Advent, My Way #24

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My favorite Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas album.

In all my ambivalence about the religious aspects of Christmas, I know one thing—I hope you all will find happiness and contentment at this season.

As the song says,

I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer,
From a heathen and a pagan,
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne

The streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the “Prince of Peace”
And they call him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

Advent, My Way #7

It’s time to decorate for Christmas!

You bring out the ornaments—the ones your kids made when they were little, the ones you were given the year you bought your first house, the ones you made from something you saw on Pinterest.

You find the wreath and tartan ribbons and lights for the tree.

You dig out every candle you own and the candlesticks and that special plate for Santa’s cookies.

Of course, you’d never forget the special Christmas stockings, to be hung by the chimney with care.

But what about books? So many of you love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

In our usual minimalist planning for Christmas, I don’t think about this kind of detail. But there are three books that I will run across occasionally during the year that make me think, “Damn. I should put that out at Christmas—I love that book.”

And this year, I’m remembering!

The book I love the most is this one.

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My sister and I grew up in that era when it seems that every kid took piano lessons.

I didn’t care much for the lessons and never learned to play the piano very well—it seems one was expected to practice between the weekly lessons!

But this little book of Christmas music moves me no end.

It sort of captures what Christmas looked like in the early 1960s. I swear, in that era, Santa and the reindeer were not as plump and cutesy and cartoon-ish as they have become.

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It has my grandmother’s handwriting on the cover. I love seeing the unique handwriting of people I’ve lost from my life.

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It has the songs that I loved best then and the ones that still hit me in the solar plexus now. They’re all here: Silent Night, Away in the Manger, The First Noel, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

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And it has a few that make me smile now, even though I paid no attention to them then.

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It also displays my incredible artistic talent and vision, as I used it as a coloring book. I liked coloring better than playing the piano. (That got me in trouble when I colored the libretto from my mother’s recording of Carmen . . . )

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So, the music book will sit out this year, on a music stand because we don’t have a piano any longer. Seeing it will remind me of a simple time, loving family, the moving melodies of Christmas, and of my sweet, magical childhood.

And, I’ll ask it again. What about books? You love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

They Sang As If They Knew Me

Morland_Maid-IroningI love linens. I love ironing. I love folk music.

And I love a man who loves a woman who irons.

Imagine, just imagine, how I would feel about the melding of all four of these loves! Can you imagine?!

Well, my friend with a Vintage Attitude could imagine, and she rocked my world by introducing me to this song:

DASHING AWAY WITH THE SMOOTHING IRON

(YouTube video)

‘Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Tuesday morning
When I beheld my darling,
She looked so neat and charming
In ev’ry high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-hanging out her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

‘Twas on a Wednesday morning
………………..
A-starching of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Thursday morning
………………..
Ironing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Friday morning
………………..
A-folding of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
………………..
Airing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
………………..
A-wearing of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

Oh. My. Goodness. I finally have a theme song.

The lovely lassie spends every day of the week working on her linens—I can relate!

But who would write a song about ironing linens??

Ah, the British, of course. The song seems to have been first published by the musicologist Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and appears to originate from Somerset.

Those Somerset gals knew their linens!

I love that the song has a long history but, more than that, it’s a song about being adored for taking good care of linens. You don’t find a lot of folksongs honoring the hard work women did!

And work hard this woman did, to keep the linens clean.

She washes them. She hangs them to dry. She starches them. She irons them. She folds them. She airs them. And she even wears some of them, on Sunday, when she rests from the other tasks and steps out on the town!

Maybe I should change the last two verses of the song, to reflect the other steps I take—that’s the very essence of the oral/folk tradition, right?

My last verses will go like this:

‘Twas on a Saturday morning
………………..
Taking pictures of her linen-o
Dashing away ……….

‘Twas on a Sunday morning
………………..
A-selling of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away!

Now if I can just get my husband to learn to play this song on his guitar. And to agree to gaze adoringly at me while he sings it . . .

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How about you? Do you have a theme song that sums up large chunks of your life?

Made on the 4th of July

IMG_8143What do your “hands at home” make for a special celebration? The decorations? The flower arrangement? The bread? The ice cream?

One day a year, on America’s Independence Day, we go a step further.

We make music.

IMG_8178Two of us have sung together for over 30 years. A little girl grew up singing and joined in. Two of us married and brought new musicians to the group.

We play and sing only a couple of times a year but always, always, on the 4th of July. Most of us never pick up a guitar at any other time.

Because we play together only once or twice a year, we play with no finesse. Self-taught, we play really easy songs and try to avoid F-chords (or those F-ing chords, as a wit among us calls them). We have trouble finding enough capos, let alone the same key. We drink beer and complain about how much the guitar strings hurt our fingers.

We sing songs you may know—of green alligators and long-necked geese, of times that are a-changin’, of Charley on the MTA.

We have loyal listeners who never find fault (mostly because they are related to us!)

Every time we get together and play, I think we should do it more often—there’s something about making music, even not-very-good music, that seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

When we sit by the campfire and sing, it’s hard not to think of other fires, other songs, other singers who have found warmth and community and harmony through making music.

It may only happen once a year for us, but the feeling lasts. That feeling always makes me think of one of my favorite songs, by John McCutcheon:

And I wish you songs to speed you through the evening,
And I wish you rest at the close of the day,
And a harbor safe till the morning light,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night

So gather `round, you friends and lovers,
Let the darkness come for the fire is bright;
Though the road is long, love makes us stronger,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night.

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The Voice in My Head

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Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

I hear voices. More precisely, I hear one voice. It’s the benevolent and stirring voice of an old man who died a few months ago.

Do you think that’s weird?

If you knew me better, it would make perfect sense.

The voice I hear is that of American folksinger, Pete Seeger, and it’s always singing.

I have been hearing, and being inspired by, Pete’s voice since I was a teenager and it has been a sort of soundtrack of my life, in ways large and small. Listening to recordings of him singing with The Weavers introduced me to folk and topical music, and completely changed my musical tastes forever. His version of “We Shall Overcome” made me want to write a doctoral dissertation and a book about the music of the civil rights movement, thus shaping my academic career.

When I drive along the Hudson River to visit my sister, I hear the voice sing “sailing down my golden stream.” When I get a big sloppy kiss from my husband, the voice whispers “kisses sweeter than wine.” When I see McMansions lined up along the road, the voice sardonically comments on “little boxes made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.” *

There are guys replacing a floor in our house right now and all that I can think is, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.” I work every day on a quilt that is covered with words I learned from Pete. Hell, when I go looking for my little black cat, Flower, I sing along with Pete—“Where has little Flower gone?”

It’s not just his voice. When I was a young woman, I bought a banjo and decorated the head because Pete had a banjo and decorated his. We have what amounts to a small shrine to Pete in our house.

You have your heroes, I have mine.

I wanted to write something when Pete died in January but the time was not right. I was away from home, caught up in a vacation with friends and dolphins. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t pull my thoughts together.

I felt like Pete’s voice had gone silent and I simply couldn’t find words to say how that made me feel. The soundtrack of my life . . . gone? Would this be, for me, the day the music died?

As I’ve had some time to process the death of this hero of mine, I’ve seen clearly that Pete’s voice will never go silent; his music will never die. He spent his life doing what he could to teach America to sing and to care enough to raise a voice. In so doing, he ensured his continued presence and influence.

He taught so many of us so much.

He taught us that it is more fun to sing along than to sing alone.

He taught us that words, and music, have consequences.

He taught us, and showed us with his actions, that individuals matter and can make a difference, whether it’s in the realm of civil rights, war protest, or cleaning up a dirty river.

He also taught us to carry it on. As he grew older, he didn’t stop singing. He didn’t rest on his considerable laurels.

He found ways to carry it on. He brought in younger singers, like Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, and his own grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, to sing with him. He acknowledged, and seemed to embrace, his declining abilities and used it as an opportunity to counsel us others to do the same:

And when these fingers can strum no longer,

Hand the old banjo to a young one stronger.

But he never fully handed over the banjo to the young ones stronger. He kept singing. He sang in 2008, at President Obama’s inauguration. In 2011, at 92 years old, he led the Pete Seeger March, which walked in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Four months before his death, he performed for Farm Aid.

I took a walk yesterday and, as I often do, I listened to Pete on my iPod. It made me sad but it made me happy. All this wonderful music, carrying on. Then came the song that, to me, sums up Pete’s approach to life. It’s from the tribute album, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The album concludes with Pete singing, in his quavery old-man voice, a flickering shadow of the rich tenor of his youth. He sings:

Yes I’m still searching,
For a way we all can learn,
To build a world where we all can share
The work, the fun, the food, the space,
the joy, the pain . . .

That’s the voice in my head. The soundtrack of my life. It’s Pete Seeger voice, young and vibrant, and hopeful. Old and thin, and still hopeful. The voice in my head gives me hope. Thanks, Pete. You’re my hero; may you always be the voice I hear.

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Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger-Rodriguez, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake

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* Pete did not write all of the songs we associate him with. But that doesn’t make them any less his songs.

 

A Quilt for All Reasons: IBMTD #5

1812Since I finished my last quilt (finally!), I’ve been meaning to start a new one (IBMTD). I love to have a project to pick up and work on at odd moments and I love the process of stitching and watching something pretty develop from my own hands.

But I hadn’t started anything because I simply wasn’t inspired. I didn’t know what direction to go, what pattern to use, what fabrics to choose. Nothing was speaking to me.

But then I learned about a quilt challenge that has been going on for a couple of years to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This project focuses on the making of “cot to coffin” quilts and has been taken up by quilt guilds in towns where battles took place in the War of 1812. Quiltmakers design and make quilts of 70 inches by 30 inches, using techniques and fabrics consistent with what quilters would have had access to in 1812-1814.

The moment I heard about this project, I was smitten, and inspired to make a quilt for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, NY, to take place in September 2014. Other members of the local quilt guild will be making quilts, too, and the entries will be displayed during the celebration.

The Cot to Coffin project and my plan for my quilt let me bring together so many elements that I love:

First, of course, I love that I’m quilting. I love adding my hands to the tradition of working with textiles to create beautiful, meaningful, and useful objects.

Second, this project takes history out of the dusty past and asks us to re-consider an unusual war. The War of 1812 was supposedly fought between Great Britain and America but really mostly affected the lives of Americans and Canadians, as well as native peoples of the area.

When the war was over, both Americans and Canadians considered themselves to have been victorious and the outcome has led to 200 years of peace and good will between the two countries—you can’t make that claim for a lot of wars!

I also love that these quilts focus us on people often overlooked by history—the foot soldiers and the women left at home as the battles were waged. The size of the quilts was determined at least in part because of a tradition documented from the later quilts made for Civil War soldiers. The size of 70 inches by 30 inches is “about the size of a man” and organizers of this quilt challenge thought it was possible that such quilts, which were “small enough to roll into a backpack while on the march . . .  and may well have served as a burial shroud,” would’ve been used in earlier wars as well.

I imagine a mother or wife hurrying to make a quilt to send with her son or husband, to keep him warm and to bring a bit of home into battle. And, should the worst happen, the quilt, and the love stitched in, could carry the soldier to his grave.

Third, this quilt challenge appeals to me is because I grew up in the Plattsburgh area and have been hearing about the Battle of Plattsburgh my whole life. I can envision the locales where the fighting took place and I see historical markers every day that remind me of the battle.

Beyond this, my own ancestors have lived in the North Country of upstate New York at least since the late 1700s and, since I know they fought in the American Revolution, it seems likely that some of them also fought in the War of 1812. Did some woman in my lineage make a quilt to accompany a man she loved, as he went off to fight?

Even if not, I know that eyes related to mine watched the battle. The family farm was on a hill overlooking Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. The story passed down through generations tells of my forebears hiding the cows in the woods, so British soldiers wouldn’t take them for food, and then watching the battle take place on the lake below.

Fourth, this project excites me because it will allow me to honor a song I’ve loved for a long time. I’ll tell you more about all of this in future posts but a key part of my quilt design is a set of panels upon which I’ll embroider the words to this song.

The song is called “The Banks of Champlain” and I learned it years and years ago from an album by my folk hero, Pete Seeger. The song is said to have been written by the wife of the field commander of the Battle of Plattsburgh, to convey her thoughts and worries as she watched the battle unfold.

I love this romantic narrative, as it poignantly relays the thoughts of a woman who worries about her husband at war. She doesn’t just send him off to war and worry from afar but, rather, she watches as he fights the war before her very eyes. Her husband, Alexander Macomb, and his counterpart, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, are given historical credit for the strategies that allowed a small contingent of Americans to defeat the much larger British force.

So, I have a new project that combines a craft I love, history, romance, a family angle, a folksong—what more could I want? One more thing—a clear, unequivocal deadline! With my history of letting projects languish incomplete for years, it’s motivating (and a little terrifying!) to have a specific date by which this needs to be finished.

And that date is the end of June. Expect to be hearing more as time gets tight!

“And Then She Made the Lasses O”

green growYesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, 18th-century Scottish poet and songwriter.

Burns is best known for “Auld Lang Syne,” which Americans sing on New Year’s Eve and Scots sing at Hogmanay. He also wrote “Scots Wha Hae,” a patriotic anthem of Scotland, and dozens of other poems.

My favorite, though, is “Green Grow the Rashes O.” It’s a paean to women, based on older (very) bawdy songs. I love Burns’ version for its theme of artistry and crafting, and for Burns’ gentle honoring of all women.

In the final verse of this song, a “toast to the lassies,” Burns casts Nature as an artist, who turns her loving hands to the making of humans.

At first, while an apprentice, Nature practices on making man.

And, then, having worked out the kinks, Nature makes woman:

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her ‘prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O

What’s not to love about that sentiment?!

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Full lyrics:

There’s nought but care on ev’ry han’
In every hour that passes, O
What signifies the life o’ man
An’ ’twere na for the lasses, O

The war’ly race may riches chase
An’ riches still may fly them, O
An’ tho’ at last they catch them fast
Their hearts can ne’er enjoy them, O

But gie me a cannie hour at e’en
My arms about my Dearie, O
An’ warly cares, an’ warly men
May a’ gae tapsalteerie, O

For you sae douse, ye sneer at this
Ye’re nought but senseless asses, O
The wisest Man the warl’ e’er saw
He dearly lov’d the lasses, O

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man
An’ then she made the lasses, O

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

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.

We Shall Overcome: Explaining the Power of a Song

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 years and probably much longer.

By focusing on changes the song underwent and its place in the American civil rights movement, I hope I can provide some insight about how and why the song has achieved such iconic status.

The song came to mean so much to the African-American community for several reasons: its history, the way the specific words resonated, and because the act of singing together has power of its own.

“We Shall Overcome” was an old song, with roots and meaning in the community. The civil rights movement, to be successful, had to bring together supporters from all walks of life. College students needed to able to work with and communicate with unlettered sharecroppers. Young needed to communicate with old, North with South, black with white.

One way activists could bridge these gaps was through the use of old songs that everyone knew and related to. While some of the younger activists resisted the singing of spirituals and songs from “the bad old days,” others seem to have realized it was a way to reach out, not just to older African-Americans, but to all kinds of people who would find the music engaging and appealing.

The use of these songs also built on past tradition and created a sense of community with those who had come before. African-Americans had been using song to deal with adverse conditions since the time of slavery, and the songs of the civil rights movement were a continuation of that resistance. Singing the old songs placed the singers within a tradition of singing and gave them the sense of building on, extending, the deeds of their ancestors.

The deceptively simple words of the song are the source of much of its power. The changes made in the song, as it evolved, give us some insight to what people wanted and needed from the song.

The song seems to have originally been written as “I will overcome.” This made sense if the song was to be sung as a hymn or in a religious context–“I will overcome my sins” or my baser instincts or whatever.

In the context of a social movement, however, with protestors singing the song as a group, the needs changed. One hundred people singing “I will overcome” might ultimately come down to a meaning similar to that same group singing “we will overcome,” but the point was that no one person could succeed or bring abut the change needed without the group. The group, as a group, was necessary for change to occur. The “power in many” made a difference.

The original song was also subtly different than the song the world came to know in the use of the word “will,” rather than “shall.” It seems such a little thing but think about the words—do they communicate differently?

I’d say yes, emphatically. To say “will” simply expresses an intention. “Shall” carries extra weight and force. We associate the word “shall” with the language of law, regulations and directives and to express that which is mandatory, or inevitable, “Shall” also has Biblical overtones and a sense of determination that is missing in the use of “will.” And, because we tend not to use “shall” in everyday talk, it attracts attention when it is used and gives a special sound and power to the statement.

What about the word “overcome,” though? Some would argue that that word was too strong and would sound threatening to listeners. In a context where white America was uneasy about thousands of African-Americans coming together to protest, would their use of “overcome” sounds too confrontational and off-putting?

I’d argue that the word “overcome” worked because, in fact, it is not a word likely to evoke fear. When we use the word “overcome,” we tend not to use it to talk about overcoming people. We’re more likely to say, “I need to overcome my weaknesses” or “overcome the odds against me.” The word “overcome” is ambiguous in the best possible way and suggests a rising above or transcending of difficulties rather than violence. This, combined with the fact that the song did not ever refer explicitly to enemies or the “other,” meant the song could be sung with sounding combative.

Beyond the recurring words “we shall overcome,” the verses of the song were simple and flexible, and could be added to, to fit the needs of a particular situation. One activist told of just such a moment:

One night in the winter of 1957, officers of the law burst in [to a meeting of activists]—not policemen really, just angry white men who’d been deputized by the local sheriff and given license to put a scare into the students of social change. They cut the power and forced the students to lie in the dark as they smashed furniture and ransacked the place in search of “Communist literature.”  And there on the floor, the trembling students began to sing [We Shall Overcome]. Softy at first. Then louder. One of the students was a 13-year-old girl named Jamalia Jones. She knew only one way to control her fear. In the darkness, she made up a new verse: “We are not afraid, TODAY.”

And the activists said that, even though they WERE afraid, when they sang, together, that they were not, it helped them address and overcome their fears, together, and continue their activities.

In addition to the group history with the song and the power of the individual words the act of singing was critical in the success of the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” and the other freedom songs were sung in unison, not by a performer singing for others. Everyone present raised voices together, making a big, powerful sound that had to be reassuring to anyone fearful about repercussions.

This act of raising voices together built an actual, tangible community, where each voice mattered to the overall sound. Additionally, every singer, in singing, voiced a commitment. Humans truly believe that the voicing of a commitment makes the commitment stronger and “real.” If we didn’t, why would we ask couples to say, “I do” at a wedding, or ask a president to speak the Oath of Office? When activists sang, they made an oral commitment to the cause at a higher level.

When people sang together, as in the civil rights movement, differences among them could be transcended. When, together, they sang “we,” they created an “us.” Given the magnitude of change they were looking for, this sense of community was a necessity.

The singing of “We Shall Overcome” became ritualized in ways that took this sense of being part of something big even further. When this song was sung, at the beginning and ending of every meeting, it took on the power of a benediction. Activists stood next to each other with shoulders touching and held hands with right arm over left, swaying in time with the song. The ritual was theirs and, like any ritual, created a sense of belonging and group identity.

Lastly, singing in general gave the activists an outlet through which they could take a stand and make themselves heard while remaining committed to the primary strategy of the civil rights movement, that of nonviolence. When faced with violence, they sang. When faced with angry dogs and knocked about with fire hoses, they sang. In the oral histories from the civil rights movement, you can find numerous references to the times when, faced with abuse and violence, protestors found the strength to “turn the other cheek” through their songs.

I could go on and on (I already have!). “We Shall Overcome” worked in the civil rights movement, and continues to work for other protestors and activists and people in difficult times, because of its history—it is connected to past struggles and successes. The specific words matter very much—they are firm and clear, but nonconfrontational, and adaptable. The physical and communal act of melding ones voice with others connects people and offers both reassurance and power.

The many strategies used by civil rights activists provide a virtual game plan for protestors in later movements. The song has connected thousands, bringing them strength and courage; right now, someone, somewhere is singing it.

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If you wonder about my credentials on this subject, let me reassure you. I spent my academic career studying the rhetoric of protest music. For much more on the topic see Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

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We Shall Overcome: A Song For, and By, the People

pselma9aDeep in my heart, I do believe,

That we shall overcome, someday.

With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, iconic speech, “I Have A Dream,” our thoughts return to the American civil rights movement.

So much can, and has, been said about this movement. And, because I can, I’m going to say more, not so much about the movement, in general, or the March on Washington, specifically, but on the song that became the anthem of the movement—“We Shall Overcome.”

As you know, I love things that bear the imprint of real people, and this includes music. No song better exemplifies the power of the human voice to bring about change in the world than the song, “We Shall Overcome.”

Above all else, the civil rights movement was a people’s movement. You can talk about the leaders—the Martin Luther Kings and the Ralph Abernathys and the rest. They were important but the most important folks in the struggle for civil rights were just that, the folk.

Many, many regular people, struggling in day-to-day life, but ready to take their chances and stand up for freedom.

One of the means by which these regular people communicated with each other, and with the world they were trying to change, was by singing. The so-called freedom songs, including “We Shall Overcome,” provided them with a way to express hopes and fears, to communicate about aspirations, and to present a unified and peaceful image of the community.

These songs were not presented by an expert singer to passive listeners; the freedom songs were, fundamentally, songs meant for singing, and everyone sang.

“We Shall Overcome,” a song we so associate with the civil rights movement, had been used, in varying forms for many years before.

In doing research on the song, I found many sources that said that the first version was written as “I’ll Overcome Someday,” by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, in very early 1900s. But others, including Pete Seeger and Bernice Johnson Reagon, seem to believe that the song was much older and that Tindley adapted it and set it in print. Either way, the song was originally sung in churches with verses that said, “I’ll be all right” and “I’ll see the Lord someday.” (It should be noted that others have made claim on the song as well).

By 1945, the song was clearly being used politically, to bolster the nerves of singers as they sought change in their lives. Picketers sang the song during a strike by black tobacco workers in South Carolina; instead of “I will overcome,” the words by then had been changed to “we will overcome”—a significant alteration.

Soon thereafter, the song was brought to Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee, by union activists and another significant change was made to the wording. Singers no longer sang “we will overcome;” they asserted “we shall overcome.”

In 1957, Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy visited Highlander and heard the song. As the story goes, King later found himself humming the song and commented,  “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”

In 1960, a leader at Highlander, Guy Carawan, began teaching “We Shall Overcome” to civil rights activists, who taught it to others at mass meetings. The SNCC Freedom Singers began singing the song as well and very soon the song was considered the anthem of the movement, the one song out of many that seemed to best express the thoughts and feelings of the activists.

The singing of “We Shall Overcome” became ritualized in many ways. Meetings began and ended with the song. Participants stood next to each other, with shoulders touching. They held hands, with right arm over the left, and swayed with the music. And everyone sang. This was not a performance but full-voiced participation.

By March 15, 1965, the civil rights movement was undoubtedly changing. Deadly racial violence flared up, as African-Americans were attacked by police while preparing to march to protest voting rights discrimination. After these attacks, President Johnson called for Voting Rights Act, to enforce the right to vote, and he used the words “we shall overcome” in his speech. As the tenor of black protest changed in the mid to late-60s, the singing voices went quiet.

But that was not the end of the story of “We Shall Overcome.” Unlike most of the other songs of the civil right movement, this one transcended that situation and has continued to reassure and galvanize singers around the world ever since.

The words and song have shown up in Indonesia, Beirut, East Berlin, South Africa, Egypt, Tiananmen Square, all through Latin America, and all over the United States after September 11, 2001. Versions abound on Facebook and YouTube. And, of course, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has brought the song to our attention again as well.

That’s the basic history of one song. The larger question, though, is 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? If you care to stop back tomorrow, I’ll share my thoughts on that subject!

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If you wonder about my credentials on this subject, let me reassure you. I spent my academic career studying the rhetoric of protest music. For much more on the topic see Kerran L. Sanger, “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement.  New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.