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“We Shall Overcome” Controversy, Lawsuit and History

The classic folk standard “We Shall Overcome” doesn’t stay out of the news for very long. It has been a controversial “Public Domain” song for nearly a century.
“It began as a folk work song, became a hymn, and then was used politically for the first time on the picket lines of the tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945. In the early 1960s, it became an inspirational force in the civil rights struggle. We hear from Pete Seeger, Guy and Candi Carawan of the Highlander Center, and Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founding members of the Freedom Singers.” —NPR

We Shall Overcome ComplaintThe [2016] case against ‘We Shall Overcome’s publishers reveals some of the folly of trying to copyright a folk song. What people like [Pete] Seeger treasured about the folk tradition was the way that songs could be passed down from generation to generation, picking up bits and pieces, losing others, and gradually changing over time.”

“A folk song is a living thing, and therefore it’s very hard to set it in stone, as a copyright seeks to do. ‘We Shall Overcome’ was repeatedly published in leftist outlets with slightly different words, or with verses added or subtracted. Sometimes there was a copyright notice included, and sometimes there was not. This sort of behavior is natural if you believe ‘We Shall Overcome’ is a folk song. But it’s risky if you’re trying to maintain a copyright over the song.” —The Atlantic

How “We Shall Overcome” was Popularized

“‘We Shall Overcome’ is a staple for civil-rights protests—and for that matter, for any kind of social-justice movement…So it was a surprise to learn that not only is the identity of the person who made it into that anthem known, but he died only on May 2.

“His name was Guy Carawan, and he was 87 years old. The story of the song and how Carawan helped make it ubiquitous is full of surprises, and it’s a wonderful demonstration of the folk tradition at work, accreting bits and pieces over the years until it became today’s widely known version. It’s also, appropriately enough for a civil-rights anthem, the story of a song that draws heavily on both African American and European American traditions, just like all the best American music. Like so many folk songs, it feels as though it’s existed forever; asking who wrote it seems ridiculous. Hasn’t it always been there?” —The Atlantic

Says The Library of Congress, “It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.”

We Shall Overcome Lyrics

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

CHORUS

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand some day

CHORUS

We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day

CHORUS

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid some day

CHORUS

We are not alone
We are not alone
We are not alone some day

CHORUS

The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day

CHORUS

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

“We Shall Overcome” and Iconic Folk Singer/Activist Pete Seeger

We Shall Overcome Sheet Music“We Shall Overcome,” commonly attributed to iconic folk singer and activist Pete Seeger (although the song has a much longer and deeper history than even Seeger’s legacy — he was born in 1919), has been primarily associated with the American Civil Rights Movement.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a famous speech before Congress in 1965 introducing important new Civil Rights legislation. The speech is known as the “We Shall Overcome” speech and can be heard in its entirety here.

While racism still exists, much of that particular evil has been vanquished through civil rights reform, in no small part due to the likes of Pete Seeger and countless other artist/activists.

“We Shall Overcome” and World AIDS Day

First observed in 1988, World AIDS Day began as a way to increase awareness of the disease and support those affected by it, their families, their communities, even entire countries.

December 1st of each year is World AIDS Day. In a 2006 CNN news report about the growing aids pandemic, children in the newscast were singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

The world is now is faced with a new global epidemic, HIV/AIDS, fueled by ignorance, apathy and poverty. Not so coincidentally, it is these same factors that feed the sickness of bigotry and violence associated with the plight of African Americans and oppressed peoples everywhere.

Just as appalling as racial injustice throughout the world, is the staggering cost in human suffering of this menace, AIDS.

These are the facts and figures surrounding this crisis (as published by Avert.org, “an international HIV and AIDS charity based in the UK, with the aim of AVERTing HIV and AIDS worldwide”:

  • People living with HIV/AIDS in 2006: 39.5 million
  • Adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2006: 37.2 million
  • Women living with HIV/AIDS in 2006: 17.7 million
  • Children living with HIV/AIDS in 2006: 2.3 million
  • People newly infected with HIV in 2006: 4.3 million
  • Adults newly infected with HIV in 2006: 3.8 million
  • Children newly infected with HIV in 2006: 0.53 million
  • AIDS deaths in 2006: 2.9 million
  • Adult AIDS deaths in 2006: 2.6 million
  • Child AIDS deaths in 2006: 0.38 million
  • More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981
  • Africa has 12 million AIDS orphans

Thankfully, as of 2016, the world medical community has done much to alleviate deaths from HIV.

About Folk Singer Pete Seeger

“Peter Seeger (born May 3, 1919) almost universally known as ‘Pete Seeger,’ was a well-known and influential folk singer and political activist. As a member of his group the Weavers, he had a string of hits, including a 1949 recording of Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ that topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. He was a major contributor to folk and pioneer of protest music in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Pete Seeger died of natural causes at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Monday evening [1.27.14] He was 94 years old.

“He is perhaps best known today as the author or co-author of the songs ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone,’ ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. ‘Flowers’ was a hit recording for The Kingston Trio (1962), Marlene Dietrich, who recorded it in English, German and French (1962), and Johnny Rivers (1965). ‘If I Had a Hammer’ was a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary (1962) and Trini Lopez (1963), while The Byrds popularized ‘Turn, Turn, Turn in the mid-1960s.” —Wikipedia

Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep From Singing
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN LEFT
The Surprising History of ‘We Shall Overcome’

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