The Philly roots of the Civil Rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’

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All this month, the Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia has been holding events that offer a historic overview of the Underground Railroad and the fight for freedom.

One such event is today’s talk about 20th century black music. And one song in particular cannot be discussed without the mentioning Philadelphia.

People worldwide are familiar with the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” popularized by the late folksinger Pete Seeger and sung by striking tobacco workers in the American South in the mid 1940s. But the song’s roots go so much deeper.

“If you look at any of the songs from the Civil Rights Movement, the core of that tradition goes back to Negro spirituals,” said Diane Turner, the curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

In this case, that tradition possibly goes as far back as 1901, when African-American Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia, a former slave, wrote the tune “I’ll Overcome Someday.”

Turner says “We Shall Overcome” is thought to have descended from The Reverend Tindley’s composition which was sung in churches, performance venues, and at social gatherings — and was heavily influenced by pre- and post-war Philadelphia.

“It was after W.E.B. Du Bois had written ‘The Philadelphia Negro.’ Here in Philadelphia, African-Americans were involved in a lot of self-determination…they created their own institutions,” said Turner. “Philadelphia was very important.”

But Tindley’s composition may not be the only one that helped shape one of the most powerful songs of the 20th century.

“Musically speaking, they say that ‘We Shall Overcome’ is probably closer to a song written by a woman named Louise Shropshire, and her song was probably influenced by Charles Tindley,” Turner added.

Shropshire’s song, “If My Jesus Wills” was composed sometime between 1932 and 1942, early enough to have caught the ear of female African-American tobacco workers who made it their own.

Diane Turner will lead the discussion on 20th Century Black Music at Temple University’s Sullivan Hall this afternoon at 4 p.m.

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