Paddock Music Library

“We Shall Overcome”


By Betty Kim

Last month, Paddock Music Library and East Wheelock House hosted a series of sing-ins, teaching music from the civil rights movement. Tyné Freeman ’17 led each song, singing and playing piano.  Faculty, staff, students, and community members sang along, regardless of their own races and religions.  That doesn’t mean, however, that there was no conversation about the role of race, religion, or other matters of identity in the origins of these songs.  It was important to be thoughtful and specific in contextualizing the songs and the situations.  To do this, Tyné and Memory Apata, Music Library Supervisor, offered historical explanations before each song and opened up discussion to participants, who gave accounts of their personal encounters with the songs, their thoughts on the songs’ purpose and significance, and suggestions for improvising new verses.

One of the first songs learned at the sing-ins was “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, based on a gospel song by Charles Albert Tindley. “We Shall Overcome” has been sung in many different contexts and has a complex history— even the matter of the word “we,” which was changed from the word “I,” is a point of contention.  As the song’s significance was translated to worker’s rights movements and the Civil Rights movement, whites suggested that the pronoun should be changed from “I” to “we” as a symbol of unification. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the Freedom Singers, said in an interview with NPR that “The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we.'”

It’s safe to say, though, that “We Shall Overcome” has a widely acknowledged power to move people; it’s been sung and referenced by frustrated protesters, famous presidents, and even foreign populaces.  One sing-in attendee shared a verse of the Hindi version of the song, which was used in pacifist movements in India.

There were many more songs with histories just as rich at the sing-ins; “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also originally a hymn, became a black national anthem after the lyricist, James Weldon Johnson, became the president of the NAACP.  It also makes an appearance in Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when it is sung at Angelou’s middle school graduation after a white school official demeans her class’ educational ambitions. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” speaks to civil disobedience against racial violence and challenging unjust laws that perpetuate oppression and violence, echoing modern discourse revolving around police brutality against the black community.

This is why these songs are so relevant today; they’re not just a look back at history, but a reminder that racism is definitely not over. As many people have pointed out, racism evolves. Fortunately, there are songs and other forms of protest that evolve to combat it.

For more on Civil Rights protest songs, including a few learned at the Sing-Ins:

Edited by Memory Apata