- We Shall Not Be Moved / No Nos Moverán: Biography of a Song of Struggle by David Spener
We shall not, we shall not be movedWe shall not, we shall not be movedJust like tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved …
Hear this song once and it lodges in your brain. Sing it at a protest and feel connected to a larger struggle for freedom. In We Shall Not Be Moved / No Nos Moverán, sociologist David Spener investigates how English and Spanish versions became a staple of twentieth-century protest movements. Spener’s innovative technique of using the song to string together the narrative creates unexpected connections across space, time, and linguistic and national boundaries. However, this narrative strategy also creates historical gaps: a broad range of actors appear and disappear too quickly to fully explain the myriad moments in which this song served broader strategies of social protest.
The story begins with the 1973 military coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Just before it was shut down, Radio Magellan, the last pro-Allende station still operating, broadcast Tiemponuevo’s version of “No Nos Moverán,” playing a record pressed by a small communist label in the late 1960s. At many points, the reader would like to know more about how these records sounded and looked, but the history of sound and technology is a minor theme here. Instead, Spener tracks how a variety of protest movements used the song as “a significant emotional and symbolic resource” (146).
Spener spends the rest of the book searching for the roots of this moment in 1973. He locates the song’s likely origins as an African American spiritual, “I Shall Not Be Moved.” By the 1920s, the song appeared in hymnals used in both black and white churches. It continued to be sung and recorded by southern groups such as the Carter Family and by Johnny Cash, whose version adhered to the song’s biblical origins, testifying to his faith in God despite temptation.
In the 1930s, labor organizers associated with the CIO changed the chorus from “I Shall Not Be Moved” to “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the CIO recognized the power of songs to build solidarity. As IWW songsmith Joe Hill remarked, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read but once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over” (quoted, 40–41). In 1931, black and white coal miners in Kanawha County, West Virginia, became the first of many groups of strikers to sing the song at union meetings and on picket lines.
The adaptability of “We Shall Not Be Moved” made it especially useful. The West Virginia miners added verses naming the leader of their wildcat strike. Textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina, and hosiery workers in Rockwood, Tennessee, [End Page 111] made similar changes. The song became an anthem of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which briefly united black and white sharecroppers to protest landlord abuse and neglect by New Deal agencies. The refrain “we shall not be moved” served as an equally apt lyric for sit-down strikers at General Motors in Flint, Michigan. In 1938, striking Mexican American pecan shellers sang the first Spanish-language version, “No Nos Move rán,” from a San Antonio jail.
Songbooks compiled by union organizers and labor educators at places like the Highlander Folk School became important conduits for spreading “We Shall Not Be Moved.” In the early 1940s, the Almanac Singers, a Greenwich Village folk group that included Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie, introduced the song to the Popular Front canon. In his preface to The People’s Songbook (1948), folklorist Alan Lomax presented this growing collection of protest songs as evidence of “a new folk community composed of progressives and anti-fascists, and union members” (quoted, 57). Here the reader wishes for...