We Shall Overcome:

How a Writer Transformed a Passable Hymn into a Powerful Anthem

Robert Graves didn’t have to tell us writers that there’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. We know. Draft after draft, we scrape our thesaurus thin, scouring it for just the right connotation, wrestling for the rhythm that will move us, trying for the tone that will set the words free, and assembling the associations that will make our message ring in a reader’s ears. We know that sometimes a few subtle tweaks can turn adequate to admirable, and passable to powerful.

Tonight I watched the movie Selma, and I saw the battered marchers, arm in arm, singing as they entered Montgomery bruised but triumphant. And although another song played on the soundtrack, it wasn’t hard to read the marchers’ lips: “We Shall Overcome”—the song that focuses the tragedy, the travail, and the victory of the civil rights movement perhaps better than any other. But before that song could unite so many people and stir them to action in the face of danger, it required reworking. An obscure hymn, charming enough, it promised a vague happy future in heaven. But with a little rewriting, it would offer a grittier hope, more tangible and more immediate.

Folk singer Pete Seeger did that rewriting. Of course, Pete didn’t act alone; we writers never do! Plenty of singers and marchers contributed to this folk process.

Read the story behind the song in American Songwriter.

Plenty of singers contributed, but Pete made some thoughtful decisions, and they’re a good model for increasing the power of our own writing. Let’s look at four of Pete’s word choices and then consider one change he made to the rhythm.

We

The old hymn said “I will overcome,” a personal aspiration, a resolution–sort of gritting your teeth and pressing forward. That’s good, but “we” binds us together in a cause. We share the burden. We’re not alone, and if we work together now, we’ll share the joy together later.

Shall

Pete said he liked the strong sound of “shall.” “Shall” rushes out of the mouth. It’s more convincing and certain than “will.” Standing on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, facing the billy clubs, you need conviction.

I Do Believe

The original, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do not weep” is poetic and appealing in a way, but Pete knew the power of positive words. “I do believe” affirms our resolve. It echoes a scene from the Gospel of Mark, in which a frightened father begs Jesus to heal his son. Jesus responds, “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” “I believe,” the man exclaims, and then, faltering, “Help my unbelief.”

Today

I don’t remember how many times Mom took us kids to see Pete in concert. It seems like a dozen. I loved every song, funny or profound, but singing “We Shall Overcome” was the sacred moment. And every time Pete led us, even though it was the same routine each time, he somehow surprised us. Every verse ends in “someday.” We shall overcome someday. Until we get to this verse.

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid [Pete interjects, triumphant, prompting us, “Today!” We echo him.]

I knew it was coming, and yet it gave me chills every time. The right word for the moment.

Pumping Up the Pulse

Pete made one more change that wasn’t in the lyric, but in the meter. Instead of the plodding 4/4 beat, Pete strummed his 12-string guitar in a lively 12/8. That put three pulses underneath each syllable, stretching each word, yet keeping the pace brisk.

12/8 time gives a lively pulse

The pulse says our cause is serious and mortally dangerous—but we walk forward in vital strength. We are not afraid today.

The movie Selma depicts Dr. King as brooding, deflated, trying to believe, but needing help with his unbelief. He said “We Shall Overcome” encouraged him. Likewise Pete Seeger sometimes had reason to be dismayed, but he was strong when he led us in this song. This song helped marchers face the beatings, and it must have given President Johnson courage, too, because he quoted it when he announced his voting rights legislation.

“We Shall Overcome” stands for courage, for unity of purpose, and for our communal struggle for justice. When we feel inadequate to contribute to that cause, “We Shall Overcome” reminds us writers that a few small edits can lead to big changes.

Hear Pete leading a rousing rendition at Carnegie Hall in 1963.

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