‘We Shall Overcome’ musician dies at 87

Guy Carawan, voice of the civil rights movement and best known for the protest song ‘We Shall Overcome,’ dies at his home in Tennessee age 87.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Carawan, a white folk singer, did not write the song, which has a long oral history that can be traced back to a church hymn in the late 19th Century that was taken up as a rally cry among labor activists in the 1940s.

Carawan first performed "We Shall Overcome", to a group of black students in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960 - and it quickly became the anthem of the civil rights movement, the New York Times said on Thursday.

It was sung at demonstrations and rallies throughout the 1960s, including the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In the decades since, it has been performed by Tiananmen Square protesters and at the dismantled Berlin Wall, the Times reported.

In a 1999 interview with NPR about the song's history, Carawan said he learned the lyrics and melody from a friend in California.

"He taught me this song, and he also had put some chords to it. He sang the guitar with it. So he had a guitar with harmony like, [singing] 'we shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe, yes, that we shall overcome someday'," he said, reciting the lyrics.

The son of Southern parents, Carawan was born in 1927 in Santa Monica, California.

He moved to New York City and became active in the folk revival movement in the 1950s. The version of "We Shall Overcome" sung by Carawan was forged with the help of fellow folk artist Pete Seeger, the Times reported.

Carawan and his second wife, Candie, taught music for decades at the Highlander Research and Education Center - a social justice leadership school - in New Market, Tennessee.

Carawan, who suffered from dementia, died on Saturday and his final moments were peaceful, his wife told local media.