Guy Carawan, the folk singer who taught the civil rights movement “We Shall Overcome” has died at the age of 87. Carawan is a super interesting guy, someone who came out of California at the very beginning of the folk movement and ended up at the Highlander Research and Education Center in east Tennessee, famous for its role in left-wing southern organizing in the 20th century. Everyone thinks Rosa Parks was this woman who just decided not to move to the back of the bus one day, but she in fact had already trained at Highlander on civil rights issues. Martin Luther King was there too and the fact that a member of the Communist Party was there at the same time fed the whole King=communist equation of white supremacists of the time.
Anyway, here’s a good story from a couple of years ago about Carawan’s role in “We Shall Overcome” becoming the anthem of the civil rights movement. There were many architects of this, as one would expect, but there’s a good chance the song does not catch on without Carawan.
In Southern California in the early 1950s, the song reached Guy Carawan. He was finishing graduate work in sociology at UCLA and doing some singing himself. He also learned about the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and that’s where he ended up. Candi Carawan and her husband have been teaching together at Highlander for many years now. They met as the center’s focus was shifting to civil rights, and “We Shall Overcome” was about to become an inspiring force.
“I first heard this song from a friend of mine, Frank Hamilton. He taught me this song, and he also had put some chords to it [on guitar],” Guy Carawan says. “When I came to Highlander in 1959, Zilphia Horton had died, and I had some singing and musical skills and they needed somebody there. So by the time I came to Highlander, I was playing it with the guitar like that.”
Candi Carawan, too, remembers the first time she heard the song. A California transplant like Guy, she’d gotten involved with sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and visited Highlander for a weekend event for students from various cities who’d been carrying on similar demonstrations.
“Guy was there trying to find out what songs we were using as part of our demonstrations — and mostly we didn’t have a lot of songs,” Candi says. “He taught us a number of songs that weekend, and one of them was ‘We Shall Overcome.’ And I can remember this electrifying feeling when we heard it, that that song just said exactly what we were doing and what we were feeling.”
In the weeks that followed, Guy Carawan met other student leaders who were convening their own gatherings.
“And then at a certain point,” he says, “the young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said, ‘Lay that guitar down, boy. We can do the song better.’ And they put that sort of triplet [rhythm] to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. [It became] a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread.”
Organized in Albany, Ga., by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, The Freedom Singers were Cordell Reagon, Charles Neblett, Rutha Harris and Bernice Johnson-Reagon (then just Bernice Johnson — she was later married to Cordell Reagon for several years).
Johnson-Reagon was a preacher’s daughter and knew the song as “I Will Overcome.” She recalls the change to “We Shall Overcome” as a concession that helped bring whites and blacks closer in the civil rights struggle.
“The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ ” explains Johnson-Reagon. “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.”
Johnson-Reagon says she was still singing “I Will Overcome” when the civil rights organizers came to Albany. It was Cordell Reagon who persuaded her to make the switch to “we” — a lesson, she says, he’d picked up from Highlander.
“And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it,” Johnson-Reagon says. “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.”
I once met Carawan at Highlander. This is when I was organizing in east Tennessee, maybe 1999 or 2000. It was a really eye-opening experience and not necessarily for good reasons. I can’t quite remember precisely why I was up there but there were a lot of other young activists I knew, as well as a few older people. Already knowing a lot of that history, it was incredibly inspiring just to be in that place and around those people. The Carawans played a set of music for us. It was great, hearing them play those old songs. But for them, music was about the shared aspect of singing, with power coming from the multitude of voices. They were leading the singing, but it wasn’t supposed to be a concert. Yet nearly all the young people, myself included, were really very much not into the shared singing. Some people were really rather annoyed by the whole thing. That irritated me–after all Guy and Candie Carawan had done a hell of a lot more than they had to change the world using those very methods. But it’s not like I was singing either! After all, I am as much a product of the ironic pose as anyone else (plus I had grown up mumbling words in the Lutheran church to songs no one wanted to sing). And that really bothered me. The power of collective song can be very real. But is that even possible today? Even if new generations got over the irony (and I don’t know maybe they kind of are. After all, Arcade Fire is a band that basically got over on the basis of unrestrained sincerity. And I like that band so I don’t say that with any negative connotations, what would the basis for that shared music be? What style? Who would it reach out too in this era of a million demographics?
Anyway, Guy Carawan isn’t well known today but was a really important player in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. He later released a bunch of albums, a couple of which I own on vinyl, including one when he went to China during the Cultural Revolution that includes a bunch of songs played on the hammered dulcimer. It’s pretty good. Sounds a good bit like this performance from 1982, where you see Carawan wasn’t just some political folksinger, but a pretty compelling performer.