Freedom Song

Folk singer, activist, songwriter, and banjoist Pete Seeger died this week at age 94. He was a well-known figure hereabouts, partly, of course, for his latter-day shows at the Bijou Theatre, some of which were especially memorable. At one, in the '80s, a special guest in that old house, and at a reception upstairs afterward, was none other than Rosa Parks, the civil-rights legend, who smiled sweetly during the accolades.

Everybody who saw Seeger perform left the auditorium feeling they knew him personally. This rare spirit who long performed alongside Woody Guthrie was still performing and sometimes demonstrating well into the 21st century.

Seeger was close to several folks connected to the Highlander School, the civil-rights training center that was evolving into a folk-music center during the dozen years it was based in Knoxville. Seeger inspired folk singer/activist Guy Carawan's interest in the banjo, and the two sometimes worked together. It was around 1959, just before Highlander's move to Knoxville, when the unique center was based near Monteagle, Tenn., that Highlander founder Myles Horton's wife, Zilphia, began playing with an old spiritual that had been reborn as a workers' rights song. After Zilphia's premature death, Carawan, Highlander's music director, applied it to the civil-rights struggle.

"We Shall Overcome," in its final form, was the product of several evolutions over several years, and multiple contributors. On the credits to "We Shall Overcome," Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan's names are listed alongside each other, along with those of Zilphia Horton and folk singer Frank Hamilton.

Here's how the Carawans told the story to Metro Pulse when we met them at the current campus of Highlander, just east of Knoxville near New Market, in 2005:

"Zilphia [Horton] sang the song for many years, at Highlander, as part of the labor movement, the black tobacco workers, the black union in South Carolina—it had been their song," Guy Carawan said. "And when she sang it, she sang it with no rhythm or harmony, she just sang it, and she had a beautiful voice, she just sang, ‘We will overcome,' it was beautiful and touching, and had movement by the time I got to it."

He witnessed some verses added to it, most famously the "We are not afraid" lyric, which was suggested by a teenaged girl from Montgomery, Mary Ethel Dosier, who was there the night in 1959 when police raided Highlander.

"I put some chords to it and a beat to it, and I just happened to be in a position to introduce that song at the founding meeting of SNCC." The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee would be one of the more strident and best known of the civil-rights organizations of the 1960s. "So before you know it, they were saying, that skinny white boy with the guitar was singing that song."

When we talked to him, Carawan opened a guitar case and brings out a scarred, dark-stained Martin acoustic guitar—he got it secondhand somewhere in the South back in the '50s, he doesn't recall where—and began playing and singing, "We will overcome …"

"So in the early days I was singing that to a four-beat. It worked pretty well, but at a certain point, by the time the Albany, Ga., people came up here, Bernice Reagan, Ruth Harris, and a lot of other powerful singers out of that area, they sang this song without a four-beat, they put a triplet to it, gave it the Motown beat, and sang it a cappella. Then there were a bunch of people here who immediately knew how to add a bass part, or an alto part, and it fleshed out harmonically, and in that form, the song became so powerful. You didn't need any instruments or anything with an a cappella thing, it began to grow, and before you know it, it was a world-class freedom song."

When Carawan told us the story, he didn't give himself a lot of credit for the song's final form; still, he's one of the four authors listed on the copyright, along with his old friends Pete Seeger and Frank Hamilton and the late Zilphia Horton.

"Zilphia recognized it as beautiful," explained Candie. "She took it out to many, many union gatherings, besides teaching it to people who came to workshops at Highlander. And then Guy had the chance to introduce it to the civil-rights movement. At a certain point, Pete [Seeger] and his managers said, ‘This song is gonna make a lot of money someday, and it better be protected.' And that's when the decision was made to put the four names on the copyright. Whether they were the best four to put on there, I don't know. But the main thing is it got protected at that point, and all the royalties go into a fund. And that fund can be used by community groups throughout the South for cultural projects, and there's a little board of directors of people from the movement, including Guy, but the rest are from the movement, and they make the decisions of how to spread the money around."