“We Shall Overcome” is an old song with no single known author, and it was altered and added to over many years. The form we know it by today was shaped in part by Guy Carawan (July 27, 1927-May 2, 2015).
In an interview with Pacifica Radio, Pete Seeger shared the history of the song. Mentioned in a 1909 letter about striking tobacco workers, it was picked up in 1947 by Lucille Simmons, another tobacco worker, who revived the song in a slow, no-rhythm way (Seeger called it “long-meter style”). It was heard and learned by labor organizer Zilphia Horton who in turn shared it with Seeger. He printed it in People’s Songs in 1947, and tried to perform it but had a hard time accompanying it on the banjo.
13 years later at a workshop at the Highlander Folk School (which Horton had co-founded), Seeger heard Carawan sing it with the addition of rhythm, a contribution for which he gives Carawan and Frank Hamilton credit. (Carawan, Hamilton, Seeger and Horton are all listed on the copyright for the song.) The timing was right, as the American Civil Rights movement was beginning to gain momentum, and Carawan, who had become music director of the school, taught it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As they organized groups throughout the South, they took the song with them. As evidence of the power of the song, President Lyndon Johnson quoted it in his televised address on the voting rights law.
Carawan was a multi-instrumentalist, who played the banjo, guitar and hammered dulcimer. He often performed with his wife, Candie Caraway, and sometimes his son Evan.