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We Shall Overcome - Chords, Lyrics and Origins

Origins

Listening to Pete Seeger's recording of 'We Shall Overcome', you can feel the power of this quasi-religious song to move a mass of people.  Where does this power lie?  Is it in the tune?  Is it in the words?  Is it in the simple, but powerful chord progression?  I'd vote for an even split between them, but make your own decision.

'We Shall Overcome' became the the American civil rights movement's iconic song during the 1960s.  Most famously, perhaps, it was sung by Pete Seeger, who helped to bring it to prominence, although it is also associated with a number of other singers, including Joan Baez.  As argued in this wikipedia article, it seems that We Shall Overcome has its origins in a song composed by Charles Albert Tindall, who was a black American preacher, and the author of several other well known songs.  Tindall's original gospel hymn, called "I'll Overcome Someday", was first published in 1901.  This was only thirty-six years after the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the United States (see this article for more information about slavery in the U.S.); slavery was still well within living memory.

As early as 1908 "We Shall Overcome" had crossed over from the gospel world to the realm of civil protest.  There is a record of it being sung at the beginning of each strike meeting held by the United Mine Workers. As the song grew in popularity, both the tune and the lyrics were reshaped and changed by several hands, some known and others, I suspect, anonymous.  The tune as it now stands seems to have been influenced by "No More Auction Block for Me":

The structure of the lyrics invites you to add extra verses.  In fact - and this isn't meant to denigrate this wonderful song in any way - it's very much a one-size-fits-all protest song.  For example, it was adapted for use by anit-communist organizations in Prague during the velvet revolution in 1989. To use a phrase from the early twenty-first century, it's very much the song of the ninety-nine percent.

Despite its almost universal applicability, the song remains particularly associated with the American civil rights movement.  Martin Luther King, for example, quoted it during his final sermon in March 1968, days before his assassination.

You only need to know six chords to perform this song - G, C, Em, A7, D and D7 - but you need to play it like you mean it.

 

Chords

Capo at 3rd Fret

 

Verse

 

G          C    G

We shall overcome

 

G          C    G 

We shall overcome

G           C    Em   A7     D     D7

We shall overcome some day - ay

 

 

Chorus

 

      G     C       G 

Oh, deep in my heart,

 

C   D7      Em  

I   do   believe

 

G          C     G       D7    G

We shall overcome, some day.

 

 

Lyrics

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Chorus
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand, some day. 

Repeat Chorus

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

Repeat Chorus

We shall all be free,
We shall all be free,
We shall all be free, some day.

Repeat Chorus

We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid, today 

Repeat Chorus 

The Whole wide world around,
The Whole wide world around,
The Whole wide world around, some day

Repeat Chorus

Other American Folk Songs
Other Traditional Folk Songs