We Shall Overcome: An American Folk Revival Essay

We shall overcome

During and after this year’s American election of Clinton vs. Trump, music’s voice has become louder in the world of politics. Katy Perry’s ‘Chained to the rhythm’ and Passenger’s ‘A kindly reminder’ have a ‘I feel like I’m fixin’ to die rag’ essence to them. Another example is Democratic Campaigner Lady Gaga, who’s performance at this year’s super bowl was not only star spangled but the perfect opportunity to show that democrats are not going anywhere any time soon; the opening of her performance being with a patriotic prayer (God bless America), which then followed into ‘This land is your land’, (a socialist response to ‘God bless America’) which targets Trump’s travel ban policies and Mexican wall plans. Poker face was then a tribute to her attitude in various interviews concerning the election. Born this way really shined as the LGBT anthem that it is, despite performing to a republican Texas crowd. As  she continued to perform some of her best hits she came into her latest single ‘Million reasons’, which had some (small yet significant) lyrical adjustments; ‘to cut down through all HIS worn out leather’, a plead to see through Trumps administration, perhaps? She then greeted her mother and father during a pause of song (both of whom were born to Italian immigrants).

Music’s relationship with politics has been through more criticism than a Taylor Swift romance.   From Johnny Cash’s ‘The one on the right is on the left’; arguing that music and politics may destroy the art, to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ being slated as a hypocrisy against his millionaire rock star life. However, music has always been the loudest and most successful way to deliver political thoughts, opinions, defeats and celebrations. In this upcoming series of essays, I will be discussing the history of music and politics, so that we may all learn the highs and lows of music and politics’ relationship and if it is an efficient way to carry forward during the administration of Trump.

It was difficult to decide where my history research should begin. Should it begin with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3  or do I even dare to go as far back as the origins of national anthems? In order to keep my research organised and in a flow, I have decided to present the essays according to their genre: American folk, blues and black American, western folk, world folk, rock, punk rock, country and hip hop.

Starting with American folk it’s hard to not discuss the civil rights movement. A time where the working class were beginning to argue their labors through the working genre of folk; every Bob Dylan and Joan Baez song guitar song came to mind, along with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘If I had a hammer’, and ‘Mississippi Goddamn‘ by Nina Simone. But what was reoccurring in each piece of research was an anthem, the anthem; ‘We shall overcome‘.  But how did this song become the front man of a movement across all other songs?

We shall overcome was originally a gospel that was adapted by Zilphia Horton and Lucille Simmons to become the anthem that it is today. The gospel originated from Charles Albert Tindley’s hymn ‘I’ll overcome someday’ (first published in 1900).  Tindley was a Methodist minister who was dedicated to helping church members in employment and the feeding of the needy. He accomplished his philanthropic goals through his faith and his acquaints with politicians and business leaders of Philadelphia, including postmaster general John Wanamaker.


Charles Albert Tindley

 While Wanamaker was a republican this was before the two parties switched platforms in the 1960s under the administration of Benjamin Harrison.  Under Harrison’s administration civil rights were being heavily fought for; legislation to protect black American’s civil rights, and ordering the prosecutions for violation of voting rights in the south, but white juries were still holding onto racial bias and often failed to convict violators. This instigated Harrison to push congress to pass legislation that would ‘secure all our people a free exercise of the right of suffrage and every other civil right under the constitution and laws’. Harrison endorsed senator George Frisbie Hoar and representative Henry Cabot Lodge ‘s federal elections bill of 1890, however this bill was defeated in the senate.  After followed the 1912 cake walk and ball, the soap box minstrels show at the academy of music on board and locust street, and the 1915 forest theatre march against the showing of D.W.Griffith’s ‘The birth of a nation’. Marchers were attacked by whites with clubs, sticks and glass bottles. Many were hospitalized and Tindley’s injuries were treated at home.

birth of a nation

Protest against the release of ‘The birth of a nation’

You can imagine that all of the defeat that black Americans were facing would cause a minister to turn to the one place he was accepted and embraced. ‘Ye shall overcome if ye faint not’, derived from Galatians 6:9. Tindley had written many hymns; ‘Leave it there’, ‘What are they doing in heaven?’ and ‘Stand by me’ (which was drawn upon for the Ben E. King hit of the same name). Tindley’s song were written and rooted in African American folk traditions. Tindley wasn’t much of an arranger or composer, he was considered more of a lyricist and poet of trying times, directly reaching his church audience whom had been freed only 36 years from the first publication of his songs.

When writing the song, Tindley was probably trying to just assemble the faith of his local community through trying times. With Tindley’s passing he wasn’t able to see the true power that his words held in providing people with strength and a sense of community, for it was in 1945 when his hymn became the fore front anthem of a movement.

By the mid-1930s, a high number of strikes in the textile and auto industries had engulfed over the nation, and the protests often ensued violence. Due to the National war labour relations board (which was re-established in 1942 under President Roosevelt) no strike pledge during war time, the workers waited until the end of world war two to raise their issues; wages were low and conditions were poor in various American company factories, however the NWLRB’s pledge to no strike granted more patriotism appeal to union members, causing better wages and improved working conditions to be sacrifices in order to ensure steady factory production for the war effort. It was not until December of 1943 that the NWLRB agreed to officially recognize the rights and responsibilities of unions, one being Charleston’s cigar factory union contract with UCAPAWA-CIO.

Leading up to this moment the Charleston’s tobacco factory had faced many issues. The management had promised to increase wages at the war’s conclusion; black workers were assured a raise from twenty-five cents an hour to forty cents an hour, while white machinists and supervisors were assured sixty-five cents an hour, however in the union agreements in the tobacco industry, January 1945, bulletin of the united states bureau labour statistics, no.847, it was stated that the lowest rates for women were to be 58 cents per hour, and for men 70 cents per hour. Even though the company was thriving during the war, having produced up to 30 percent of the cigar and cigarettes sent to American troops overseas, the company did not meet these statistics.

At the end of world war two congress lifted the excess profit tax and the wartime financial sacrifices made by American businesses. This often resulted in a lump repayment after the war, for the American tobacco company’s case it was over $1.3 million. Despite ongoing worker issues and the promises that the company had made for the conclusion of the war the management did not use these funds for factory improvement or workers’ wages.

charleston strike

Charleston factory strike 1945

During the war effort the factory’s payroll grew to nearly two thousand workers (most of whom were women due to both black and white men being drafted into the war). The largest demographic were black American women. The return of men from the war to resume their jobs meant displacing a large number of African American women from their wartime positions. When the no strike pledge lifted at the conclusion of the war in 1945, many union members responded to the American tobacco company’s refusal to improve wages and working conditions by launching a strike.

In the months approaching the Charleston strike friction heightened between the union and the American tobacco company. On the 25th of September 1945 the workers sanctioned a new FTA-CIO (foods, tobacco, agricultural, and allied workers) contract, which demanded workers raises and back pay. One month later the NWLRB (national war labour relations board) required the American tobacco company to pay back worker wages that were withheld during the war period, from December 1944 to October 1945. These demands were neglected by the company.  The Charleston’s branch building manager, Harold F. McGinnis even rejected addressing this issue with the local 15 president Reuel Stanfield, a labor activist.

Stanfield had become a labor activist when he was sixteen year old after becoming a runaway. Continuing from the 1920s Stanfield would participate in various labor strikes along the west coast, great lakes region and overseas. When working under the free trade agreement in 1934, Stanfield spent his time trying to convince ‘scabs’ (strike-breakers) to not fulfill the jobs from striking workers. Between 1935 and the early 1938 Stanfield served a sentence in San Quentin state prison for possession of dynamite. He walked out not a weaker, but a wiser man, continuing his activism work, one of his projects being to organize the local 15 cigar factory workers in Charleston.

During this time President Roosevelt had adopted a pro labour stance and had invested in the new deal era (Wagner act in 1935), which supported union organizing. With ignored demands and poor working conditions escalating, McGinnis fires a black male worker under the allegation that the worker was ‘taking familiarities’ with fellow black female workers. This is only one example of the factory workers being skewed by racial prejudice. The event highlighted the issues of race and gender in the factory’s hiring and firing process and upset and angered the African American workers as they felt under threat by the moral impropriety from white workers.  The factory floors were usually segregated by race and assembly lines by gender. The company had previously attempted to appeal to its workers by providing an assembly/meeting rooms, a piano, and a kitchen. However, these accommodations did not fulfil what the workers really wanted the most; respect, high wages, and improved working conditions. Opportunity was limited in the factory environment, with shifts being tedious and repetitive (black and white women rolling cigars and inspecting tobacco leaves and dispatching, while black men loaded boxes of tobacco onto the factory floor). It was only ever the white male workers that exceeded up in the company and gained the highest paying jobs such as machinists, foremen, or oilers.

The strike began on the 22nd of October 1945, with thousands of workers (mixed of African Americans, whites, females, and males) leaving the factory and walking away from their jobs. The workers struggle and activism gave hope for other labor activists and the alliance between the demographics was empowering, especially in a southern state setting. Striking in one of the coldest and wettest winters recorded in South Carolina history, the workers persisted; protesting in front of the cigar factor and boycotting the company’s products and singing ‘We shall overcome’ whilst doing so, which voiced their obstacles during the fight for improved labor conditions, hoping that someday would turn into today.

Lucille Simmons is credited with changing the lyrics from ‘I’ to ‘we’, signifying the united power of music into a movement.  And alongside Zilphia Horton, the two women bought an anthem to the strikers.

zilphia horton

Zilphia Horton

Myles Horton, Zilphia’s husband, was at the time the director at the highlander folk school of Monteagle, Tennessee (an adult education school that trained union organizers).  Known as the ‘Father of the civil rights movement’ as well as the ‘Radical hillbilly’, Horton was born into a lower class white family in Savannah, West Tennessee. His political and social concepts were heavily influenced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, under whom Horton studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.  The dream of the school began with Horton’s dissatisfaction with the education profession that he had chosen. It seemed that people only ever studied the lives of others who were usually in distant and higher places, and were not able to learn about their own lives and problems. Horton thought that if people were to learn about their own lives and join together to study and solve their problems then it could be possible that those lives could improve. And so the Highlander Folk School was born in 1932 in Monteagle, one of the poorest counties in Tennessee.

The name highlander was chosen as it was what the folks of the southern mountains called themselves. Highlander didn’t just encourage people to learn and participate in social and political economic issues, but also locals strikes (what Horton called ‘common problems, common solutions’), local culture, art, and music. You didn’t learn the works of Mozart, you learned mountain music. While Horton was the director of the school it was his wife, Zilphia May Horton, who was the musical heart of highlander.

myles horton

Myles Horton

‘Music is the language of and to life’ said Zilphia Horton. ‘The people can be made aware that many of the songs about their everyday lives, songs about their work, hopes, their joys, and sorrows are songs of merit, this gives them a new sense of dignity and pride’.

Highlander soon grew and became a labour organising school. By 1942 90% of its alumni were union officials or organisers. But as the unions became more successful, more entrenched, members became less interested in being taught how to agitate.

The school taught and had many successful activists pass through, such as Rosa Parks, who had attended the school just six months prior to the Montgomery bus boycott. While the school did not inspire the idea to her, her time there did present her with a white community that were as angry about racism as she was.

It was during the civil rights struggle that highlander turned its focus to the rising issues of desegregation and became most famous, famous for a song. From the beginning the civil rights movement had many songs; oh freedom, we shall not be moved, strange fruit to name a few, but it didn’t have a song, a one unifying anthem that not only said who they were but something that also expressed all their hope, determination and spirit. Septima Clark, Pete Seeger and Guy Varolin began adapting an old hymn turned labour song that Zilphia loved to sing. The word ‘will’ was changed to ‘shall’ and some of the verses were fitted to the new movement’s goals, and the tempo changed so that it could be marched to as ‘it wasn’t singable…it was too hard to sing…there’s singable songs, and then there were songs like the star spangled banner which nobody should sing’ said Myles Horton. ‘There’s no one song that I know of…I don’t know of any song of that kind that’s so wide spread’.

Union members of the Charleston cigar factory had attended a workshop at the highlander school in 1947 and it was two members of the local 15, Anna lee Bonneau and Evelyn Risher, who taught Zilphia the song that Lucille Simmons and others sang through the strike.

The song has come as long as a way as the civil rights of African Americans, and is still used as an anthem against times of injustice, such as today. At each anti-trump march; march on Washington, women’s march on London, protests in Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York, there has been one motif among the sea of protest signs; ‘We shall overcomb.’


‘We shall overcome’ is not only a song that has conveyed the detirmination of civil rights activists or just one generation for that matter, but it is also a song that has unified all the oppressed present, past and future.

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