Number 159 / February 1999:

CELEBRITY SKIN.... The most powerful and important political song of the 20th Century made the Billboard chart for precisely one week in the fall of 1963, yet it was heard virtually every day for years on radio and television, and its chorus and melody were known to all.

The song, of course, is "We Shall Overcome." It was the pick to click among all those who marched for civil rights in that dreadful Birmingham summer of 1963, when the Alabama establishment unleashed fire hoses and dogs upon those trying to overturn Jim Crow. In September, when a bomb murdered four young girls in church, "We Shall Overcome" was the sound of the hour. During the week of November 9, a live version of the song that Joan Baez recorded at Miles College right in Birmingham managed to make the Hot 100 at No. 90. And that was it--even in the midst of a huge folk revival.

"We Shall Overcome" didn't really exist as an official artifact of popular culture. This seems weird today, when the world is one big jukebox and even political anthems--"We Are the World," "Born in the USA," "Don't Believe the Hype"--are commercial blockbusters, or at least resonate on the sales charts (Steve Earle's "Billy Austin," Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance," KRS-1's "Who Protects Us from You?".)

There are great songs among these, but none of them has become a symbol of a movement. For a lot of people, "We Are the World" was as much about bringing Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and all the other stars together as it was about trying to end famine in Ethiopia.

To understand the difference, it helps to know a little of the history of "We Shall Overcome." Pete Seeger, who had the greatest hand in fashioning the song, thinks it originated from the 19th century hymn, "I'll Be All Right," with an additional debt to Rev. Charles Tindley's 1903 "I'll Overcome Some Day." In 1946, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, Zilphia Horton, one of the people who ran that storied institution for the study of radical strategies, heard an adaptation of Tindley's song by members of a tobacco workers union in Charleston, South Carolina. A worker named Lucille Simmons had changed the words to fit their struggle--most importantly, substituting "We" for "I."

That difference is immense. By praying for everyone's salvation, not just his or her own, each singer is drawn into something larger than themselves. After Horton and Seeger had changed the song some more, mainly adding verses, they taught it to folksinger Guy Carawan. Carawan sang "We Shall Overcome" at the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 in Raleigh, N.C. The song's basic concept was so simple and its melody so seductive that it quickly spread first across the South, then the world. The civil rights movement had found its anthem.

Here's the tricky part. There was celebrity involved here: Jon Landau, now Bruce Springsteen's manager, remembers that in the radical enclaves of his Brooklyn youth, "Pete Seeger was Elvis." But if the song had merely come out of Seeger's mouth over the radio, it wouldn't have meant nearly as much. The same would have been true if Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters, then a huge rock'n'roll star, had learned the song on the Atlanta picket line he walked with Martin Luther King, Sr. in December 1960 and recorded it on his next album. If either of these had happened, it would have had a different meaning by the time it reached us. It might still move people--it might still be the song certain cancer patients I know sing in their dark hours-- but its power would still be less than what it is now.

The problem's not that stars somehow "taint" songs or slogans. It's what has been lost in the years since the civil rights era ended: A real sense of a movement, the impact of a vast collection of people moving with a steady, singular purpose toward a goal for which they are willing to sacrifice everything. In 1946, the struggle to organize unions was such a struggle. In 1956, the struggle to gain citizenship rights for blacks became the greatest such battle most of us have ever seen. In such situations, songs are powerful and necessary devices--but that's all they are.

Today we ask so much more of our singers and our songs. We ask that they choose the battles we fight and that they do most of the publicity and fund-raising work. Instead of songs that symbolize what we're doing, we all too often ask for songs that stand in for the doing itself. Since today there is no movement on the scale of the union drives of the 30s and 40s or the civil rights battles of the 50s and 60s, we often wait for musicians and their songs to begin the building process.

That's asking the impossible. If the Birmingham movement had had only its celebrity support of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clyde McPhatter, James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte, but not the thousands of brave high school and even grade school students, the civil rights movement wouldn't have come to much.

Musicians can't be the center of a social movement because that's not what they do. (And it's worth noting that, in a world where the polarization of wealth and poverty shapes every issue, some of the musicians who've helped the most aren't even close to being poor themselves.) Yet we are constantly approached by people who believe that if only the right one or two or three celebrities can be marshaled, the battles can be won. It just doesn't work that way.

This sounds defeatist but it isn't. Our songs remain powerful tools, even in a time of disorganization and frustration like the present. They are vehicles we can use to share our opinions, attitudes, hopes and fears. Most of all, they are the vehicles by which we transmit our shared dreams of what is possible.

Yes, we need to build a movement whose goal is to feed every living human being, to shelter and educate and heal them. Musicians should be a part of that, a glorious part. But the way to such a movement lies in understanding our various roles. When such a movement begins to build itself (it may seem to spring up overnight, although there will have been many who spent years preparing for that occasion), there will be plenty of work for all to do. With guitars and without them.

And with the help of one another, on that day, we shall overcome.--D.M. [Originally appeared in W.H.Y., the magazine of World Hunger Year (505 8th Ave., NYC 10018), in a special issue on musicians against hunger and poverty].

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