Jack’s poignant guest blog reflecting on then, now, and someday
Back in the early 1960s, I was a twentysomething hanging out on the Scottish folk scene. We had a number of dedicated folk-song clubs established in cellars, cycle clubs and all sorts of unlikely venues, and they all had one thing in common: singing in harmony together at the end of the evening We Shall Overcome!
Now we did (and still do) have a certain ‘fellow feeling’ in singing it, Scotland being a country that felt put upon by its bigger neighbor, but we had no real understanding of where the song came from or what it meant to the folk who created it. We just knew it made us feel strong and special.
Overcome has haunted me for years. An African American gospel song, it was brought to the famous Highlander Center in Tennessee in the late 1950s by Lucille Simmons and members of the Food and Tobacco Workers’ Union. There they adapted it, and staff member Guy Carawan passed it on to Pete Seeger. The rest is history, including more re-makes and re-shapes than Kumbiya.
Over the years I learned about Highlander’s work, and the place seemed near-mystical. When a mutual friend introduced me to Guy Carawan himself just a couple of years ago, I was able to shake hands with a man as legendary to me as John Lennon might be to someone else.
Knowing that back in Scotland we had a too-easy enthusiasm for identifying with those who had faced down the color bar, I was overjoyed when just last weekend Wendy and I were invited to join a group of Appalachian writers at Highlander Center – the very same place where We shall Overcome was re-born as a folk anthem for social justice.
Oddly enough, all the participants that weekend were white. I watched the day’s activities unfold, examined pictures on the walls celebrating the triumphs of activism, read news clippings and wandered around, feeling out of place. Was it my being from Scotland that made it feel an exclusive rather than inclusive experience? Was it worship from afar meeting the reality that one group can only do so much?
A friend uses the term ‘folk elite’ to describe people who mean well but who don’t ultimately impact the place in which they have decided to practice charity. Perhaps that is what I was: one of the elite, incapable of grasping the legacy spread before me. But I have to admit, at the end of that weekend I felt no closer to being part of the “We” in We Shall Overcome than I did back in the sixties, in Scotland, holding hands with all my fellow middle-class singing friends. And that saddened me.
I completely empathize with you. Did any one bring that up? Did anyone ask the why of the exclusivity? It’s a sad commentary, more that it happened THERE than it happened at all, because it still happens all the time, and in places where one would not expect it.
Jack, I always cry when I sing/hear this song performed…because it used to hold promise, and now it holds the sadness of hopes that have not yet been fulfilled. They are still not at all overcome! Yet generations have moved forward and many more will probably have to pass before we get anywhere near “someday.”
Anne and Barbara – I understand exactly! Yes, it was about THE place, and the impossibility of a white guy from Scotland to ever actually sing the song with any real understanding.