A Tale of One Song for NW Folklife

Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams shared this story during Northwest Folklife Festival’s First Look on Wednesday, May 25. This amazing annual folk (and much more) festival packs Seattle Center, Friday – Monday of Memorial Day weekend. Learn more about it at:  NW Folklife.

Northwest Folklife and Seattle Center are partners whose purpose and values are truly aligned. Folklife’s purpose is to strengthen our community through art and culture and create opportunities for all people to celebrate, share, and participate. At Seattle Center, we create exceptional events, experiences and environments that delight and inspire the human spirit to build stronger communities.

Together we believe in giving voice to people in our community. And there is nothing more powerful than a community raising its voice as one. One way to tap into a community’s voice is through song, and so this year’s Folklife Festival cultural focus, “The Power of the Human Voice through Song,”  is again right on the mark of celebrating, sharing, participating, inspiring and building community.

Scientists tell us that we learn more easily and indelibly if the lesson is set to rhyme or song. Think about how you learned the alphabet as a kid. Think about how you sometimes can’t remember where your keys are but you can still remember the lyrics of songs from your youth.

And now with the internet, song lyrics are becoming the most effective medium for conveying social messages to young people. Each month there are more than 1 billion web searches just on lyrics. In fact, 51% of 15-27 year olds search lyrics to try to understand a song. Think of how the power of a song like Macklemore’s “Same Love” conveys the civil rights and social justice of same sex couples.

I would like to go back a little bit and share the story and power of a song that touched my life and how this song was touched by many over the years.

The song is We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome has many suggested origins, from the combination of a 19th century hymn written by Charles Tilden called “I’ll Overcome Some Day” and a spiritual that dates back to the Civil Way called “No more Auction Block for me,” to the more credible tie to Louise Shropshire’s gospel hymn “If My Jesus Wills.”

We Will Overcome was sung by African American tobacco workers led by Lucille Simmons for Zilpha Horton of the Highlander Folk School (an important biracial training ground for activist in labor organizing and racial reform in the south) in 1945. Horton loved the song, added lyrics and used it to inspire her students at Highlander. She also introduced the song to Pete Seeger, who included it in his repertoire and changed it from We Will Overcome to We Shall Overcome, and Highlander’s new musical director Guy Carawan, who is credited with making it a universal call for social justice and human rights in the late 50’s.

When Tennessee State police tried to forcibly close down Highlander in the summer of 1959, Mary Ethel Dozier (an African American high school student) added the verse “We are not afraid.”  An example of the organic nature of folk/freedom songs.

In 1961/62 during the Civil Rights Campaign to integrate public accommodations in Albany, GA, Bernice Johnson Reagon from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took the basic structure of the song, modified the rhythms, and slowed the tempo. These changes brought the song back to the “church” and opened it up for spontaneous vocal punctuations from singers and protestors.  Now you could have unlimited call and response patterns and improvisation possibilities…

An American classic was born.

In terms of the stated goal of integrating public accommodations the campaign Albany was a failure.

But Albany did have ONE HUGE success and that was the birth of Freedom singers. The songs the Freedom singers sang had the power to unify across racial and social economic lines, sustain morale during the darkest days and nights, and easily and consistently convey the ideals and social justice of the civil rights movement.

We Shall Overcome” along with other songs like “Ain’t going to let nobody turn us around,” “Keep your eyes on the Prize,” “This little light of mine,” or Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” kept the light of freedom burning despite the brutality of hate, discrimination and prejudice.

We Shall Overcome” became the standard bearer for Civil and Human Rights all over the world. The song has been sung by protestors in South African, Northern Ireland, Prague, India, Bangladesh and was part of the last speech that Martin Luther King gave in Memphis. In fact, it may not be hyperbole to say that during the Civil Rights movement virtually every American and millions of people worldwide heard “We Shall Overcome” in one form or another.

As music goes, so goes our culture; and the power of this song has created an opportunity to touch all of our souls through shared values and principals, spirit and humanity.

So we are not afraid…we’ll walk hand in hand…we’re on to victory…we shall live in peace because the truth shall make us free.  Yes “We Shall Overcome!”

And in that spirit I come back to the partnership of Northwest Folklife and Seattle Center, because celebrating, sharing, participating, inspiring and building a just community is exactly what we do.

Thank YOU, Peace