Celebration and Resolution. In February 2010, Joan Baez brought her message in song to the White House. It was the same message she brought to hundreds of thousands at Woodstock in August ’69 and to those who marched in Washington on behalf of civil rights in August ’63. In front of President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and other guests, Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” with reverence, hopefulness and a sense of gratitude that times and hearts had changed since she and Bob Dylan sang at the Lincoln Memorial on that summer day nearly 47 years before.
Those in The March on Washington, led by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were imploring the White House, the Congress, and society at large to recognize the humanity and dignity of the country’s black citizens. On that day Dr. King proclaimed his dream to the world. In many ways his dream has been fulfilled. It was the first black President of the United States, after all, who hosted Joan Baez and others, including Dylan, as they sang the songs associated with the civil rights movement.
And the dream lives on, as do the songs and our memories of those who acted bravely in the face of bigotry and danger. They were determined to overcome.
A Determined Composer. Many historians, including music critic Dave Marsh, believe “We Shall Overcome” is probably a merger of “I’ll Overcome Someday,” written by African-American minister and composer Charles A. Tindley, and an older hymn, “I’ll Be All Right.” Born in Berlin, Maryland on July 7, 1851, and orphaned at the age of 5, Tindley labored mightily to succeed in life. By the time he turned 17, he had taught himself to read and write. While attending night school and taking correspondence courses from the Boston University School of Theology, he worked as a janitor at Philadelphia’s Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. Ordained as a minister of the gospel, he served several congregations before returning to the church in Philadelphia, not as the janitor but as its pastor. Tindley had a most successful ministry. At the time of his death, it was estimated his multi-racial church had more than 10,000 members.
The dynamism of Charles A. Tindley was evident from the pulpit but his songs left an even greater impact as he’s still considered one of the founding fathers of gospel music. Another gospel luminary, Thomas Dorsey, composer of such great hymns as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “Peace In The Valley,” felt indebted to Tindley, saying, “I feel I became a part of Dr. Tindley just like he became a part of me.”
Anthony Heilbut, in his book,The Gospel Sound, wrote that “Tindley’s songs comprised a whole new genre. Amidst the most banal sentiments, Tindley incorporated folk images, proverbs and Biblical allusions familiar to black churchgoers for over a hundred years.”
Tindley’s “I’ll Overcome Someday” illustrates one’s struggles and spiritual yearnings. The believer’s steadfastness is revealed despite the perils when “A thousand snares are set for me.” Recognized are the “mountains in my way,” yet the believer keeps the faith, affirming, “If in my life, I do not yield, I’ll overcome someday.”
More than 100 years after Tindley’s birth, the song was invigorated with a mid-twentieth century thrust that made it the anthem of the civil rights movement. The song’s new words declared a sense of unity and resolution by those victimized, making it clear the world knew “We’ll walk hand in hand,” as each one walking with an unshakable faith knew victory was in sight. That faith was rock solid. The assurance offered a quiet but firm message to any foe who doubted: “Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.”
Singing, Teaching. Guy Carawan, described as “a radical troubadour” by David Halberstam in The Children, a landmark book on the movement’s early days, was responsible for helping to bring the song, with its social message, in 1959, to civil rights activists. Carawan was serving as a teacher at the Highlander Folk School, a liberal leadership training school and cultural center in East Tennessee. Folk singer Pete Seeger, who would do much to popularize “We Shall Overcome,” suggested to Carawan that he volunteer at the school. It was a solid recommendation. He and his wife, Candy, still work at Highlander, where they serve as consultants.
Carawan would journey to Nashville quite often during the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. In The Children, Halberstam wrote of how the Reverend C.T. Vivian, Carawan’s host in Nashville, would always remind Carawan to bring his guitar. He didn’t have to. The guitar was an appendage for Carawan.
A song that Carawan played for Vivian was “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which Halberstam described as an old black church song. The words came rolling out, more like those from “I’ll Be All Right,” the song that possibly inspired Charles A. Tindley when he wrote his classic hymn in 1901.
“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, I’ll be all right someday….I will see his face. I will see his face someday….”
Another Minister. Different Sounds. In the ’30’s, Blind Gary Davis, a blues singer-guitarist, noted for his ragtime-styled playing, recorded a mix of blues and gospel numbers. His adaptation of “I’ll Be Alright,” along with “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Baby Let Me Lay It On You,” and “Samson and Delilah” made for a compelling mix of temporal and spiritually minded songs. Soon he became more mindful of the messages in his gospel songs, leading him to the ministry. He was ordained a Baptist minister in the mid-thirties.
In 1940 Davis, a native of Laurens, South Carolina, became the minister at the Missionary Baptist Connection Church in New York City, but his work was not limited to the pulpit. He would regularly venture out with his guitar to play, sing and preach on the street corners of Harlem.
The folk music revival of the late ’50s took the Reverend Gary Davis to larger gatherings than Harlem street corners. His unique mixture of blues, gospel and ragtime made him popular on college campuses and at coffee houses. Davis had become a very influential figure during a time in which society and music were both exploring new boundaries.
Bob Dylan recorded “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (a renamed “Baby Let Me Lay It On You”) for his debut album, released in ’62. Fourteen years later Dylan revisited the song, this time with an electrified charge while performing with The Band at The Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving Day ’76.
The folk, blues, and rock artists of the sixties acknowledged the influence of Davis, recording his songs and visiting him for guitar lessons. Perhaps Davis’s most enthusiastic pupil was Jorma Kaukonen. The former Jefferson Airplane guitarist has been called a veritable Gary Davis jukebox, given the many Davis songs he’s recorded on his albums and those he’s done as a member of Hot Tuna.
Others taking instruction from Davis in the late ’60’s and shortly before his death in ’72 were Ry Cooder, David Bromberg and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir .
Weir referred to Davis as his “mentor” in an interview with Guitar Player magazine. In the same discussion, Weir’s band mate Jerry Garcia expressed high regard for Davis. “He was always kind of overlooked, but technically speaking, he’s the best of them, Garcia said. “And of course, what he plays isn’t strictly blues either. It’s really ragtime music. Gary Davis always reminded me of Ray Charles, if you know what I mean. That similar voice, that kind of gospel-style full chording. And his songs are structured similarly to those gospel long-form songs.”
The Grateful Dead included Davis songs such as “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Samson and Delilah” in their repertoire for years. In ’77, Weir mused over the Dead’s recording of “Samson and Delilah,” telling music journalist David Gans “I’m not entirely sure that all those folks out there in those discos and stuff like that who are down into some heavy sinnin’ want to hear a Bible story.”
Jorma Kaukonen, “the veritable Gary Davis jukebox,” has continued to record and perform the Reverend’s songs. His River of Time album, released in February ’09, included the Davis song, “There’s A Bright Side Somewhere.” In concert with G.E. Smith in March, 2010 at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Kaukonen brought the house down with “I Am The Light Of This World,” a Davis song that was featured on Kaukonen’s first solo album, Quah, released in ’74.
In the liner notes of the remastered and expanded Quah in 2003, Kaukonen is quoted regarding “I Am The Light Of This World” as well as the other Davis song on the album, “I’ll Be All Right.” He referred to the obvious by first saying, “I love all of Gary Davis’s stuff but I wouldn’t consider playing all of his songs. The two on this album I’ve always liked for the message and the spirit. That’s the main thing that attracted me to them.”
Kaukonen brings a warm spirit to both songs, especially “I’ll Be All Right.” His rendition of the Davis song is sprightly and gentle. And no doubt he learned a lot from his teacher, the Reverend Gary Davis. Jorma’s accoustic guitar playing comes through sweetly with a sound of confidence. The same goes for his vocal performance. There’s a great sense of contentment and faith in his voice. All in all, it’s a work of perfection. On this 1974 recording, Jorma Kaukonen added greatly to the song’s legacy.