Pete Seeger, “We Shall Overcome”

"Sometimes we've had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it," Martin Luther King said.

seeger-pete-774-l This article was originally published on January 19, 2015. It is one of the most well-known and stirring folk songs in the history of America, perhaps rivaled only by “This Land Is Your Land” in terms of significance and impact. As is the case with so many folk songs, however, it’s hard to pin down just where “We Shall Overcome” originated. An early twentieth-century gospel song entitled “I’ll Overcome Someday” written by Charles Albert Tindley likely provided the source for the memorable refrain, while the melody strikingly resembles the spiritual “No More Auction Block” (which also inspired the tune for Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.”) The key impetus for the song’s widespread popularization came when a music director from Tennessee named Zilphia Horton learned it from striking tobacco workers in Charleston, SC in 1945. She subsequently taught the song to Pete Seeger, who, along with several other performers, began to spread the song across the U.S. in the 40’s and 50’s. In 1957, Seeger performed at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for an audience that included Martin Luther King, Jr. By the 1960’s, the song served as the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Joan Baez performed it at the March on Washington in 1963, the setting for King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. President Lyndon B. Johnson quoted the refrain in a 1965 speech to Congress emphasizing the import of Civil Rights legislation. "It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life," Johnson said. "Their cause must be our cause, too, because it's not just Negroes, but really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall... Sign In to Keep Reading

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