JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 474
Thinking about (really) high explosives for yesterday's post led me to the American export of arms. This in turn led me to consider the non-lethal aspects of American exports--specifically, great, large-scale American contributions to global society, and about what our greatest non-technical export might be. (So far as the tech side goes, the most important of our exports over the last hundred years or so I would be, I guess, the computer—it is basically an American innovation, Charles Babbage and Konrad Zuse and a few others notwithstanding. I can’t imagine anything more superior; on the other hand, something like “fast food” might be considered, though it is ultimately an horrendous blight more than anything else, worldwide phenomenon and moneymaker or not.)
My candidate for this honor of Great American Export is a song: “We Shall Overcome”. It is a meme, really, understandable by anyone, anywhere; it meaning universally understood, and it power for gathering people together to fight for the common good is powerful and undeniable. It is a remarkable song, standing for the hope and dreams and accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement and the vision of Martin Luther King.
The other candidates that come to mind don’t come close to the power, crushing visibility and instantly-attaining recognition of WSO. Free enterprise has been mentioned by lots of folks for this honor, but I honestly don’t see how it is an American invention—the Brits and Austrians were all over the concept in the mid 19th century, so I’m not so sure it can apply. Perhaps these folks are talking about “virulent capitalism”, which may be American, and which may again rank quite high on this list, but not necessarily so proudly. American Constitutionalism is another idea, as is the concept of image and (Martin Amis’) the cool. Equally significant is debt accumulation, which is as interesting as a rash, and the insidious post-9/11 Fear, where all of our dreams’ life spans are color coded in segments away from oblivion. Happier and more filling ideas are feminism and women’s rights (American only in the last 5- or 75 years or so), which leads to the general appearance of Civil Rights, which gets us right back to where we started, with WSO. In doing a quick mental accounting, WSO trumps all-comers.
The song’s creation is credited to
the preacher and songwriter Charles Tindley (1851-1933), the son of a slave, who
wrote I Shall Over-Come in 1901. The song came to greater life in 1945 as a
result of a strike against the American Tobacco Company by the Tobacco Workers
Union. Lucille Simmons, who was a striker, began singing the song at the end of
the day’s striking activities—it came to the attention of the union’s
organizer, Zilphia Horton, who was also at the time the musical director (and
co-founder, with her husband Frank Horton) of the Highlander Folk School (of
Monteagle, Tennessee. Highlander was started
in the 1930’s as a place to instruct people how to organize and strike, and evolved
over time into an extraordinary place of learning (and which was also “stolen”
and seized by the U.S.
government in 1960, but that’s another story).
In the hands of Ms. Horton (who tragically died in 1956 at the age of
46) the song was introduced to Pete Seeger, who published it in Bulletin No. 3 (Sept., 1948), #8, in
1948 in People’s Songs. (Photo at above/right is of Guy Carawan and Cnadie Carawan.)
It would take another four years before the song made its first recorded
appearance. “We Shall Overcome” (changing the “will” to “shall” as in the
Seeger version) by Laura Duncan and the Jewish Youth Singers (Hootenany
records). In 1953 the song was critically
introduced to Frank Hamilton from Zilphia Horton, and from there to
It is in Carawan’s hands that the song , I think, received its most
important treatment. Carawan became the
music director at Highlander in 1959 and re-introduced the song there, the school
now being principally concerned with civil rights and student activism. What makes Carawan so supremely important is
that he traveled with the song and taught it to many groups of the important Student
Noviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the members of these groups in turn
taught it to other groups, and so on and so on.
Carawan in fact taught the song at the initial meeting of SNCC in
(Thanks to Jeff Donlan for pointing me to the Mahalia clip on Youtube.)
[My wife, Patti Digh, and I traveled to interview Guy and Candie Carawan a few days ago to talk to them about their lives in social awareness and about the song "We Shall Overcome". To read her article on this experience, visit her blog at 37days.com.]
Note on the WSO sheet music: the fine print reads as follows: (copyrighted) by "Horton, Silphia; Frank Hamilton; Guy Carawan; and Pete Seeger.. "We Shall Overcome." Ludlow Music, Inc., 1963. Music Division, Library of Congress, Courtesy of Ludlow Music, Inc.