Waldemar Hille; Composer, American Folk Song Historian

Waldemar Hille, a pianist and composer who edited the folk and protest musical reference work known as “The People’s Songbook,” has died. He was 87.

Hille died Dec. 12 in his sleep at his Long Beach home.

Once an accompanist for Paul Robeson, Hille was musical director at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1946 when he heard picketing union members singing “We Shall Overcome.” He brought the song to the attention of his friend, nationally known folk singer Pete Seeger, and it eventually became the anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Seeger also sang music written or co-written by Hille.


As a socially conscious musician, Hille could often be found on union picket lines and participating in protest demonstrations. He was regarded as a historian of American folk, union and protest songs.

Hille was well-known as the musical director for 35 years of First Unitarian Church, 2936 W. 8th St., Los Angeles. There he helped form the choir and made certain that songs of social awareness were a part of the regular Sunday morning services.

He is survived by his wife, Joy.