Pete Seeger’s adaptation of “We Shall Overcome” became the defining song of the Civil Rights Era, providing a rallying cry throughout the quest for equality.
In 2006, Seeger, who died Monday at 94, talked about the origins of the old spiritual he helped popularize.
Also read: Pete Seeger, Folk Hero, Dead at 94
Charles Albert Tindley wrote the original song, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which eventually and unofficially became “We Will Overcome.” Seeger began performing his version in 1947. One of his key changes was changing the chorus and title from “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.”
“I think I liked a more open sound; ‘We will’ has alliteration to it, but ‘We shall’ opens the mouth wider; the ‘i’ in ‘will’ is not an easy vowel to sing well,” he wrote in the 1993 book “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies.”
In 1957, he performed the song for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and it soon became a staple at Civil Rights rallies. It was sung by 50,000 people at King’s funeral.
Watch Seeger’s 2006 discussion of the song with Tim Robbins for Pacifica Radio: