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Behind a song that unified a movement

A modest folk singer helped 'We Shall Overcome' emerge as an American anthem.

March 15, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

It peeved Guy Carawan that a few students were smiling as he and his wife, Candie, finished a 90-minute Occidental College classroom appearance Thursday by singing "We Shall Overcome."

"Too many people died to be smiling about this song," snapped the gangly man with a white crew cut, still strumming his guitar.

The students' smiles were innocent reflections of being too shy to sing along, as the Carawans had good-naturedly urged. But Carawan, a 75-year-old Oxy alumnus paying his first visit to campus since he graduated in 1949, couldn't help himself. There is too much of him tied up in "We Shall Overcome."

It's not just that he went to jail in the South in the '60s to protest segregation. It's not just that he has spent most of his life collecting and spreading folk songs and protest anthems. It's that he touched "We Shall Overcome" the same way it touched him. He changed the way the song was sung, then helped jump-start it on a path to worldwide inspiration.

Most people old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, let alone college students, have never heard Carawan's name or about the role he played in the evolution of "We Shall Overcome." The professor who arranged Thursday's classroom performance, Peter Dreier, was well aware of Carawan's contributions but found out only two years ago from reading a folk-song magazine that he was an alum. With that, Dreier, an urban affairs specialist, picked up the phone and invited Carawan and his wife to come back.

This week, they arrived to visit classes and hold a concert tonight, at which Occidental President Ted Mitchell will present Carawan with an honorary doctorate degree. It's a homecoming that would have been difficult to predict half a century ago for a basketball-playing fraternity brother given to playing tunes like "Ain't She Sweet" on his ukulele.

Carawan, raised in Los Angeles by Carolina-born parents, went to Occidental for a naval aviation training program during the last year of World War II. After the war he stuck around, majoring in mathematics. He fell in with L.A.'s small folk-music scene after graduation, and that began to politicize him.

He went to UCLA and earned a master's in sociology in 1952. He traveled to New York to sample Greenwich Village and the next year decided to tour the South to find his roots. He and a musical partner, Frank Hamilton, and the singer later to be known as Ramblin' Jack Elliott lived hand-to-mouth, singing to support themselves. During their travels, they visited the Highlander Folk School, set up by two white Southerners during the Depression as a union organizing center.

It was there Carawan heard an old work song believed to have its origins in a refrain slaves once sang: "I'll be all right someday." It had spread to the churches, and a Methodist minister had published a version in 1901: "I'll Overcome Someday." In 1945, striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., had changed it for the picket line: "We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday."

Two years later some of those workers visited the Highlander center. Shortly after that, the center's musical director traveled to New York and sang the song for folk singer Pete Seeger, who tinkered with it on the banjo. "Will" became "shall" -- by Seeger's hand or at the suggestion of Highlander workshop director Septima Clark, according to differing accounts.

Carawan was back in L.A. by the end of '53, beginning a career as a traveling folk performer. He played at the opening night of L.A.'s legendary folk club the Ash Grove, in 1958. But the next year he found out the position of musical director at Highlander was open, and headed south again to take the job.

During the mid-'50s, Highlander had turned its focus to civil rights. Rosa Parks was a student there weeks before her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus touched off the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. By 1960, sit-ins by blacks were spreading throughout the South. One of Carawan's jobs at Highlander was to provide jailed or protesting demonstrators with communal songs that were more pointed than traditional church hymns or blues songs.

He began trying to make "We Shall Overcome" more forceful.

"They were singing it like this," he told the Dreier's students Thursday, somberly singing an unaccompanied line that lacked a beat. "I thought it was a touching song, but at a certain point I began to add these chords." He started strumming, then singing in a clear, firm voice that belied his age, and the song took on its more familiar ballad feel.

After a couple stanzas, with Candie singing harmony, he paused.

"One night at Highlander, the police came in and ransacked everybody's luggage, trying to scare people off, and a young teenage girl from Montgomery started singing, 'We are not afraid,' and that became part of the song."

And then he began to sing it:



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