We Shall Overcome.
Reviewed by Tom Rankin
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 11-12
We Shall Overcome By Jim Brown, Ginger Brown, Harold Leventhal, and George Stoney. 58 min. 3/4″ and 1/2 video formats, color. (California Newsreel, 149 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 621-6196).
“People tell me that you go anywhere in the world today and there’s somebody singing this song,” Julian Bond explains early in the hour-long video documentary We Shall Overcome. “There’s somebody in some movement singing this song…. They sing it in all kinds of lands and all kinds of languages. I wouldn’t be surprised when we colonize the moon that there’ll be these little green people up there joining their antennae together and they’ll be singing-or chirping-something. And it will be ‘We Shall Overcome.”‘
So begins a moving, tightly edited story of the birth and complex growth of a folksong, a song that originated in the African-American church in the Deep South, was later shaped and reshaped by blacks and whites in the labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement, and now is found throughout the world in a variety of social and political contexts. Appropriately the documentary employs the collective historical and personal perspectives of numerous songsters and social leaders-including Pete Seeger, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Andrew Young, Taj Mahal, Bernice Reagon, and Mary Travers, among many- telling the story of this song as it has grown to be the most important anthem of our time. Directed by Jim Brown, edited by Ken Levis, and narrated by Harry Belafonte, We Shall Overcome uses newsreel footage, still photographs, and extensive interviews to weave a compelling and artful story.
Pete Seeger explains that the popularity and influence of “We Shall Overcome” is due in part to simplicity. “There’s a genius to simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated…. No wonder [the song] has gone around the world and into the hearts of tens of millions of people.” Reflecting on the emotional and spiritual dimension of “We Shall Overcome,” Bishop Tutu asserts that the song “touched a responsive chord in the human breast. It’s a song that speaks about how you’re not looking for the elimination of any enemy; you are looking; forward to winning a new friend.” Near the end of the film, Tutu emphasizes this assertion, saying that the song’s message is “something we long for with every fiber of our being.” He moves that most recalcitrant viewer with his quiet singing: “Black and white together/black and white together/black and white together today.”
Central to the story of the song is the presence, strength and power of “We Shall Overcome” as it moves from the rural church house to the county courthouse and then on to use in a variety of movements in America and around the world. With each move, singers find the song elastic enough to accommodate changes to the lyrics that fit the needs of new voices. If Julian Bond’s suggestion of moon inhabitants singing “We Shall Overcome” sounds preposterous, he offers his vision only because the song has already found its way to the many streets of this globe.
Few film or videotapes trace the life of a song, and through this documentary we see the migration and evolution of “We Shall Overcome.” As the places and singers change, the guiding symbolism remains the same. Most powerful and relevant to those interested in history and culture is the story of the song’s magnetism and utility, its elasticity and influence.
“We Shall Overcome” grew out of the traditional spiritual “I Will Overcome,” featured in the documentary in a stirring performance from Johns Island, South Carolina. “I’ll Be Alright,” another version of the earlier song, is performed on guitar by Taj Mahal who learned the song from his mother. Female tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina adapted the spiritual in 1945 to sing on the picket lines during the strike, changing the “I” to “We” and singing “We Will Overcome.” These same tobacco workers participated in a workshop organized by Zilphia and Myles Horton at the Highlander Center in Tennessee in 1945. Pete Seeger was at that workshop; he learned the song and later changed the “will” to “shall.” Seeger also changed the timing slightly and added some verses of his own. Explaining his version of the song’s lineage, Seeger contends, “What the song is now is a combination of a century or more of interaction between black and white people.” Martin Luther King, Jr. heard Seeger sing the song at Highlander’s 25th anniversary, and he too couldn’t get it out of his head. Later, the California musician and folksong collector Guy Carawan came to Highlander and began a program to spread such movement songs throughout the South.
Many of the film’s participants reflect on the power of this particular song to provide strength in times of trouble
and adversity. For example, one evening at Highlander a number of local law enforcement “thugs” raided the school, cutting off the electricity. Fifty or so people sat in darkness while the raiders searched and intimidated. Sitting in the darkness, the integrated group began singing. Jamial Jones, in her teens at the time, remembers the evening in one of the documentary’s many magnetic scenes: “There was a lot of fear. As men walked around between us with their guns and billy clubs someone started singing ‘We Shall Overcome.”‘ Ms. Jones improvised the verse, “We are not afraid.” She said. It just seemed like nature came into that room. The water on the outside, even the trees just picked up. And we were just part of that nature, in tune with what was happening, so much so that it unnerved them and they began to back up.” We Shall Overcome is filled with such remembrances, such testimony, such performance.
What comes across in this video documentary more than anything else is the ultimate power of this song to provide strength and conviction to people in struggle. The singers in We Shall Overcome-the Freedom Singers, James Sherrod, and Willie Peacock, to name a few–articulate their feelings about the song through personal experience anecdotes and heart-felt performances. Dorothy Cotton contends that it is “a song that makes us feel connected.” Pete Seeger explains that for him the “we” is the most important ingredient in the song. “We’re either gonna make it together or we’re not gonna make it at all.” Seeger argues in one of the closing scenes.
James Sherrod may speak for a majority of the singers in We Shall Overcome when he says, “It’s there to sustain us. That’s the real meaning of “We Shall Overcome.” And, in a deeply thorough way, this video documentary demonstrates his point, sustaining the interest and emotion of viewers while it tells, shows, and sings a story and song of social struggle.
Tom Rankin chairs the Art Department at Delta State University and is photo editor of Southern Changes. This review first appeared in the Journal of American Folklore.