I found out far too late that Guy Carawan, the singer, musicologist and activist credited as one of the writers of We Shall Overcome, died on May 2. When I was writing my book I emailed Guy and his wife Candie to request an interview and he graciously answered my questions. He came across as a warm and humble man who took next to no credit for the song. As a tribute, and for anyone interested in the story of We Shall Overcome, here’s the complete email interview. RIP Guy and much love and sympathy to Candie.
When did you first hear We Shall Overcome?
I learned the song and developed a way of playing it in Los Angeles in the 1950s. I may have heard it from Zilphia Horton when I visited Highlander in 1953 with Frank Hamilton and Ramblin Jack Elliot but I’m not sure about that.
When did you first visit the Highlander Folk School?
Frank, Jack and I made a trip through the South in the summer of 1953. I had mentioned to Pete Seeger that I wanted to see the parts of the country where my parents grew up and he encouraged us to include a stop at Highlander. He told me that they used a lot of music there as part of their work on social and economic issues. We found the atmosphere there wonderful, friendly, welcoming and open minded after visiting many more conservative areas of the South, experiencing racism and being stopped by the police several times.
Zilphia was a very warm and encouraging person and a wonderful singer and musician. She was a good contrast to Myles who pushed people to question and think about their beliefs and actions. Zilphia encouraged people and helped them feel good about themselves, their music, their communities.
Did you consider yourself a protest singer?
I considered myself a musician interested in using my music in a positive way. I was inspired by people like Pete Seeger and musicians and singers I met in the Peoples’ Song Movement in Los Angeles. I was also a young person interested in learning about the world, which is why I went to the Soviet Union and China.
After you, Zilphia and Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton is the fourth credited writer. Can you tell me about him?
Frank Hamilton was my singing partner in Los Angeles. He was very young, but an amazing musician. He was creative and versatile instrumentally. He was also spending some time visiting black churches in Los Angeles and had a great feel for African American songs. He developed a beautiful chord structure for We Shall Overcome which greatly influenced the way that I played it. I probably met Frank through the Oliver family. Bill Oliver was active in the Peoples’ Songs and hosted a lot of gatherings at his house.
What exactly was your role in adapting and popularising the song?
I developed a way of playing and singing We Shall Overcome that worked well for me and was easy to get people singing with me. My main role in the history of the song is being in the right place at the right time to teach it to student and adult activists both at Highlander and in communities where I was invited. Ella Baker had heard it at Highlander and wanted me to be at the founding meeting of SNCC.
Is it true that a student at Highlander wrote one of the verses?
A teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Ethel Dozier made up the verse “we are not afraid” during the raid on Highlander in July 1959. People were made to sit in the dark while deputized gun thugs went through their luggage. I was there, but I had already been taken off to jail by the time the song was sung. Septima Clark was in charge of the meeting (Myles was out of the country) and she was arrested. When I and another volunteer protested, we were arrested as well. We spent the night in jail and during the night we could hear Septima singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” to keep her spirits up.
Do you believe there is a definitive final version of We Shall Overcome?
We Shall Overcome evolved and continued to evolve throughout the active days of the Civil Rights Movement (1960-66). As it passed through different campaigns it tended to take on the cultural flavor of each area. In Albany, Georgia, which was a rich musical area it took on a new beat and some additional decorations. In Birmingham it was given a gospel feeling by the movement there. You ask about a “final version” and I don’t actually think there is one.
Was there a hunger in the movement for new songs?
I would say there was some resistance to the older spirituals in the early 1960s, especially by the young people. Some felt those older songs were associated with slavery and oppression. But many of the freedom songs which eventually became useful and powerful were adaptions of the older familiar melodies. And by the Black Power period, there was an embracing of older cultural forms and artists.
How did your activism evolve?
Because of my work at Highlander I was invited to many southern communities in the early 1960s. In particular I became Mrs. Septima Clark’s driver in the South Carolina Sea Islands as she developed the Citizenship School program. She had seen how music could be useful in helping people feel empowered to develop their literacy skills. In this area I became familiar with some of the oldest African American cultural traditions still alive in the US. It was an enriching experience and Candie and I eventually moved there to live for two years.
As I traveled to communities across the South it could be both exciting and also scary. I was arrested several times. And a place like Mississippi was a very frightening place in the early 1960s. However, I was invariably welcomed warmly in the black communities and made to feel appreciated. I think I was young and naive about how dangerous it could really be.
How did you compile your songbooks?
Most of the songs which went into our songbooks were recorded by me on a large Ampex tape recorder I traveled with. I was fortunate to have a relationship with both Moses Asch at Folkways and Irwin Silber at Sing Out Magazine who encouraged me to send material. In terms of deciding on a definitive version of the songs, we were lucky to have Ethel Raim at Sing Out who was a sensitive transcriber. We tried to explain that these songs were evolving and changing and the printed page was only a suggestion of what the songs could be.
Why did We Shall Overcome wane in popularity as the 60s wore on?
By 1965 people in the Movement were becoming cynical and discouraged about overcoming any time soon. Too many people had died and people recognized how deeply racism was embedded in American society. No wonder people didn’t find the same hope in the song We Shall Overcome. I sometimes felt it was inappropriate to suggest it or lead it in civil rights situations. However, in my own concerts and programs where I talked about developments in the South, I continued to sing the song. It has remained an important song at Highlander.
To what extent do you consider it your song?
We Shall Overcome is definitely not my song. It is a movement song that originated in the black church and has gone on to be useful in people’s struggles all over the world. I feel most fortunate that I was able to play a small role in its dissemination and documentation.
What’s the most memorable context in which you heard We Shall Overcome?
Candie laughed when she saw this question and said “don’t forget to mention that we walked down the aisle to it at our wedding in 1961!