Key song from an unsung hero

Special to The Times

For the past 40 years, Guy Carawan has been the musical director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, the center for social activism in New Market, Tenn., that has trained everyone from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. But Carawan's true roots are in California, where he was born and reared and where he was first exposed to the folk music that would change the course of his life.

On Saturday, Occidental College will play host to Carawan, 75, in a celebration of his social and musical contributions -- perhaps the most significant, Carawan's adaptation of the gospel song "I'll Overcome Someday" into the protest chant "We Shall Overcome." The day will include a free concert.

As an undergraduate at the Eagle Rock school, Carawan began his transformation from good-natured frat boy and talented ukulele player into the tireless political activist and musician who would eventually give the civil rights movement its most powerful anthem.

It is Carawan's link to "We Shall Overcome," which would help give the movement a musical foundation and a way to spread its message, that is being celebrated. Historians credit Carawan as the last in a chain of four people in the early civil rights movement who modified the song over a 13-year period between 1947 and 1960.

Carawan is regarded as the most influential because he gave the song a more powerful tempo and was active in introducing it in many Southern communities where civil rights activists were working.

"He's kind of the unsung hero of the civil rights movement," says Peter Dreier, director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College.

Occidental's recognition seems timely, given that these are days perhaps as troubled as the ones in which Carawan first found his voice, one that continues to remain resonant.

"Millions of people around the world have sung or know the words to 'We Shall Overcome,' " Dreier says, "but hardly any of those people know who Guy Carawan is, and in some ways that's part of the folk tradition, that namelessness. Carawan didn't write the song, but he transformed it."


Guy Carawan

When: 7 p.m., Saturday.

Where: Herrick Memorial Chapel at Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road, Eagle Rock.

Cost: Free.

Info: For directions,

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