In my piano lessons, I am learning to read a lead sheet and arrange accompaniments to simple tunes. It’s something I’ve wanted to learn forever, but I got into it almost by accident by asking my piano teacher what is the purpose of the 1-4-5 chord cadences we were doing.
We started with “Greensleeves,” for which he had a very elementary book explanation of the chords.
That’s more complex than I’ve done so far, but it gives me something else to try.
Now, my piano teacher said, work out a tune you know and figure out the chords. I thought back to summer camp and “The Ash Grove.”
There are thousands of ways to arrange these two, many of them on YouTube. “The Ash Grove” seems to have more variants than “Greensleeves.” I particularly like Benjamin Britten’s version. He starts out with something similar to what I was doing and then goes full Britten.
I was to practice several moods, including louder and firmer. My poor brain recoiled, and after a bar or two, I was back with the sweet and simple, even if I was trying to do loud and bombastic. I needed a more versatile tune.
I worked out “We Shall Overcome” in a key I could sing to (A major) and then tried to get the chords. What is the history of the song, my teacher and I wondered. It doesn’t sound entirely like a spiritual, although it has some of those elements. I did some searching.
The Kennedy Center has a history that starts with Martin Luther King hearing Pete Seeger singing it. This is a later version, but what he’s doing with the chords is interesting.
“We Shall Overcome” has a long history with input from many people and places. Part of the melody seems to be related to two European songs from the 1700s, “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners” and “O Sanctissima.” Enslaved Black people in the U.S. mixed and matched similar tunes in the songs “I’ll Be All Right” and “No More Auction Block For Me.”
YouTube attributes a number of songs to Sicilian mariners. Here is “O Sanctissima.”
The commonality at YouTube seems to be the melody.
There are multiple songs called “I’ll Be All Right” (preferred YouTube spelling “Alright”). Here are two. The first seems closer to the Sicilian Mariners.
Odetta singing “No More Auction Block For Me.” Some similarities.
After 1900, it seems the lyrics of another gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday” by the Methodist minister and composer Reverend Dr. Charles Tindley, were added to the musical mix—though the music was very different. Around 1945, gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris apparently put together the essential pieces of the now-famous words and melody.
“We’ll Overcome” first appeared as a protest song during a 1945–1946 labor strike against American Tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina. African American women strikers seeking a pay raise to 30 cents an hour sang as they picketed. “I Will Overcome” was a favorite song of Lucille Simmons, one of the strikers. But she gave the song a powerful sense of solidarity by changing the “I” into “We” as they sang together. Other lyrics were improvised for pro-union purposes, including “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight.”
In 1947, Simmons brought the song to Highlander Folk School and shared it with other labor activists there. Zilphia Horton, head of the school’s cultural program, learned it and later taught it to Pete Seeger. At some point, the nationally known folk singer revised the lyrics “We will” to “We shall.”
Seeger talks about his arrangement:
“I gave it kind of ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump-chinka, ump. It was medium slow as I sang it, but the banjo kept a steady rhythm going.
That got me thinking. Why don’t today’s resistance movements use “We Shall Overcome”? It is still white supremacy that we have to overcome, and its related misogyny, LGBTQ+ hate, and antisemitism. But as I think about the current circumstances of resistance, they do not lend themselves to this kind of song. Sitting in at a lunch counter or linking hands to cross a bridge mean “we are here, and we will overcome.” Now it is the white supremacists who are initiating action.
Could singing “We Shall Overcome” be a response to people spouting bigotry at a school board meeting? Demonstrations during the civil rights era were planned and organized by groups, often including training in physical passive resistance. We are more fragmented now. What would be today’s anthem? Maybe the drag queens can help us out.
I haven’t come up with any arrangements I think are particularly wonderful, but I will continue to work on it.