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>> 141 4 Women’s Work “We Shall Overcome” and the Culture of the Picket Line You think about that, it’s almost like a prayer of relief. We didn’t make up the song. We just started singing it as a struggle song. —Lillie Mae Marsh Doster Riding high on their international acclaim, Paul Robeson and Lawrence Brown performed a special concert for the Highlander Folk School in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 1942. Advertised as Robeson “in a program of Negro Folk Song,” the event also included performances by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a well-known blues musician and figure of the Popular Front folk music circuit. Robeson’s set included international folk songs such as the Irish “Oh, No John!” and Jewish “Chassidic Chant,” but the grand majority of his songs exposed his deep investment in the songs of his people, the spirituals. His standards, “Go Down Moses,” “Water Boy,” and “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho,” presented to the audience a lesson in Black folk traditions that emphasized liberty and freedom. The concert program offered no particular song titles for Leadbelly’s set; instead, it referred to a group of “Negro Work Songs, Ballads , and Blues.”1 The emphasis on work in both men’s repertoires is representative of their roots in the spirituals as well as Highlander’s support of and strategic reliance on those traditions within their worker organizing programs. Within this nationally as-of-yet-unknown worker’s commune in the hills of Tennessee, the lines delineating art and politics were blurred, often collapsing into each other as music, poetry, and drama vocalized the trials and triumphs of an aggrieved laboring class. 142 > 143 women continued to assert their right to fair work environments and equal citizenship through a ballad that they carried from the streets of South Carolina to the hills of Tennessee. From Field to Factory: Race and Labor in Song The historico-musical lineage of “We Shall Overcome” travels a long, and at times obscure, passage from its roots in Negro spirituals to its usage as a labor ballad. While the sacred and secular are often in conflict, the mid-twentieth-century use of an antebellum religious song fits squarely within the larger canon of Black protest music. Musicologist Brandi Neal outlines that there were methodological as well as social reasons for the adoption of certain songs into the mounting Black American freedom movements: “Elements of black sacred music, simple and repetitive melodies and texts and universal themes, facilitated the adaption of sacred hymns and songs. . . . [A]dditional functions of the black church, for example to serve as socioeconomic support to the oppressed black community in post-Civil War America, transformed social activism into a spiritual endeavor. It was inevitable that sacred traditions, namely music, aided social activism.”2 The role of the Black church in the Civil Rights Movement is indisputable; the prominence of Black religious figures such as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and others highlights this point. However , the music of the movement, by and large, did not originate with these leaders of faith, nor did they solely carry it. Indeed, as musicianhistorian -activist Bernice Johnson Reagon outlines, “The church provided the structure and guidance for calling the community together; it trained the singers to sing the old songs and gave them permission to create new ones; [and] it sometimes produced real leaders, in its ministers , deacons, and church mothers.”3 The church then was an incubator for political activism, but as this description attests, its major agents were not necessarily the titled members of the church but the often-unnamed singers and musicians who used songs identified with particular faith communities and adapted them to other avenues of Black life, including trade unionism. Because of their grounding in methods of resistance to slavery, songs such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” gained new credence as a mechanism of political defense beyond their original religious use. 144 > 145 community disparaged the spirituals due to varying investments in fully acculturating to a modern, popular, and middle-class post-Emancipation U.S. landscape, many praised the songs as a reflection of Black rigor and ingenuity. Scholar and activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois made special note of the spirituals in his foundational text, The Souls of Black Folk. Published in 1903, his “polyphonic montage” offers autobiographical material interlaced with Black society and politics under Jim Crow, all of which is prefaced by chapter with an excerpt...


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