Pete Seeger, on the development of “We Shall Overcome”:
“Long-meter style is the way Zilphia Horton learned it — why didn’t her parents just call her Sylvia, I wonder — and she taught it to me, but I didn’t know how to play it right. I just gave it a banjo accompaniment, and I didn’t even sing it very much. Eventually I changed the Will to Shall. Toshi jokes that it’s my college education, but I’ve always used shall in the first person. Are you going to town tomorrow? Yes, I shall. Anyway, shall opens up the mouth better; the short ‘I’ is not as dramatic a sound as the ‘aah.’ I taught the song to Frank Hamilton, who taught it to a young boy named Guy Carawan, and they put it in this twelve-eight meter, but slow, and that gave it that great, pulsating rhythm. I am not sure where Dr. King heard it, but there was a woman, what was her name, she died only last year, and she remembered driving Dr. King to a speech in Kentucky and him in the backseat saying, ‘“We Shall Overcome,” that song really sticks with you, doesn’t it.’”[Toshi: Pete’s wife Toshi Seeger.]
Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).
“We Shall Overcome” (Wikipedia)