Victor V. Bobetsky, editor,
We Shall Overcome: Essays on a Great American Song
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

The editor of a book of essays on a single topic has a choice to make going in: since there is a block of important background information that must be established in order for an analysis to take place, and since each essayist is probably going to have to refer to that material, does he remove the repetition so that the book flows smoothly or does he protect the integrity of each essay by printing it as written, repeated bits and all?

In this collection exploring the old spiritual and civil rights song, "We Shall Overcome," Victor V. Bobetsky opts for the second method. It's a good decision, though it slows the reading and occasionally leaves the reader nodding and saying, "I know, I know." Almost all the authors reflect on the genesis of the song and, of course, all the origin stories are similar. In fact, the first three essays are concerned with the song's beginning. Voretsky summarizes its antecedents in the opening essay, followed by Sam A. Rosenthal's discussion of Pete Seeger and the folk revival's contribution to the song's development and capped off by Deanna F. Weber's examination of the song's progress through the civil rights movement, covering the 1960s activist group SNCC and the Freedom Singers. These writers show how "We Shall Overcome" transformed, through what Pete Seeger has dubbed the folk process from early spirituals such as Charles Albert Tindley's "I'll Overcome Some Day," through Roberta Martin's "I'll Be Like Him Some Day," and others until we reach the song we all know today.

The role this song has played in our social and political history (Lyndon Johnson referred to it and quoted from it in several speeches) is dramatic and fascinating. We Shall Overcome not only tells that story, it goes beyond social history and shows how the song continues to be useful in schools and society. This book is a needed contribution to our culture.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

20 June 2015

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