We Shall Overcome: Explaining the Power of a Song

I originally posted this to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The song “We Shall Overcome” is closely associated with the American Civil Rights Movement and with Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems appropriate to re-post today, the day Americans celebrate King’s legacy.

Love Those "Hands at Home"

we-shall-overcome-sheet-music-notesYesterday I wrote about the history of the iconic song, “We Shall Overcome.”

How does one little song become so pervasive in the course of human events and, more importantly, why this song? Think of all the songs and all the candidates for immortality—why does one song get forgotten and another transcend its moment?

I worked in the academic field of rhetorical criticism—that’s a fancy term for someone who analyzes messages and tries to understand why people respond to some messages more than others. It stands to reason that, if a message—a speech, a song, a book—is popular and praised then it must somehow meet the needs of many people. My question is, “How so?”

The song “We Shall Overcome” has stood the test of time and cultural meaning. It has been sung as a message of protest and hope, by dramatically different groups of people, for at least 65…

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