‘We Shall Overcome’: From Work Song to Civil Rights Anthem

Folk singer Frank Hamilton
Folk singer Frank Hamilton

An Interview with Frank Hamilton

Folk singer Frank Hamilton remembers Rosa Parks, the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and the song he taught to Pete Seeger and to protesters at the Greensboro sit-ins.

Frank Hamilton is a legend in American folk music. Though he may not be the most famous to come out of the 60s counterculture, he managed to be at the right place in some remarkable times. For example, Woody Guthrie taught him to play harmonica. Frank taught Linda Ronstadt how to play guitar, as well as Roger McGinn of the BYRDS. He co-founded Chicago’s famed Old Town School of Folk Music. And it was during a visit to the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee, a facility for training protesters, that Frank picked up an old song from some tobacco workers: We Will Overcome.

Frank altered the song a little and began teaching it to others, including his friend Pete Seeger and some of the protesters at the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina (a 1960 protest against Jim Crow-era segregation). The song We Shall Overcome spread from community to community, becoming a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement.

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