‘Who are you intending to overcome?’ A talk with Pete Seeger

Posted by | January 29, 2014

Photo by Diana Davies/ Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Photo by Diana Davies/ Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

“The person who was really responsible for making it the number one song back in those days was a man named Guy Carawan. He got involved in the civil rights movement and was in charge of music at a tiny little labor school called Highlander Folk School. In 1960 Guy Carawan sent messages to the civil rights movement all through the South from Texas to Florida to Maryland. And he set up a whole weekend of singing in ‘the movement’ —- the movement, of course, meant the civil rights movement.

“Guy introduced this song with a new rhythm that I had never heard before. It’s called 12/8 time. You still have 4 beats there: it’s divided, each one of the 4 beats, into 3 short beats. On the bass string of the guitar you get 12 beats going at a very steady tempo, and you clap your hands on it, on the 2nd beat and the 4th beat (not on the 1st or the 3rd beat).

“When it hit along the weekend, in February 1960, during the next few months it was not a song, it was the song, all across the South. I’ve found out since then that the song started off as a union song in the 19th century. It was probably sung fairly fast, because it was a gospel song. As it was taught to me by James Fitzshell, it opens up the mouth better.

“I recorded it at Carnegie Hall. It was the only record I ever made which sold, and the record was called ‘We Shall Overcome.’ And it sold 500,000 copies, which was a huge sale.

“I was singing for some young Lutheran church people in Sundance, Idaho, and there were some older people who were mistrustful of my lefty politics. They said: ‘Who are you intending to overcome?’ I said: ‘Well, in Selma, Alabama they’re probably thinking of Chief Pritchett; they will overcome. And I am sure Dr. King is thinking of the system of segregation across the whole country, not just the South. For me, it means the entire world. We’ll overcome our tendencies to solve our problems with killing and learn to work together to bring this world together.”


2010 interview with Pete Seeger by Josh Baron/Relix Magazine

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