“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Book

I often refer to “my next life.”* I have plans for it. In my next life, I will start weaving sooner so I can learn more and be better at it. In my next life, I will study and work as an art conservator. And as an archaeologist. And I’ll write murder mysteries.

But I have a previous life, too.

And in my previous life, I made this:

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My previous life was as an academic, a college professor, and I did what academics do. I did research and published my analysis.

My field was rhetorical criticism, the analysis of public persuasion. Think of it as literary criticism but, instead of turning my critiques to literature, I endeavored to understand how humans influence, or persuade, each other in more explicit and strategic ways.

My particular area of interest was protest rhetoric and, even more specific, protest song

In some ways, the making I did then was similar to the making I do now and in more ways it was really different.

I loved aspects of it. I loved the subject matter and feeling like I was solving a puzzle when I better understood why a song like “We Shall Overcome” struck so many chords with so many people when other, similar, songs were soon forgotten.

I enjoyed all aspects of the analysis and the learning but I did not enjoy this kind of writing. Once I had the insights, I didn’t care about sharing them, except maybe in class, with my students.

The pressure to “publish or perish” rubbed me entirely the wrong way; it seemed to strengthen my will to resist. And, back then, in the distant past of my previous life, things like footnotes and indexes had to be sorted out laboriously, without help from computer programs . . .

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The whole time I was doing academic writing, I fantasized about writing murder mysteries. Murder mysteries set in an academic department at a comprehensive college in a Rust Belt city in the Northeast. Murder mysteries where the victims were pompous tenured professors . . .

The heroine of my never-to-be-written mysteries was a bright, untenured female assistant prof, super cute and stupendously popular with students, and with an incisive, agile mind, able to see patterns of speech and behavior that led to the murderers.

Sigh.

I hardly remember the me I was in this previous life, even though it’s only been 6 years since I retired and left it behind. Sometimes I come across the book and open it randomly and have no earthly memory of thinking those thoughts, let alone writing the words!

I guess it’s nice to know that this book is in reference libraries and people actually quote passages from it. I used to get a kick out of doing vanity searches in the Internet and seeing where the book showed up.

But I get much more of a kick out of the things I make now. They please me in a way my academic work never did. I’m not sure why that is, but it undeniably so.

So, it’s very clear to me what I need to be doing in my current life! Not what someone tells me I have to do, not what I am expected to do, but what I want and need and love to do.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my book?

And what about you? What will you do in your next life? Will it be the same as that which you’re doing now?


* A note—I don’t really think I get another life, as much as I love the idea. It’s more my way of saying “woulda, coulda, shoulda”!

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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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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.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve said elsewhere that the music I love best is folk music, music made by people like you and me. The music I love best is made and sung by everyday people in response to everyday events in their own lives. I can appreciate the glory of the highly-trained operatic voice and also love a song that has-a-good-beat-and-is-easy-to-dance-to but I come back, every time, to the grittier, more authentic sound of the folk.

I especially love the music of protest and resistance. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the spirituals sung by African-American slaves and published a book about the protest songs of the American Civil Rights Movement. I’ve also studied Irish songs of rebellion and the protest music of the American New Left and of the turbulent 1960s.

The best songs, to my way of thinking, are not sung by an individual performer while others sit and listen quietly. The best songs are shared in the fullest sense—shared words, shared voices, making together a sound and a covenant that could not be made by one person, alone. And the best songs transcend the moment in which they were created, to speak across generations, about the human condition.

This is all by way of providing you a preview of coming attractions! I just know I’ll be writing more about this music and the songs and singers/songleaders that have moved me most. I’ll start, in the next week or so, with my thoughts about what I would call the greatest folk song of all time, “We Shall Overcome.” I hope you’ll come back and follow along!