Pete Seeger On The History of 'We Shall Overcome'
Interview by Josh Baron
The person who was really responsible for making ‘We Shall Overcome’ the number one song back in the civil rights era was a man named Guy Carawan. … I’ve found out since then that the song started off as a union song in the 19th century.
* Interview by Josh Baron | by phone, 2010 | digital recorder
* Executive Producer: David Gerlach | Producer: Thea Chaloner
David Gerlach: The question today is: just how does a song become more than just a song or even just a popular song? How does it come to define an era and carve out a prominent place in American history? Well, our contributor Josh Baron got an answer when he spoke with folk music legend Pete Seeger. They talked over the phone and Seeger was still going strong past 90 years old.
Pete Seeger: Josh Baron, this is Pete Seeger. But I’m hard of hearing, so you have to speak very, very clearly.
Josh Baron: It’s a deal.
David Gerlach: Now back in 1963, Pete Seeger recorded the song “We Shall Overcome.” It was played during a famous concert at Carnegie Hall. This just weeks before the March on Washington. And the song proved to be a huge hit for Seeger. But he says this anthem of the civil rights movement has many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. So here’s Pete Seeger on genesis of this very famous American song. This is Blank on Blank.
Pete Seeger: The person who was really responsible for making it the number one song back in those days was a man named Guy Carawan. He got involved in the civil rights movement and was in charge of music at a tiny little labor school call Highlander Folk School. In 1960, Guy Carawan sent messages to the civil rights movement all through the South from Texas to Florida to Maryland and he said, ‘We’ll have a whole weekend of singing in the movement.’ “The movement” meant, of course, the civil rights movement. And Guy introduced this song with a new rhythm that I had never heard before. It’s called 12-8 time. You still have four beats there.
[Music: Guy Carawan “We Shall Overcome”]
Pete Seeger: You divide up each one of the four beats into three short beats. So it’s one, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. And on the bass string of the guitar you get those 12 beats going and a very steady tempo. And if you clap your hands on it, it’s on the second beat and the fourth beat, not on the first and third. So it’s one, we shall overcome. It was the hit song of the weekend in February 1960. During the next few months 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. It was probably sung fairly fast, “we will overcome, we will overcome.” Because there was a gospel tongue and this is one of the verses in it.
[Music: The Mighty Clouds of Joy - “We Will Overcome”]
Pete Seeger: When it was taught to me I changed it to “shall.” It opens up the mouth better. I recorded it at Carnegie Hall.
[Clip: Pete Seeger Live at Carnegie Hall, 1963]
Pete Seeger: It was the only record I ever made which sold. The record was called “We Shall Overcome.” It sold 500,000 copies, which for me was a huge sale. 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.’
[Music: Guy Carawan “We Shall Overcome”]
Pete Seeger: The trouble is I can’t talk anymore, because I’ve arrived where I’m supposed to be.
Josh Baron: Okay.
[Crowd in background cheers]
Pete Seeger: I just walked into the hall where I’m supposed to sing in a few minutes.
David Gerlach: That’s Pete Seeger on the genesis of the song “We Shall Overcome” and this is Blank on Blank. Thanks go out to Josh Baron, the editor-in-chief at Relix magazine for adding his interview to the archive. Now for more interviews you can hear nowhere else, head over to BlankonBlank.org. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.
Music: Pete Seeger “We Shall Overcome” | The Mighty Clouds of Joy “We Will Overcome” | Guy Carawan “We Shall Overcome”
Photos: Jennifer Konig via Flickr
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