THE LEADING US folk singer and civil rights activist Guy Carawan, who died on May 2 at the age of 87, will go down in history as the man who gave the world the anthem We Shall Overcome — though the song was much more of a collective effort than the popular perception of it.
In the late 1950, London was full of US expatriate folk singers, some of them exiles from McCarthyite persecution, others seeking out the British roots of the American tradition.
Some of them, like Carawan and Peggy Seeger, were on their way to the sixth world youth festival in Moscow which attracted 34,000 participants in 1957. While in Britain, Carawan had a minor hit with the single Michael Row the Boat Ashore, backed by Vern Partlow’s anti-nuclear talking blues Old Man Atom, with the memorable lines : “I hold this truth to be self-evident/That all men may be cremated equal.”
From Moscow, Carawan and Seeger were invited to travel to China. It was a journey strictly forbidden by the US State Department, who summoned them home to answer accusations of disloyalty. Seeger avoided extradition by acquiring British citizenship through marriage but Carawan went home to face the music.
Ironically, by taking away Carawan’s passport, the US establishment concentrated his musical work on his homeland, resulting ultimately in his popularising the anthem forever associated with him, We Shall Overcome.
Carawan didn’t in fact write the song because, like many other militant songs of the US south, it had gospel origins. The word “overcome” first appeared in the lyrics of We’ll Understand It By and By, composed by the Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia in 1903: “When the saints of God are gathered home,/We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome.”
This mutated into I Will Overcome— still on a gospel theme —but, during the 1946 strike of several hundred employees of the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, a woman called Lucille Simmons changed the words “I will overcome” to “We will overcome.”
The strikers visited the Highlander folk school in Tennessee which, as well as training union organisers and leaders in 11 southern states from 1932 onwards, also pioneered desegregation in the trade union movement.
Simmons taught the song to Zilphia Horton who, in turn, taught it to Pete Seeger, who published it as We Will Overcome in the first People’s Songs Bulletin— which is where Carawan learned it.
Oppression by the US authorities fed into Carawan’s life. It didn’t cause him to keep his head down and hope he’d be left alone. He became even more of a singing activist.
He had already visited Highlander before his trip to Moscow and Beijing and he went there again in 1959 and a year later taught the song to 70 young activists, following which they and he went to the founding conference of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), who took it and made it their own.
The SNCC Freedom Singers, Rutha Harris, Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Chuck Neblett travelled the country singing on college campuses, in churches and community centres, raising funds and awareness. The rest is history. As the New York Times described it in in 1963, We Shall Overcome became “the Marseillaise of the integration movement.”
But the song, and Carawan’s part in making it an international anthem of struggle, tell us something we need to remember about individuals and their relationships with the communities for whom they become the voices. Carawan never gave up.
Joe Hill, a previous singing agitator, told us on the eve of his execution: “Don’t mourn. Organise!” That would be a suitable response to Carawan’s death at a time when the forces of evil seem to be triumphant throughout the capitalist world.