Guy Carawan, who introduced the song “We Shall Overcome” to the civil rights movement, died on May 4 at age eighty-seven after a lengthy illness.
Millions of people around the world have sung the words to ‘We Shall Overcome,” but few of them know the name Guy Carawan. Possessed with prodigious talent and a deep passion for justice, Carawan was modest and self-effacing, and little-known outside of a small circle of social activists and folklore enthusiasts. Of course, that’s part of the folk tradition. Carawan didn’t write “We Shall Overcome,” but he transformed it, turning it into an international anthem for human rights.
I had long been a fan of Carawan, who for over fifty years worked as the music director for the Highlander Research and Education Center in rural Tennessee, an interracial training center for grassroots activists, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis—but until 2000 I didn’t know he had attended Occidental College, where I teach, when I read an article about him in Sing Out, the folk song magazine.
I called his home in New Market, Tennessee near the Highlander Center, and asked him and his wife Candie if they’d be interested in doing a concert at his alma mater. Although the Carawans, both originally from Southern California, had occasionally traveled to the area to visit family members, Guy hadn’t been back to the campus since he graduated, with a degree in mathematics, in 1949. He was grateful for the invitation. It took several years to orchestrate the visit, but in March 2003, Guy and Candie arrived on campus. In the meantime, I had persuaded the college president and trustees to give Guy an honorary degree for his lifetime commitment to social justice and his immense contributions to music and folklore.
The Carawans spent two days on campus. They gave workshops in several classes and performed a concert in the college chapel. Before the concert, Guy had a reunion with a dozen of his former ATO fraternity brothers, none of whom he’d seen since his graduation fifty-four years earlier. Carawan’s first experience singing in public was with an ATO quartet. He played the ukulele and the group sang tunes like “Ain’t She Sweet.”
It was pouring heavily that night but by the time the Carawans entered the chapel it was standing-room-only, filled with college students, local activists, and many friends that Guy had made in LA’s folk music scene in the 1950s. One of them was Beth Lomax Hawes, an original member of the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Guy and Candy were joined on stage by their son Evan, an accomplished hammer dulcimer player, and by Simeon Pillich, a world-renowned bass player who teaches at the college. In between sets, Occidental president Ted Mitchell (now deputy secretary of the US Department of Education) bestowed Carawan with his honorary degree. Guy was proud of the honor but somewhat embarrassed by the ceremony—especially when Mitchell placed Occidental black-and-orange hood around his neck—but he kept it on during the second set.