When Guy Carawan died on May 2 at 87, he lacked the household name recognition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, though the song most closely associated with him, the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” was more or less the flipside of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and equally significant.
Although “We Shall Overcome” didn’t originate with him, Carawan is credited for the version he came up with, along with Seeger, Zilphia Horton, who in 1932 founded Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South, and Frank Hamilton, who co-founded the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and was a member of the post-Seeger Weavers.
Los Angeles-born Carawan, then, was a major figure in the historic Greenwich Village-based folk music revival of the 1950s, and according to Seeger, played a big part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement when he became the song leader at Highlander in 1959. The song, which in the oral tradition of American folk music had actually evolved from another song—in this case, the hymn “If My Jesus Wills”–soon became the movement’s anthem and was most famously sung by folksingers including Seeger and Joan Baez at folk festivals, concerts, protest rallies and demonstrations.
Baez famously performed “We Shall Overcome” at Woodstock, when she was pregnant and her husband David Harris was in jail for draft resistance. Bruce Springsteen used it as the titletrack of his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. At the 2010 In Performance At The White House: A Celebration of Music From The Civil Rights Movement event, Baez, who was in her early twenties when she performed at the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech), led the audience in “We Shall Overcome”–just as she had at the march.
In addition to his own career as a folksinger, Carawan was a folklorist (he, Hamilton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were traveling the South collecting folk songs and singing when he first visited Highlander) and author (he compiled the 1963 tome We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement with his wife) and a record producer (Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Mass Meeting, features the Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Birmingham Movement Choir).
Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, who sang for 34 years with the celebrated African-American female a cappella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock–which grew out of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement—met Caravan several times at Highlander.
“He had such a quiet, easy way of being with people that it was hard to realize the depth of his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and society,” says Barnwell. “I especially related to his interest in coal miners, because of my public health research—in which I looked at the songs of coal miners versus textile workers in how they described the course of the illnesses, symptoms, names given, working conditions, disasters, etc., in their songs.”
“It’s hard to separate him from Highlander,” adds Barnwell, and indeed, royalties from the commercial use of “We Shall Overcome” are still donated to a Highlander-administrated fund that supports social and cultural programs in the South.
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