'We Shall Overcome' Folklorist Guy Carawan Dead at 87

Folk singer helped popularize gospel song that would become civil rights movement anthem

Guy Carawan and others singing 'We Shall Overcome' at Virginia State University in 1960. Credit: Eve Arnold/Magnum

Folk singer and folklorist Guy Carawan, who helped popularize the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," died at his home in New Market, Tennessee at the age of 87. "Guy very peacefully slipped away," Carawan's wife Candie told 5 ABC Cleveland. "When you know somebody is on their way, it was really the best way to go, and I was very grateful that was how it was." Carawan had suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in recent years. While Carawan did not originally pen the track, he helped propel the gospel song into a civil rights slogan as head of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

According to his longtime associate Pete Seeger, Carawan was partly responsible for giving the rhythmless, long meter "We Will Overcome" — originally sung by tobacco crop workers — its slow tempo, transforming it into what would soon become the protest song "We Shall Overcome."

Zilphia Horton — the wife of Myles Horton, "The Founder of the Civil Rights Movement" and co-founder of the Highlander Folk School — taught the song to Seeger, who published the lyrics in a 1948 issue of People's Songs Bulletin. A decade later in 1959, Carawan, at Highlander, passed the song on to his students.

"That song caught on that weekend," Mr. Carawan told the NPR in 2003 (via New York Times). "And then, at a certain point, those young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said: 'Lay that guitar down, boy. We can do this song better.' And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it in a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread."

"We Shall Overcome" would soon become the rallying cry to the civil rights movement. On August 29th, 1963, folk singer Joan Baez performed the song on the Mall during the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Baez's rendition — performed frequently at rallies and protests — was instrumental in helping to spread the song's message.

"We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands," Martin Luther King, Jr. said at a speech in Washington, D.C., on March 31st, 1968. "And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing 'We Shall Overcome.'" President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were also among the politicians to use the phrase popularized by Carawan.

"We Shall Overcome" soon spread overseas, where it served a similar purpose for the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement and the Velvet Revolution in Prague. In recent years, Bruce Springsteen titled his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and Roger Waters covered the song in an effort to stop Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Carawan retired from his post at the Highlander in the mid-Eighties. Over the course of his career, he recorded over 30 albums and contributed to countless documentary recording projects. Royalties from the commercial use of the song continue to benefit the "We Shall Overcome" Fund, a trusteeship administered by Highlander to benefit African-American cultural charities in the South.