Guy Carawan, the “We Shall Overcome” folk singer, dies at age 87. The folk singer became an anthem of the US civil rights movement, a musician who popularized the song by teaching it to a group of black activist students in 1960, according to FOX News. It was taken up as a rally cry and was sung at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King.
“Playing music at these kinds of situations, it wasn’t just another form of entertainment,” Guy Carawan said in 1990. “It was sustenance for people going through hard times.”
President Johnson also quoted the lyrics when describing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The song has a long oral history and can be traced back to a 19th Century church hymn. It has since been performed by Tiananmen Square protesters and at the dismantled Berlin Wall.
Guy Carawan had dementia and died at his home in Tennessee on Saturday, his wife said.
The now-familiar version of “We Shall Overcome” was forged by Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger and others in the late 1950s, but its antecedents date to at least the 18th century, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The melody recalls the opening bars of the hymn “O Sanctissima,” first published in the 1790s. (Beethoven would write a setting of the hymn in the early 1800s.) A version of the melody — recognizable by modern ears as “We Shall Overcome” — was published in the United States in 1794 in The Gentleman’s Amusement magazine, which titled it “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners.”
The song’s present-day lyrics appear to have originated as a hymn by a black Methodist minister, Charles Albert Tindley, that was published at the turn of the 20th century, though apparently to a different tune. It includes the lines “If in my heart I do not yield,/I’ll overcome some day.”
By the mid-1940s, Tindley’s words and the now-familiar melody had merged. In 1945, the resulting song, known as “We Will Overcome,” was taken to the picket lines by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., who sang: “We will overcome,/And we will win our rights someday.”
Afterward, several of the strikers carried “We Will Overcome” to Highlander Folk School, then in Monteagle, Tenn. It quickly became a favorite of the school’s music director, Zilphia Horton, who had founded Highlander with her husband, Myles, in 1932 to train social justice leaders in a racially mixed setting.
Guy Carawan was born in California in 1927 and moved to New York City where he became active in the folk revival movement in Greenwich Village, notes Winnipeg Free Press. He and his second wife, Candie, taught music for decades at the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social justice leadership school in Tennessee. Visitors at the research center included Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.