Tag Archives: music

Music and Resistance

The post-war resistance movement had many strands. For example, the American Communist Party dedicated its work to Labor Union Organizing.

But one important strand was related to music – songs of resistance. Many pioneered this field after the war, but most people would call out Pete Seeger as the leader.

His leadership was ofter felt through an organization he formed in 1945-1946 called “Peoples Songs”. Woodie Guthrie, Burl Ives, and other notables joined him.

Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is a really important piece of music. Written in 1941, recorded in 1951, NPR names it in its Top 100 and says this about it:

NPR on Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

Even more important is “We Shall Overcome” – also cited by NPR as one of the top 100 most important songs:

NPR on "We Shall Overcome

“We Shall Overcome” was the ultimate song of resistance. It began as gospel music that motivated SC tobacco field workers and evolved, with Pete Seeger’s help, into the principle anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

These two songs were picked up by virtually all of the elements of the US resistance movements, most especially the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam resistance. Joan Baez, Joni Michell, and even Bruce Springsteen credit Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger as being a core part of their musical roots.

I might argue that the center of gravity of this particular strand of resistance was the famous Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

It is interesting to me that Peoples Song took a huge risk in 1948 when it bet all of its resources on the campaign of Henry Wallace for President – and Wallace lost. They went bankrupt directly thereafter.

Here is what Wikipedia says:

People’s Songs was an organization founded by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, and others on December 31, 1945, in New York City, to “create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people.”[1] The organization published a quarterly Bulletin from 1946 through 1950, featuring stories, songs and writings of People’s singers members. People’s Songs Bulletin served as a template for folk music magazines to come like Sing Out! and Broadside.

Seeger’s work with the Almanac Singers and trips around the country playing banjo for Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) benefits and other progressive organizations in the 1940s cemented his beliefs that folk music could be an effective force for social change. He conceived creating an organization to better disseminate songs for political action to Labor and other progressive organizations around the country.

The organization was loosely modeled as an American version Great Britain’s Workers Music Association, founded 10 years earlier than People’s Songs.[3] It published out a weekly newsletter with songs, articles, and announcements of Hootenannies and folk dances. It served as a clearing house for progressive entertainers. There were also occasional special issues with relevant songs on an as needed basis geared for specific rallies, strike, and court cases. Soon the booking agency became an offshoot: People’s Artists.

The first People’s Songs convention was held in 1947 in Chicago,[4] and there was a branch in California headed by Mario Casetta, an army friend of Seeger’s from Saipan, who became a key figure in the West Coast folk and world music scene.

In its first year People’s Songs met with success, but this was a trying time for the labor movements in the United States, which had a significant Communist presence since its inception. After World War II, the Communist Party of the United States became much more dogmatic than formerly, and was indifferent to the use of folk music. There was also not much call for new organizing or singing in the streets, as established unions tried to consolidate their gains.

In 1948 it put all its resources into the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, and when that failed everywhere but in New York City, People’s Songs went bankrupt, although its booking agency, People’s Artists, continued for a while. After the financial failure of People’s Songs in 1948, Seeger and Silber put out an interim People’s Songs newsletter and then went on to form the more durable Sing Out! magazine with a similar format.

The Newsletter
“The people are on the march and must have songs to sing. Now in 1946, the truth must reassert itself in many singing voices. There are thousands of unions, people’s organizations, singers and choruses who would gladly use more songs. There are many songwriters, amateur and professional, who are writing these songs. It is clear that there must be an organization to make and send songs of labor and the American people through the land. To do this job we formed People’s Songs. INC We invite your to join us.”

Contributors to People’s Songs Newsletter
People’s Songs contained a lot of written out sheet music, lyrics and tablature. It was an eclectic mix of traditional folk and union songs along with newly written pieces by contemporary folk musicians of the time. Some contributors include the following:

Moe Asch
Anges “Sis” Cunningham,
Tom Glazer
Woody Guthrie
Lee Hays
Waldemar Hille
Zilphia Horton
Burl Ives
Millard Lampell
Pete Seeger
Irwin Silber
Sonny Terry
Josh White

We Shall Overcome

The history of this song involves Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, The Highlander Folk School, SNCC, Labor Organizing in SC Tobacco fields. There are many other threads. The song apparently originated in 1901!

The Highlander Folk School seems to be in the center of much of this history.

Listen to NPR’s Noel Adams (8 minute clip):

Noel Adams on NPR

See this passage below from Wikipedia:

“The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was adapted (from a gospel song) by Highlander music director Zilphia Horton, wife of Myles Horton, from the singing of striking tobacco factory workers in South Carolina in 1946, and shortly afterward was published by folksinger Pete Seeger in the People’s Songs bulletin. It was revived at Highlander by Guy Carawan, who succeeded Zilphia Horton as Highlander’s music director in 1959. Guy Carawan taught the song to SNCC at their first convening at Shaw University. The song has since spread and become one of the most recognizable movement songs in the world.”

Note that Rosa Parks was actually a trained community organizer – trained at the Highlander Folk School.

In an NPR interview, it was stated that the song was originally sung in a sing-song fashion, not as the anthem as it is known today. Also, it originally was written “we will overcome’, until Pete Seeger changed it to “We shall overcome”.

The best history I have seen of the song is below:

This song is based on the early hymn “U Sanctissima.” Charles Albert Tindley, who was a minister at Bainbridge St. Methodist Church in Philadelphia and also a Gospel music composer, added the words in 1901 and called this new hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” In the ensuing decades, the song became a favorite at black churches throughout the American south, often sung as “I Will Overcome.”

The song evolved at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, which was a meeting place and activity center for civil rights activists founded in 1932 (it was later renamed the Highlander Center and relocated to New Market, Tennessee). In 1947, striking tobacco workers from Charleston, South Carolina attended a workshop there and introduced the song (as “I Will Overcome”) to the cultural director of the school, Zilphia Horton. She began performing the song all of her workshops, and taught it to Pete Seeger when he visited the center.

Seeger published the song in 1948 in the newsletter for his People’s Songs collective and began performing it. He changed the title to “We Shall Overcome” and also added two new verses and a banjo part.

In 1959, Guy Carawan took over as cultural director at the Highlander school, where the song was now a staple. Carawan brought it to the burgeoning civil rights movement when he played it at the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April, 1960. Members of this group spread word of the song, and soon it was sung across America at vigils, rallies, protests and other gatherings that called for an inspirational song of freedom.

While the song is most closely associated with Pete Seeger, he downplayed his contribution, saying that the song already existed and that all he really did was change “will” to “shall” because it “opens up the mouth better.”

When Pete Seeger played his updated version of “We shall Overcome” to the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., he gave King’s civil rights movement its anthem. Seeger performed the song for King in 1957 when they attended the 25th anniversary of the Highlander Center in Tennessee. Rosa Parks was also at the event.

The only artist to chart with this song was Joan Baez, whose version reached #90 in the US in November, 1963. She performed the song at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963 before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The album containing the audio from the event was released as We Shall Overcome: Documentary of the March on Washington.

After her first trip to England in 1965 (where she performed with Bob Dylan), Baez’ version of this classic protest anthem went to #26 on the UK chart.
The song wasn’t copyrighted until October 7, 1963. Listed as “New material arranged for voice and piano with guitar chords and some new words,” the copyright was granted to Seeger, Guy Carawan, Zilphia Horton and Frank Hamilton. Horton had died in 1956, so her husband Myles represented her estate in the claim. Myles Horton was co-founder of the Highlander Folk School; Frank Hamilton was a folk singer who worked with Seeger and often performed the song.

All four of the copyright holders (the composer credit is listed as Guy Carawan/Frank Hamilton/Zilphia Horton/Pete Seeger) advanced the song in some fashion, but none profited from the songwriting royalties, which are donated to the We Shall Overcome Fund. Administered by the Highlander Research and Education Center, the fund supports cultural and educational endeavors in African American communities in the South.

By the time the song was copyrighted, the original words written by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901 had been transformed to the extent that he was not due a writer’s credit (giving him one would have made delivering the song’s proceeds to charity very difficult). Tindley does have another musical claim to fame: he also wrote a hymn called “Stand By Me,” which became the basis for the Ben E. King hit of the same name. He was left off the credits for that one, too.

Notable artists who recorded this song include Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul & Mary and Toots & the Maytals. Martin Luther King, Jr. also recorded a spoken word version.

The song was not widely recorded until the 1960s. One of the first recordings appeared in 1960 on the album The Nashville Sit-in Story: Songs and Scenes of Nashville Lunch Counter Desegregation, which was a compilation of songs recorded by demonstrators who participated in a sit-in on February 13 of that year.

Guy Carawan’s version of the song appeared in 1961 on the set Folk Music of the Newport Folk Festival, Vol. 2. “Here, he sings what has become the theme song of the Negro movement in the south,” it states in the liner notes.

Most of Pete Seeger’s recordings of the song were taken from live performances, including his June 8, 1963 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which was released as a live album by Columbia Records called We Shall Overcome.In 2006, Bruce Springsteen included this song on his album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which contained his versions of various songs written by Pete Seeger, who like Springsteen, championed the working class and fought against institutional oppression. Seeger told The Guardian: “I’ve managed to survive all these years by keeping a low profile. Now my cover’s blown. If I had known, I’d have asked him to mention my name somewhere inside.”

The album won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Springsteen recorded it without the E Street Band – it was the first album of cover songs he ever recorded.