The Library of Congress named it “the most powerful song of the 20th century.” But who wrote it, who owns it, and whose pimping it? Those questions are answered in the new book “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Songs on the Devil’s Tongue” by music industry vet turned author Isaias Gamboa.
It begins with the tale of humble Louise Shropshire, a sharecropper’s daughter who would grow up to find herself in the inner circle of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey. Recently Gamboa spoke with EURweb’s Lee Bailey about his book and how it came about.
“My friend Robert, who is the grandson of this woman who I’m writing about, approached me about 20 years ago and said ‘My grandmomma wrote ‘We Shall Overcome’,” he explained. “One part of my mind thought it was interesting while the other part was just like ‘moving on.’ I didn’t really take it that seriously. Seventeen years later we talked about it again and he didn’t change a lick of the story.”
Gamboa is a Grammy award winning music industry vet with 30 years under his belt. One could imagine he’s seen and heard it all before, but this one intrigued even him upon hearing it for the second time.
“I told him that I couldn’t just go off the story that he was telling me,” Gamboa told EURweb. “When his grandmother died he went down to her storage. He came back, pulled out a suitcase with all this sheet music in it and it was some extraordinary old stuff that we found. Some stuff from Reverend Thomas Dorsey, ‘Take My Hand’ … just some really amazing stuff. There’s a song called ‘If My Jesus Will.’ It goes, ‘I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome, I’ll overcome someday. If my Jesus wills, I do believe, I will overcome someday.”
“So, I was like wow! But there was no copyright information. I didn’t see any copyright stamps. He said she told him that she copyrighted it. I searched, and searched, and searched…6 months later I found this obscure listing on the Internet that said something about Louise Shropshire and ‘His Precious Blood’ and it had a copyright date on it. So, I sent it to the Library of Congress and they sent me a collection of songs and the last song in this selection was this song, and it had a copyright date attached to it. That copyright was 1954. ‘We Shall Overcome’ was copyrighted in 1960. That was a big deal for me because we now see which came first. But how do I prove it? So, I did some more research.”
If the late Ms. Shropshire’s 1954 version was copyrighted prior to 1960 “We Shall Overcome” version then it’s a cut and dry circumstance, righ? Not hardly. “We Shall Overcome” is currently owned, and being is being milked, by a high profile folk singer and he and his allies are certainly not just going to give it up without a fight.
“The people that own the song now are a guy named Pete Seeger, a well known folk musician, and five other people that you may or may not have heard of,” Isaias told EURweb. “They claim that they derived their version from a Negro spiritual of unknown origins. We know that’s not true, but I had to prove it. I told Robert that we needed some more information.”
Gamboa tells us that his initial research attempts were to undercover the connection between “If My Jesus Will” and “We Shall Overcome,” but soon found that the late Louise Shropshire counted some of the movement’s elite among her close friends.
“He went back to the storage and we found pictures of his grandmother with Dr. King, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Thomas Dorsey. He said ‘Grandmomma was friends with Dr. King’, and I’m like ‘Say what?’ He says ‘Yeah, he used to come over to the house.’ His grandmother was from Cincinnati and her husband was a (well-known) bail bondsman, and they were a very prominent baptist family. She had met Dr. King through Fred Shuttlesworth. Whenever he was in town, Dr King would stay at their home because it was well suited to deal with security issues. She had a house on the hill, they could block off the whole street, and it was secure. She tended to him and his family and their families became friends.”
It was during one of those gatherings that history was made, positive and negative history.
“One time she was with Dr. King and they were playing church songs after dinner. She decided to play her song, and he asked if it could be used for the movement, and he asked could if he could change it to ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the movement. He didn’t refer to making this his own song, he just wanted to know if he could use that theme in some of his rhetoric. From that point on he allegedly started using that phrase.”
It is an incredible moment when a researcher stumbles across a diamond mine of information, but it appeared as if Gamboa had struck the mother lode.
“I thought that this was extraordinary because people feel like they know everything there is to know about Dr. King. To add on history is a big step,” he explained. “You’ve got to know more than Google stuff. So, my brother said I might as well write up a treatment and maybe someone would bite on it and through writing the treatment I was drawn in deeper. That song was a sacred hymn. Those who plagiarized it sought to secularize the song in addition to making it popular. To me, being a Christian, I realized there was a spiritual battle there. It made a lot of money for them, but still…who does that? Who takes a hymn and says ‘Let’s take the God out of it’?”
“The first song says ‘If my Jesus will, I do believe’ and with the second song they’re saying ‘Deep in my heart’,” Isaias continued. “I thought ‘Wow, if I can prove this then I can bring the Jesus back into the dialogue. This song started with Jesus and whatever it did, it did. That’s powerful.”
The modern stereotype of a music industry exec is one who is narcissistic beyond reproach. They generally don’t just donate their time to others without dollar signs being involved. Here, Gamboa tells Lee Bailey why he was moved to act in this circumstance.
“Because I was in the music business I bought in and wanted to show everyone that she was treated unfairly,” he explained. “But when the spiritual theme came in I felt there was something deeper taking root. The reason I decided to call it ‘Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue’ is one night it just came to me. They took a song that was intended to help blacks get through a difficult period through the 40s, 50s and 60s, when there was so much racism. That’s what inspired the song but the Caucasian people who made that adaptation, they weren’t thinking of that. They’re coming from a different places and didn’t have the same struggles. In that spiritual struggle she was trying to say ‘put GOD first’ and they’re saying ‘No, it’s not about putting GOD first, it’s what you want to happen’.
The entire historic narrative of Louise Shropshire, “We Shall Overcome” and the ‘devils’ who usurped a spiritual hymn under false pretenses can be found in “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Songs on the Devil’s Tongue.” There’s so much more to the story. So much so that we’re going to have to cut this one short and bring you part 2 later this week.