Our current series for KEXP Documentaries is Civil Rights Songs.
Pete Seeger was a leading activist in the fight for unions in the 1940’s. In the 50’s his folk band The Weavers were blacklisted — forbidden to play any commercial gigs — for being part of the communist party. The Weavers broke up in 1952, and in 53 Decca dropped their contract and deleted all their songs from the catalog. It was hard living in obscurity.
But Pete Seeger continued to play solo. When Weavers were finally allowed to play a reunion concert in 55 at Carnegie hall the show sold out and The Weavers were hired to play music for a cigarette commercial. Seeger felt morally opposed, but he stayed with the band until his promised obligations were done. He said he “felt like a prisoner” until he was able to leave in 1958.
During this hard time, Pete Seeger continued to play at marches for civil rights for African-Americans. His talent of being able to teach the songs to the audience as he went along worked well for protests. He’d get the whole crowd going on a song and then sing harmonies over their notes. He took the words to an old spiritual called “I Will Overcome” and changed the hook, added a few verses and sang it as “We Shall Overcome.” This song became the anthem for protest movements around the world.
KEXP Documentaries are produced by Michele Myers. With assistance from John Felthous. Executive producer is Kevin Cole. You can listen to all our KEXP Docs online in the on-demand section of kexp.org.