The author of the book “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue” told us of Louise Shropshire’s opus, his quest to expose those he claims stole her legacy, and the importance of returning GOD to the selection. Here we continue that conversation as he explains the importance of returning “We Shall Overcome” to its gospel beginnings.
“Because I was in the music business I bought in and wanted to show everyone that she was treated unfairly. But when the spiritual theme came in I felt there was something deeper there 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 as 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 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’.”
“My father was white, so I’m not a person who thinks the white man did anything. I wanted to underline the spiritual portion in the book,” Gamboa explained. “Dr. King and all these people spoke toward the religious oratory, and we kind of miss that. I think that’s one of the reason’s why African Americans in this country haven’t come that much further since the 60s. We’ve achieved certain things, but as a people in general there’s sort of been a step back. I think it’s because of the lack of spirituality. In the 60s people called upon GOD for strength during hard times. But when you say ‘I don’t need GOD, I can do it myself’ the song becomes a placebo. ”
Though the the theft of artistic property is shady enough, Isaias says it goes beyond the mere theft of a song but of a legacy.
“I wanted to let people know that this was an evil that happened. It wasn’t just about some guys trying to make some money. I think there were forces at work trying to take that song. At some point someone was sitting around and said ‘this Jesus thing ain’t working’ and when you do that you undermine GOD’s purpose. The book is also written from my point of view. As a christian I make references to things that King would say.”
“Negro spirituals were coded. Many of them had to do with GOD, but they were also about escaping. In a lot of Dr. King’s speeches he would split the speech and I could tell he was speaking to two different audiences. He would be speaking to the white audience in the beginning but would finish up talking to black people. I remember one particular speech when he asked ‘Why do we think we shall overcome?’ and he mentions white poets that white people would recognize. Then he went and said ‘We shall overcome because the Bible is right’. So, he took it to another level. But in the end he finished with ‘Walk together chil’lun, don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meet in the promised land’. He was basically trying to say ‘it’s still about us’, that’s what I got from it. We need to keep in mind that the song was written for us, by us.”
Gamboa tells us that folk singer Pete Seeger is chiefly responsible for the theft of “We Shall Overcome”, but he had plenty of proverbial co-defendants. He also names Bruce Springteen, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, among others, for removing the soul from what was meant to be a gospel hymn and making millions while doing it. Each of the aforementioned musicians has a reputation of being ‘for the people’ yet there names come up in this debacle. Anyone else see the irony?
“The song was ripped off,” he reiterated. “There’s history and proof in the book. I prove who did it, when they did it, why they did it and how they did it. Now it stands in a legal battle. What I’m trying to do now is let the world know why it happened. Pete Seeger and his croonies did this before with a song that was in ‘The Lion King’, ‘A Lion Sleeps Tonight’. But what’s the point of you knowing it if the world doesn’t know it?” said Gamboa. “If you Google it you might find somethings that I’ve put out there, but most of the stuff you’ll find was put out by Pete Seeger and his people for all these years. I found an editor who told me it had to be done like a textbook. I had to source, double-source and triple-source. I was told if I didn’t do it that way then people would try to shoot it full of holes.”
And why is this song so important internationally? Like many things spawned from the souls of African Americans “We Shall Overcome” is often overlooked for its significance in inspiring change the world over.
“The Library of Congress named this the most important song of the 20th century. There’s no song that stand up to this one. People used it in Tienanmen Square, 30,000 people sang it when the Berlin Wall fell. It has a universal message and is powerful on that level, but to not know who wrote it, not know the name of the woman nor know that she was black is a tragedy. It’s unthinkable. If I tell people in the hood, it never leaves the hood. That’s just how it is. I had to write it and it had to be academically recognized and acknowledged. People need to see the alternative history.
Gamboa says that he and his friend Robert, the grandson of the late Ms. Shropshire, paid a surprise visit to the home Seeger not long ago to bring him up to date on the facts behind “We Shall Overcome”.
“We spoke to him about a month ago while doing this documentary, we went to his home and did a ambush interview and we addressed him. Mrs. Shropshire’s grandson Robert approached Mr. Seeger and laid out the case for his grandmother’s song and Pete said he thought it was wonderful. We did an hour interview on him and we confronted him with the story he had been telling for 50 years and he says ‘Well, that’s what I was told’.
“He says a woman named Lucille Simmons that gave him the song through one of the white folks he was associated with. I asked did he think Lucille Simmons was Louise Shropshire and says it could have been Louise Shropshire. Ultimately, he backed down and said this woman should be a part of history. He stopped short of saying he stole the song, but it was really powerful seeing him acknowledge her. He appeared to exhale a little bit because they’ve been telling this lie for a longtime.”
So, what’s next? Follow the money trail.
” The next thing is to contact the publishing company that really controls the songs,” he continued. “It’s one of the biggest independent publishing companies in the world. We’re ready to hit them with a barrage of big time players. We’re hoping they’re smart enough to want to settle this, but the family wants the grandmother’s name restored as the original author, the royalties are to go to the heirs, and from this point forward all royalties will go to the heirs.”
“They don’t really have any choice. They’re not going to fight it, they might try to bullshit a little, but you can’t fight it because it’s documented. In 2010 he did a video interview about the origins of the song and he started singing Louise Shropshire’s lyrics. Basically, Pete Seeger is our star witness against himself. The attorney said they’re going to a press conference with BMI and ASCAP and let people know these people are scoundrels and they’ve been doing it for a lot of years. Instead of a $100 million lawsuit, it’s going to be a $200 million lawsuit. It’s not just any song.”
The 93 year old Pete Seeger is easily the most decorated folk singer in the world. His catalog of hits are more numerous than his years. Gamboa says Seeger’s popularity is the main obstacle in the case as it stands today. But the echo of racism can still be heard not far in the distance. It’s another case of “Who stole the soul?”
“The scandal is that one of the guys that did it to her is beloved. He sang at Obama’s last inauguration. NPR and everyone else has been praising him. A lot of folks look at him as if he’s Santa Claus. They can’t say anything negative about him. I’ve had people curse me out just at the thought of me so-called tarnishing his name. I’m just trying to tell people what happened. He’s told a beautiful lie for the past 52 years. If it comes across negative then it is what it is. My job is not to protect him, my job is to protect the truth. It’s not fun to see people turned off. I’ve had people who I was really cool with, these were not people of color, and I gave them a copy of the book and they don’t want to talk to me anymore. They think it’s all about race, and it is about race. I ask them ‘What’s your favorite show?’ and they said ‘Friends’ and I ask ‘If that show was all African American would it still be your favorite show?’ They don’t even answer the question, they just move on.”
Read part 1 of this report HERE.