Civil Rights · Music

We Shall Overcome

It is impossible to overstate the impact Pete Seeger had on my life.

It would have been about fifty years ago that a recording of his, an LP entitled “We Shall Overcome,” entered my life and, like a sudden explosion of clarity in my Lincoln, Nebraska bedroom, blew a gust of fresh air through my brain, clearing out the cobwebs of the Cold War, the Eisenhower Administration, and the crabbed, fusty old assumptions of the likes of John Foster Dulles.

I was sixteen that summer, a product of my time and place: anti-union, a states-right advocating opponent of the civil rights movement, a flat-out racist (I blush to recall some of the phrases I learned at my parents’ knee and would not dream of repeating them here.)  I was also a proud Goldwater Republican.

And then I pulled “We Shall Overcome” out of its cover…

Photo credit: Bruce Davidson
Photo credit: Bruce Davidson

Looking back, I understand the importance of that moment, that time, that act, that year.  It was 1964, the seam between the Beats, and the poetry of Ginsberg, the novels of Kerouac, and the counter-culture yet to come.

“We Shall Overcome” was a live album, recorded in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962-3 and it was clearly dated, as irritatingly, so few LPs in my collection, which are now, in fact, lovingly preserved historical artifacts, were.

With Pete it was never just about the music, though of course the music was the warm, coursing, beating heart of the matter.  It was also about the wonderful patter between the songs.

Pete brought us the news.  Not the news of the Luce-inspired and Dulles-influenced slick magazines or the nightly cookie-cutter line ups of the Big Three television networks, but news from the picket lines and the front lines of the civil rights movement down in the Deep South.  It was electrifying.

In that way, Pete was, truly, a troubadour.  I don’t even need to look it up to guess that the word has the same root as the French verb trouver—to find.  And what a find that album was to a skinny Nebraska kid.

I fell in love with it, playing that record over and over again in the privacy of the second floor bedroom of my mother’s house on Sheridan Boulevard in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“If you miss me at the back of the bus you can’t find me nowhere, oh no!  Come on over to the front of the bus, I’ll be riding up there!/If you miss me in the Mississippi River you can’t find me nowhere, oh no!/ Come on over to the swimming pool I’ll be swimming right there.”

Pete Seeger always evoked what Abraham Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature” and oh, but it was fine, Pete’s lyric tenor soaring in harmony above the melody line which, he trusted, the audience would always carry all on its own, and, on that night in New York City, it always did.  And below the words, the lyric, pregnant with meaning, there was Pete’s twelve string guitar or frailing banjo impelling the thing along.

And then, when the music fell silent, there were the stories—finely-honed yet seemingly ad-libbed mini-essays really, about subjects as diverse as the Cuban nationalist poet Jose Marti (and what did any of us know of Cuba except Castro, Communism, and crisis over nuclear missiles?), Marilyn Monroe, and the burgeoning civil rights movement.

And for one night and for the length of one transcendent LP, we were all together, united by music, by the beauty of soaring harmonies, and by the deathless hope for a better tomorrow.

We Shall Overcome.

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014)
Photo credit: Sipa Press

5 thoughts on “We Shall Overcome

  1. So funny about your conservative roots. Same as me. U of N changed that and the first thing I did radical was to refuse a scholarship because I had to sign a loyalty oath, ACLU helped me out. SDS brought me the rest of the way Frank McClanahan, Carl Davidson. BTW I think I annoy people because I remember lots of my past. Like Milo Alexander. I think we were friends or classmates maybe even in Fremont.

  2. well milo, you always did walk the talk. . .i’ve always respected you for that, old friend. . . ditto on the dylan. . . for me esp. it was the “freewheelin'” album. . .even had to concoct a chapter in my novel devoted to it. . .peace.

  3. Thanks Mick, This album played the same role in my life that it did in yours. My high school debate teacher played it for me, and I bought a copy of my own. I listened to it over & over. One of my favorite lines was from the Jose Marti song. If memory serves, it goes “con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo me suerte echar” that Pete translated as “with the poor people of this earth I want to share my fate” (excuse my misspelling of the Spanish). I’ve been thinking lately about the huge role that this album, folk music, and Bob Dylan had on my life. Growing up a Goldwater Republican, they opened the way to a much different world. I think that lines like Marti’s led me to be a Legal Aid lawyer.


  4. hey bob! tnx for the memories–and the kind comment. always great to hear from you. where are you, and what doing?

  5. Beautifully turned, man. I’ve still got that album myself; finally got around to digitizing it last year, so it’s on my gizmos too. And you’re right about the impact of that music. I recall like it was yesterday, instead of the time of the march on Selma, being part of a group of several hundred people at U of T singing those tunes. Tnx for this.

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