Writer continues battle over “We Shall Overcome” Song
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
Those stirring words from the first verse of the iconic song “We Shall Overcome” shaped the Civil Rights Movement and became the battle cry for African Americans throughout the late 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.
Those words and the song were recently the subject of a fierce court battle partly settled earlier in September when a New York judge ruled that the verse you just read belongs in the public domain. As for the rest of the song, that court battle continues.
“This is not personal,” Isaias Gamboa, who filed the lawsuit in 2016, told the EUR in a recent phone interview. “This is something that I’m doing for the African American people. This song was stolen from the African American people and it must be returned.”
The musician/music producer filed suit when his request to use the song in his documentary, based on the 2012 book he authored, “We Shall Over-come: Sacred Song of the Devil’s Tongue,” was denied by the song’s publisher.
“They just denied the use outright,” said Gamboa. “We asked them what do we need and they said that they reserve the right to say no to anybody and we say no to you too. Now, I wasn’t sure if it was because they knew about my book. They were charging people for using this song but now they’re suppressing my creative expression. I didn’t know what to do and then realized this could be a lawsuit.”
Like the book, Gamboa’s documentary would chronicle the importance of how “We Shall Overcome” became a staple in Black churches to eventually becoming a protest song for various causes, most notably the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s just an interesting story that we need to tell each other,” said Gamboa. “It can motivate us and help our people to remember our past and influence us to do something now.”
It was also important for Gamboa to tell the story behind who wrote the song. While Gamboa was a musician/music producer in the 1990s, he met another musician, Robert Goins, who claimed to be the grandson of the woman who wrote “We Shall Overcome.”
Gamboa conducted research that unveiled legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and three other white people listed as the writers of the song, which seemed odd.
Gamboa turned to Goins who remembered he had one of his grandmother’s suitcases in storage after she died years earlier in 1993. What was in there was a treasure trove of information about a woman named Louise Shropshire.
“He had some stuff in storage that he hadn’t looked at since his grandmother passed,” said Gamboa. “He opened up this suitcase and the first thing he shows me is a picture of his grandmother with Martin Luther King. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ He was like, ‘Grandma was good friends with Dr. King.’ Then he was pulling out more pictures that I had never seen of Dr. King and all of a sudden it seemed more to it than just a story.”
Gamboa continued, “The sheet music in there was also really historic. There was something by Thomas Dorsey, who’s considered the father of gospel music and he said they were close friends, too. I realized there was something here but there was no ‘We Shall Overcome’ in there.”
Soon after, Gamboa contacted the Library of Congress and, “Found an obscure library in England that had something that listed her name. It was 11 pages and called ‘His Precious Blood.’ I sent for it and it turned out to be a songbook. The last song in it was called ‘If My Jesus Wills.’ The lyrics were, ‘I will overcome, I will overcome, I will overcome someday. If my Jesus wills and I do believe, I will overcome someday.’”
“The kicker was that song (‘If My Jesus Wills’) was copyrighted in 1954,” Gamboa continued. “And, ‘We Shall Overcome’ was copyrighted in the 1960s. The first thing that came to mind was those songs are so similar that they could not have possibly been created independently.”
While this information made for a great book and film, Gamboa would learn that it would have no bearing on the lawsuit that was ultimately filed.
“The attorneys (the same lawyers who were able to get ‘The Happy Birthday Song’ released in public domain in late 2015) weren’t interested in the story of Louise,” Gamboa said. “They said the lawsuit is not about proving who wrote the song, it’s about these people who should have never had it in the first place. These people were profiteers. They picked it up, realized it was becoming popular, and decided to claim it.”
Although it is still not clear how Pete Seeger gained control over the song, according to reports, he claimed he was saving the song from being exploited by Hollywood. Seeger’s publisher, The Richmond Organization, even set up a fund years ago to put money back in poor African American communities from the song’s proceeds. Gamboa’s not buying it.
“It’s an organization that they call the We Shall Overcome Fund and it’s administered by people’s names who are on the copyright,” said Gamboa. “They get to choose how to use it. They do give out grants to organizations in the South but again this is not a Robin Hood story. You don’t get to steal from the poor to give to the poor. So, when people start going down that path, ‘Well, didn’t (Seeger) do good things’ – he didn’t have the right to take the money. How can you say he was this philanthropic man when his organization denied the use of the song to projects like ‘The Butler’ and others.”
A month after the release of Gamboa’s book, film producer Simone Sheffield contacted him.
“We Shall Overcome” publishers wanted to charge $100,000 to use it in the 2013 film, The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels.
“She said, ‘Can you prove that they don’t own the song?” said Gamboa.” And, I said, ‘Yeah! Problem is, I’m not a judge.’ I eventually connected with Lee Daniels and they became very supportive of what we were doing. Subsequently, they ended up having to pay $15,000 to use the song in the film. However, they drastically changed the way the song was used because of the restrictions.”
While Louise Shropshire may not have played as an important role in the lawsuit as Gamboa would have liked, he still wants to make sure that the sharecropper’s daughter from Coffee County, Alabama, who later settled in Cincinnati, gets credit for the song.
“The story now is that the song was essentially enslaved and now it’s free,” said Gamboa. “That’s something we should celebrate and talk about the woman behind the song. I was so humbled to have a role in covering it.”
In 2013, Louise Shropshire was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame and a street has been named after her in Cincinnati. As for Gamboa’s documentary, he does not want to use it until the entire song is cleared, and he is hopeful it will happen sooner than later. For more information on Isaias Gamboa’s journey to bring “We Shall Overcome” back to the people.