This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Honourable Mention Song #21: We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger (as Nominated by Jan Fluke).
The marriage of songs and their singers is one that stretches way back for thousands of years. In fact, in some cases, a song, and those who sing it, is actually, History, itself. This is the case for the song, “We Shall Overcome”. It is a song that has existed for several centuries and which has evolved to suit awhile host of singers at various times of crisis; including those caught at sea in storms, people caught under the yoke of racial oppression in the U.S. and elsewhere, those fighting religious and/or political persecution in Northern Ireland, the shipyard workers attempting to unionize at the Gdansk Shipyards in Poland and a myriad of other places and times when people have been in need of a beacon of Hope to guide them forward in their struggle. “We Shall Overcome” is a song that exists to serve, rather than to entertain and, as such, its’ success and importance is not measured in record sales nor performance chart positions. The success of this song can be found in its’ ability to stiffen the resolve of those in need of courage and to help bring together those whose cause requires a unity of purpose. As such, the story of the song, “We Shall Overcome” is one that chronicles the Historical record of our lives. Here is that story.
The musical structure and lyrics to the song that has become, “We Shall Overcome” has existed for centuries and has evolved over time to be what it is today. The earliest evidence connecting this song to its’ past can be found in a 17th Century song of the sea entitled, “O Sanctissima” or, “The Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn”. This hymn was published in a variety of books containing hymns and, as such, was passed down through many Church organizations throughout the world over the years. The next notable historical connection comes from a man named Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia who modified “O Sanctissima” into a new hymn entitled, “I Will Overcome Some Day” in 1901. Rev. Tindley’s hymn was written in a style that we would recognize today as Gospel inspired. It was a song that was meant to rouse the passions of those who sang it. *(As a bit of trivia…..Reverend Tindley wrote dozens of published Biblical-inspired hymns; the most noteworthy of these was the original version of the song, “Stand By Me”, which many of you may know, was made famous half a century later by a man named Ben E. King.) It is not surprising that a few decades later, “I Will Overcome Some Day” began showing up in times of trouble that existed outside of the church. For example, in 1909, there was a recorded incident during a Mine Workers Strike in which an organizational meeting for workers was closed with the singing of “I Will Overcome Some Day”. The song appeared again in 1945 during a tobacco workers strike but, this time, the lyrics had been modified slightly and the song was simply called, “We Will Overcome”. This new iteration was felt to be an important step in the evolution of this song because, by changing “I” to “We”, it changed the focus from an individualized pursuit to a collective one.
The most famous use of the song, now entitled, “We Will Overcome”, happened during the US Civil Rights Marches of the 1950s and 60s. However, that Movement didn’t materialize overnight in response to the Birmingham Bus Boycott or various lynchings and other acts of repression and violence that characterized the times. The Civil Rights Movement evolved over time and was built upon a foundation of much organization and training by those who would put their lives at risk in the name of racial equality. As part of this organization process, a school for activists was established in Tennessee called “The Highlander Folk School“. This was not a school for children but, instead, it was a school that trained adults in the politics of voter suppression, in how to register voters, all about Jim Crow laws and much, much more. Needless to say, a school for political activism tended to attract likeminded people. So it was that one day the musical director of The Highlander Folk School, a person named Zilphia Horton, taught “We Will Overcome” to a white union organizer and singer named Pete Seeger. *It should be noted that one of the mandates of The Highlander Folk School was to unify the races through music. Thus, a white man, like Seeger, was welcomed into the school with the belief that learning from one another was an essential part, going forward, of the goal of achieving racial harmony.
Pete Seeger was a political activist who spread his message of worker’s rights and civil rights, through song. He published a magazine called, the “People’s Songs Bulletin” and then, travelled across the country, banjo in hand, and sang these songs for his audiences. Many authorities at the time viewed Seeger with suspicion; labelling him as a Communist during the McCarthy Witch Hunt days. In any case, the final bit of tweaking to the song, “We Will Overcome” came when Seeger, a trained singer, noted that changing the word, “Will” to the word, “Shall” caused the singer’s mouth to open wider and, as such, it gave the sentence more power when sung. So, Seeger re-wrote the traditional song, changing the lyrics slightly and coming up with the version that we know today as, “We Shall Overcome”. Pete Seeger introduced his new version of the song at The Highlander Folk School. One of those in attendance that day was a young, fiery Church Minister named Martin Luther King. King was impressed by Seeger’s changes and the final version of the song. He advocated for it to become one of the standard hymns sung at all Civil Rights rallies and marches from that point onward. And so, the song “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem to those in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Joan Baez sang the song during the March on Washington, just prior to Dr. King giving his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
As mentioned at the top of this post, some songs are meant to entertain and some songs are meant to serve. “We Shall Overcome” is definitely one of those songs that has served those in need, going back hundreds of years now. It is a song of defiance and solidarity that has helped steel the resolve of many who toiled under the oppressor’s whip, fist and boots in the U.S. and around the world. “We Shall Overcome” was sung at the inauguration of U.S. President, Barack Obama, the first Black man to ever reach and hold that Office. It is, also, a song that has been inducted into The Library of Congress as a song of “cultural significance”.
So, thank you Jan Fluke, for nominating a song like “We Shall Overcome” that has resonated so loudly and clearly on the side of justice over the years. It is an important song whose story was a pleasure for me to tell. I have to say, folks, that I am not surprised that Jan would have nominated such a song. We have known each other for many years; as writers and an educators. All through those years, I have always known Jan to be someone who stands up for those in need. She isn’t hesitant, in the slightest, to voice her concerns and fight for causes that she believes are right and just. That she would hold a song such as “We Shall Overcome” near and dear to her heart speaks volumes of her character. My wife and I feel fortunate to know Jan and look forward to sharing many more cups of tea with her in the years to come. ***Just fyi, Jan’s most current project is as an author of children’s books. I will include a link to her website below.
So, without further delay, here is Mr. Pete Seeger…..folk singer, union organizer, political activist, communist (apparently)….with the seminal classic song, “We Shall Overcome”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Pete Seeger, can be found here.
The link to the official website for “The Story Snuggery”, Jan Fluke’s website, can be found here.
2 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #20: We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger (as Nominated by Jan Fluke) (KTOM)”
Thank you Tom for fleshing out the backstory for this iconic song. I only knew the history back to Zilphia Norton so was surprised to see how old it really was.
I still feel empowered when I hear this song in its simplicity.
Thank you for your kind words and sharing my link. Ta soon…
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I think some people think this is a cliched sort of song, like “Solidarity Forever” is nowadays. But, I find “We Shall Overcome” to be rousing and powerful.