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GET UP, STAND UP: The Story of Pop and Protest Revolutionary Music
About the Program
Revolutionary Music
Flash Points
The Preacher and the Slave
We Shall Overcome
Give Peace a Chance
Get Up, Stand Up
Fight the Power
Song Facts
Writer: Charles Albert Tinsley, revised by Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger
Year: 1901
Genre: Traditional
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Harry Belafonte
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We Shall Overcome -- ''The truth will make us free some day''

Marchers carrying a sign ''We Shall Overcome'' sign
By Ed Ward

You'd think, because different political movements have different specific goals and details, that a universal song of struggle would be impossible, and, for the most part, you'd be right. But nothing comes closer than "We Shall Overcome."

Today, most people think it's a traditional Negro spiritual, but that isn't the case. Spirituals evolved out of the slave experiences of African Americans and often focus on liberation and deliverance, with the lyrics usually in coded form, because you wouldn't want the wrong person to hear you singing them. "We Shall Overcome," as it's sung today, is derived from a hymn, "I'll Overcome Some Day," by Charles Albert Tindley, born around 1851 to slave parents in Maryland. A minister who for years preached at the Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (it was subsequently renamed Tindley Temple in his honor), he noted the lack of hymns by members of his denomination and did something about it. Only about 50 of his compositions are known to exist, but among them are some of the best known in the field of gospel: "What Are They Doing in Heaven?," "We'll Understand It Better By and By," "Stand By Me," and " Leave It There."

Pete Seeger performs
"I'll Overcome Some Day" was initially published in 1901, in the first collection of original African-American sacred music, and quickly adopted, as were Tindley's other hymns, by black congregations across the United States. More than many of his other songs, it lends itself to mass singing: it's slow-paced, it has a narrow range so no part is too high or too low for people with ordinary voices, and the verse, "If in my heart, I do not yield," gives the congregation a chance to really boom it out.

It was almost inevitable that a song like this would be taken up by the civil rights movement in the United States, since the impetus for the movement came from a number of different sources, including two where the song was sung often. The first, obviously, was the black church, which produced leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. The second was less obvious -- the left wing of the labor movement. Singing has always played a part in the American labor movement (see "The Preacher and the Slave"), and a considerable body of songs of resistance had come into being in the 1930s. A number of urban intellectuals contributed to the labor movement, and they felt a need to understand and experience the life and ways of the people they were talking to.

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