This piece is adapted from an column that appeared in Paste in late 2011.
Alongside organizers, activists and orators, music people of all orientations have long brought the soul, sound, and heart to social and political movements. During 2011’s income disparity protests, the lionhearts of contemporary music turned out for the Occupation: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped some rhymes, weighing in with a powerful piece called “Distraction”: “Skip the religion and the politics and head straight for the compassion, everything else is a distraction,” he rapped. Tom Morello, who as The Nightwatchman, shows up with his ax wherever injustice is served, came out to lead a chorus of “This Land is Your Land,” the old Woody Guthrie song that’s easy enough to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words. And the generally apolitical Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel delivered a rare, impromptu set of songs to the delight of Occupiers. In particular, the line “we know who are enemies are” from the fan favorite, “Oh Comely,” drew cheers from the crowd. Mangum’s appearance, if not his topically unspecific songs, provided the people with entertainment and support, the kind of unique companionship that only a song can provide in the cold, cold night.
“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd. “What music is doing is unifying the people, bringing them together,” Nash told Rolling Stone.
“Everybody has a point, everybody has an idea everybody has a perspective on the world,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco when asked about musician participation in OWS. Stressing that celebrities are just like the rest of the occupiers, except in a higher tax bracket, he noted, “The leader is Occupy; it is the movement.”
Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons was among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there was shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the New York encampment.
The historic Occupy moment for social and economic equality was called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while throughout history, every freedom movement has had its own soundtrack or anthem for the long march home. And yet, there was not one dominant or lead song to emerge from the throng, an echo perhaps of the mass chorus of a movement without one soloist. Back in the high days of student organizations, protest and topical songs—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—marchers relied on folk tradition (reviving the old songs with the intention of forging something new). Rewriting spirituals for the secular world—or at least a world in which all faiths and traditions get equal respect—was an area mined by Pete Seeger, who along with Joan Baez, helped to turn “We Shall Overcome,” into an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (most memorably, Baez sang it at the 1963 historic March on Washington; Seeger sang it at OWS).
Originally based on the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” composed by the Rev. Charles Albert Tinley and dating back to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1900s, “We Shall Overcome” has changed shape through the years; also contributing to the version as we know it were elements of the spiritual “We’ll Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)”, another hymn from the immediate post-slavery period. But it wasn’t long after its arrival in church hymnals that “I’ll Overcome Some Day” was picked up by striking miners and laborers who went on to use it throughout their organizing fights in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sung by miners in the North as well as tobacco workers in the South, “We Shall Overcome” became a staple at the Highlander Folk School, the training ground for civil rights workers. Highlander teacher Guy Carawan helped to popularize the song among the forming Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the song was spread far and wide by Seeger who changed up the verses a bit. By and by, the melody to “We Shall Overcome” came closer to echoing another slave time spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (once sung by Paul Robeson and Odetta and used by Bob Dylan as the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) than Tinley’s “I Shall Overcome” did. In essence, two folk standards emerged from one spiritual.
But more than its fairly tame melody, the strength of “We Shall Overcome” lies in its extraordinarily bold lyrical affirmations: We are not afraid/the truth shall make us free/we shall live in peace. These sentiments are as ripe for the current moment, as they were when the United Farm Workers used it in their fight for their rights, as when South Africans sang it in their struggle against Apartheid, and when Czechs sang it during the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism. “We Shall Overcome” has been deployed in struggles in India and Ireland. It’s been sung by Bruce Springsteen and was recorded for his Seeger Sessions; Seeger, now in his ’90s, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singers, songwriters and activists to adopt and adapt it, and lead the singalong. “We Shall Overcome” needn’t be consigned to folk’s moldy or buttoned-up past; rather, it’s protest gold, a song that hasn’t lost its value for over 50 years and counting. If it seems strange, update it. If it seems square, give it a beat. But traditional songs need to get sung and sung loud, as if your life depended on them because in fact there are people whose do: Overseas wars cost not only money but lives; poverty is killing people here at home. Workplace and housing discrimination, poor schools, environmental degradation, job disintegration—these are just some of the grievances that will end up in songs as the movement keeps moving on.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what music could bring to a non-violent protest effort: he asked gospel great Mahalia Jackson to accompany him and Harry Belafonte to help organize his efforts. Belafonte’s life is a demonstration of just how important a role a singer can play in effecting change as well as how education in the arts can save young lives Nina Simone; Curtis Mayfield; Bob Marley; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sam Cooke; and many, many more singers and musicians contributed to positive social change and quite possibly political change with their music. You may laugh at this notion of change, but people from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientation, here and elsewhere in the world, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities.
So here’s to you, activists and musicians: To Michael Franti, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Ozomatli and Ben Harper: Every movement, from abolition to women’s suffrage to labor and civil rights has its songs, and this moment in time has its songs too. Thank you—to the singers and your songs—songs that one night might be the only thing between the darkness, cold, tear gas and rubber bullets raining on someone’s soul. Thank you for singing, so that we shall all overcome, someday.
Origin of Song columnist Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.