familiar version of “We Shall Overcome” was forged by Carawan, Pete Seeger and others in the late 1950s, but its antecedents date to at least the 18th century.
The melody recalls the opening bars of the hymn “O Sanctissima,” first published in the 1790s. (Beethoven would write a setting of the hymn in the early 1800s.) A version of the melody – recognizable by modern ears as “We Shall Overcome” – was published in the United States in 1794 in The Gentleman’s Amusement magazine, which titled it “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners.”
The song’s present-day lyrics appear to have originated with “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” a hymn by a black Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, that was published at the turn of the 20th century, although apparently to a different tune. It includes the lines “If in my heart I do not yield / I’ll overcome some day.”
By the mid-1940s, Tindley’s words and the now-familiar melody had merged. In 1945, the resulting song, known as “We Will Overcome,” was taken to the picket lines by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., who sang: “We will overcome / And we will win our rights someday.”
Afterward, several of the strikers carried “We Will Overcome” to Highlander Folk School, then in Monteagle, Tenn. It quickly became a favorite of the school’s music director, Zilphia Horton, who had founded Highlander with her husband, Myles, in 1932 to train social justice leaders in a racially mixed setting.
It was at Highlander, in the 1950s, that Carawan first encountered the song.
The son of Southern parents, Guy Hughes Carawan Jr. was born on July 28, 1927, in Santa Monica, Calif. His mother was a poet, his father an asbestos contractor who later died of asbestosis. After Navy service stateside at the end of World War II, the younger Carawan earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Occidental College in Los Angeles, followed by a master’s in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Around this time, Carawan, who sang and played the guitar, banjo and hammered dulcimer, became deeply interested in the use of folk music to foster social progress. But Wayland Hand, a distinguished folklorist with whom he studied at UCLA, warned him against mixing folk music with activism – they had been combined to devastating effect, Hand pointed out, in Nazi Germany.
Disregarded the warning Carawan became active in the folk revival percolating in New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1953, he and two friends, Frank Hamilton (later a member of the Weavers, the musical group closely associated with Seeger) and Jack Elliott (soon to be known as the folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott), took to the road, collecting folk songs and singing for their supper throughout the South.
At Seeger’s suggestion, the three men stopped at Highlander, one of the wellsprings of the civil rights movement. The reworked version of the anthem – titled “We Shall Overcome” – would be born there later in the decade, its words and musical arrangement credited jointly to Carawan, Horton, Seeger and Hamilton.
Horton died in 1956, and in 1959, Carawan succeeded her as Highlander’s music director. The next year, at SNCC’s founding convention, he was invited to lead the delegates in song.
“We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. …,” he sang, accompanying himself on the guitar. Before he finished, as was recounted afterward, the delegates, some 200 strong, had risen from their seats, linked arms and begun singing as one.
An unmistakable measure of the song’s reach came barely five years after Carawan first sang it in Raleigh. On March 15, 1965, in a televised address seen by 70 million Americans, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention to submit a voting rights bill to Congress.
Describing the legislation – which he would sign into law that August as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – Johnson said: “Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.” He continued:
“Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
Johnson added: “And we shall overcome.”