In 2016, the song Happy Birthday finally entered the public domain. This isn’t because the requisite time finally passed, but because of a lawsuit filed by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who showed that the murky history of the lyrics and the music to Happy Birthday extended far enough back to make the copyright no longer valid.
As a child of parents who came of age in the early ‘60s and had music on all the time, I associate marches and protests with the folk music revival.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the great We Shall Overcome, which has a somewhat tangled and clouded history, with origins perhaps in a refrain sung by slaves and adopted by Black churches in the early 20th century.
Here are four versions sung by people who had a hand in making it the powerful symbol it has become. The first is by Pete Seeger, who’s version is the one I learned from as kid. He may (or may not) have been the one who rewrote the lyrics to become “We shall overcome…” rather than “We will overcome…” He’s perhaps the most associated with the song.
However, a much less well-known folklorist, Guy Carawan, modified the song to be easier to sing in large groups and introduced it to activists at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
But it was another famous folk singer, Joan Baez, who at the age of 22, performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington. This video, from the National Archives, doesn’t necessarily do a great job of capturing the sense of the crowd, but when it pans up to the face of Lincoln, it does make me tear up.
Finally, here’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who can’t be beat for the sheer power of her voice. Jackson also sung at the March on Washington and sung Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite gospel song, Take my hand, Precious Lord, at his funeral in 1968.
Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the words to We Shall Overcome multiple times, including in his final sermon before his assassination. The language Dr. King used in that sermon are particularly important to remember today. As he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It has been covered many, many times, including by Bernie Sanders in 1987, when he was still mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Listen, if you dare. Actually, and fortunately, Bernie isn’t doing the singing, but he introduces the song and then a talented group of Vermont performers do the actual singing, with the occasional interjection by Sanders.
Other more recent covers include the British folk/punk singer Frank Turner, Roger Waters in support of Palestinians ending the blockade of Gaza, and even versions in Hindi and Bengali.