We Shall Overcome

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At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.

As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”

It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.

“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”

In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:

Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:

The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:

The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):

and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”

The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.

Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:

The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?

What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could this happen today? Should it?

Ragtime, part 1

TW/CW: Racist imagery.

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One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.

The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”

Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.

The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazine called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s song attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.

A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.

Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.

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Glory, Glory

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(U.S. Marines attack John Brown’s encampment at the Harper’s Ferry armory in West Virginia, 1859.)

John Brown (1800-1859) was a radical abolitionist who believed that armed revolt was the only way to end slavery in the United States. He led a raid on the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, with the intention of commandeering weapons to lead a slave rebellion, but the raid was put down by the U.S. Marines, and later that year Brown was hanged for treason.

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Soon afterwards, the members of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of Massachusetts fitted their own words to the folk hymn “Say, Brothers,” and turned it into “John Brown’s Body.”

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The new lyrics went:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3×)
His soul’s marching on!
(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul’s marching on!

In 1861, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe, who had funded John Brown’s efforts, wrote new lyrics to the tune:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

Howe’s lyrics are a paraphrase of an apocalyptic passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 63:

Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.

Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine vat?

I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.

And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me.

And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth.

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(Portrait of Julia Ward Howe painted by John Elliott, 1925.)

The song became known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and was the most famous Union marching song of the Civil War.

Here, a Georgia-based choir called the Sons of Lafayette, at least some of whose members are no doubt the descendants of Confederate soldiers, sing it with the men of the glee club of Morehouse College, the famous historically black college in Atlanta.

And this gave me chills:

Why Did the Slaves Sing?

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The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out–if not in the word, in the sound;–and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:–

“I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!”

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,–and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.”

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)

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(Wedgewood china plate, early 1800s.)

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has an exhibit of one of the three extant “slave Bibles” in the world until April 2019. The slave Bible was a heavily censored version of the Bible which left out all references to the Hebrew slaves’ quest for freedom in the book of Exodus, and instead included only those books emphasizing obedience.