War, Labor and Race

Woodie Guthrie
Woody Guthrie ©1943.
Photo: Sid Grossman, courtesy Miriam Grossman Cohen/Harry Greenberg
Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

From "Deportee" by Woody Guthrie

The Almanac Singers, which included Woody Guthrie, Josh White, a young Pete Seeger and many others, toured America before World War II, singing to support struggling workers everywhere. In the years after the war, Seeger would go on to become one of the great champions of folk and protest music. His group, the Weavers, recorded several big hits in the early '50s and helped bring the folk music into the mainstream.

With the founding of the new Folkways record label in 1947, Seeger and musicians everywhere were exposed to groundbreaking recordings of little known rural musicians and blues players like Huddie Ledbetter (known as Leadbelly). In Leadbelly's recordings, many in the general public and mainstream music community discovered the blues tradition for the first time - a tradition deeply rooted in African American history, slavery and protest.

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say "I don't want no niggers up there"
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around
Well, them white folks in Washington they know how
To call a colored man a nigger just to see him bow
Lord, it's a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

From "Bourgeois Blues" by Leadbelly

"We Shall Overcome"

While urban folk music was shaking the cities, one of the greatest protest songs of all time was born during a strike in Charleston, South Carolina. Taking their text from a 1900 gospel song by Charles Tindley, workers of the Negro Food and Tobacco Unions sang, "We Will Overcome" for the first time in American history. The song spread quickly to union meetings across the country, the title and lyrics would change slightly, and the song would go on to become the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement and beyond.

Read the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome"

All lyrics are provided for informational and educational purposes only.
Lyrics are subject to all U.S. copyright laws and remain property of their respective owners.

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