That Good Old Song: Suit Argues 'We Shall Overcome' Belongs To Us All

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A crowd organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sings “We Shall Overcome” in Farmville, Va., in 1966 after a speech by Stokely Carmichael. Credit The New York Times

This week a class-action lawsuit by the non-profit group We Shall Overcome Foundation, which works with inmates, orphans and the poor, sued the music publishers who control “We Shall Overcome,” seeking to free from copyright and place in the public domain the classic, searing anthem of the Civil Rights Movement that sustained so many, often through beatings and clouds of teargas, in marches, protests, sit-ins and jail cells - and still does around the world. The suit, filed at Federal District Court in Manhattan, argues the song's copyright was never as broad as publishers Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization claim, that regardless of its murky history the claim has expired, and that - much like a similar suit earlier this year that freed "Happy Birthday" from longstanding copyright - this is a song that belongs to the people.

Declared by Library of Congress “the most powerful song of the 20th century,” various researchers have traced the origins   of "We Shall Overcome" to  various sources. Most say it stems from a 19th-century black hymn by Louise Shropshire, "If My Jesus Wills," that over time morphed into "We Will Overcome." First mentioned in print in 1909 in the United Mine Workers Journal as “that good old song,” it was reportedly first used as a protest song in 1945 by striking tobacco workers in South Carolina on their picket line, and first recorded in 1947 by Zilphia Horton, who taught it to Pete Seeger, who published a version in 1948 in the periodical "People’s Songs." Seeger sang it triumphantly for enough years many people think he wrote it; he copyrighted it in 1960, somewhat ironically, in a bid to protect what he saw as black art from white profiteers, directing its proceeds go to fund art and activism in African-American communities. Most accounts say Seeger changed "will" to "shall"; in his autobiography, Seeger sheepishly acknowledged "it could have been my Harvard education."

In this week's lawsuit, the Foundation acknowledges the song's labyrinthian history, questions the copyright's problematic legal status, and above all argues that the short, simple power of what has become an enduring global anthem for human rights - from its insistent  "Deep in my heart" to its plaintive, defiant "We shall overcome" - belongs to everyone. "Who owns it?" they argue. "You do, I do, we do." Many would likewise agree, arguing the song has maintained its iconic status from generation to generation because, like any good folk song, it's a living thing, changing over time as each artist or community distills and refines and embraces it for their time and as their own. Regardless, it still resonates.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

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