Sunday, August 22, 2010
We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World
Written by: Stuart Stotts
Illustrated by: Terrance Cummings
With a foreword by: Pete Seeger
Recommended Ages: 9 and up
This is a very smart, beautifully layed out book that details the origins of the song "We Shall Overcome." I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked it up at the library, but by the time I finished I was convinced that this is a must-have for school libraries everywhere. By using the book as a starting point, teachers could build a wonderful lesson plan around this seemingly simple song that has played such a rich part in our history.
We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World chronicles the importance of song throughout our history. Early in the book, Stotts points out "in hunting, in planting, in battle or in any other task that requires strength, singing helps. It coordinates breathing and focuses energy and effort." It's thought that song has helped people prepare for battle, and face difficult situations for thousands of years.
"We Shall Overcome" was originally used by the labor movement to promote social change. The Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930's to help unions in the South. The school was very serious about teaching people about strike tactics and union elections, and yet the founders also realized the importance of music. It was at the Highlander Folk School that Pete Seeger first heard the song called "We Will Overcome," which he later changed to "We Shall Overcome."
During the late 1950's, "We Shall Overcome" began to be used in the Civil Rights Movement.
It's said that the first time Martin Luther King heard it sung by Peter Seeger he kept humming the tune and later told his driver "that song really sticks with you, doesn't it?"
So what is it about "We Shall Overcome" that makes it so memorable? The first verse is very simple, and only has 23 words:
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome someday.
The book goes into detail about why it is so powerful when sung together in a group. It has to do with its melodic shape and the way certain words are held. Stotts tells many wonderful stories of times when the song was used, and times when the power of its words was felt. The book details how Joan Baez sang it at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, and then later at Woodstock where it became a part of the anti-war movement. When Bruce Springsteen made a recording of it for a Pete Seeger tribute album in 1998, people viewed it as a song about personal strength. The producer of the record received letters from parents of children who had leukemia who said they were singing Bruce's version of the song to them.
A CD by Pete Seeger singing the song is included in the book, and offers a very nice touch for readers. By learning about the song, I believe that children will learn about the role that "We Shall Overcome" played in the labor, Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the United States.
BookNosher Activity: There are so many wonderful activities one could tie into the book. It would be fun to try and track down other versions of the song (ie. Springsteen, Baez and others) and play them alongside the Pete Seeger version. The music is included in the book, so it would be great to have a class learn the words and have them sing it in a circle, arms crossed and holding hands. I imagine they would experience the chilling power of "We Shall Overcome" firsthand.