Songwriter finally gets her due for penning ‘We Shall Overcome’

  • Mark Curnutte
  • Cincinnati
1:06 p.m Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 News

In 1962, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Cincinnati to speak at a banquet for friend and fellow civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth.

Hotels were filled, so Shuttlesworth, the pastor of Revelation Baptist Church in the West End, turned to his congregation's music minister for help. Louise Shropshire and her husband, Robert, founder and owner of Shropshire Bail Bonds, opened their Mount Auburn home to King.         

She served steak, greens and rice.

"She could sing well, she could play well, she could cook well," Patricia Massengill, one of Shuttlesworth's daughters, recalled.         

And Louise Shropshire could write well — extremely well. What many people in her own church and city did not know then was that she enjoyed a national reputation as an accomplished composer of gospel music.         

Her most famous hymn, “If My Jesus Wills,” is the likely source from which folk singer Pete Seeger derived the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” when he first heard it sung by striking African-American tobacco workers in the late 1940s.

The decades-long efforts to publicize Shropshire and her song received a big boost in recent weeks. A federal district court in New York on Jan. 26 oversaw a negotiated settlement that places “We Shall Overcome” in the public domain. The song is now free from six-figure rights fees that kept it from being heard in feature films and incomplete writing credit that shrouded Shropshire's key contribution to the civil rights movement, her supporters say.         

“We Shall Overcome,” the song that helped to ignite and define the civil rights movement, the song that the Library of Congress labeled "the most powerful song of the 20th century," has itself been freed.         

"She wrote “If My Jesus Wills” to comfort her own broken heart," said her grandson, Robert A. Goins Shropshire, 52, a record producer living and working in the Los Angeles area. "It was not written to be harnessed or controlled. I think her hope would be for people to use it and never have to pay for it again."         

Louise Shropshire published “If My Jesus Wills” in 1942 and had it copyrighted in 1954.          

I'll overcome,

I'll overcome,

I overcome someday

If my Jesus wills,

I do believe,

I'll overcome someday. 

Popularized by Seeger, Joan Baez and other folk singers, “We Shall Overcome” begins:         

We shall overcome,            
We shall overcome,            
We shall overcome, someday.            
Oh, deep in my heart,            
I do believe            
We shall overcome, someday.  

Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization, publishers of “We Shall Overcome,” which had lost a summary judgment in the case, waived the right to appeal the judge's decision and agreed in court Jan. 26 that the song's melody and lyrics are "dedicated to the public domain."         

The lawsuit was filed by Butler Films, which produced the 2013 film “The Butler,” and a nonprofit called the We Shall Overcome Foundation that had been created by Isaias Gamboa, a former musician and producer. Gamboa and Robert A. Goins Shropshire were bandmates in California in the 1990s.         

Shropshire told Gamboa that his grandmother's last words to him before she died in 1993 were, "Someday, somebody's gonna do somethin' with all my music."         

Over a five-year period, Gamboa documented his research on video. His notes became the 2012 self-published book “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil's Tongue.” He produced a documentary film and wanted to use “Overcome.” Its publishers refused, he said. Now that the song is public domain, he can.         

"The song has come home to Cincinnati," said Gamboa, who has resettled in College Hill and now teaches carpentry at Woodward Career Technical High School in Bond Hill. "This song represents the hope, the crossover. It's a song of strength that should be enshrined as important as our national anthem."         

Gamboa interviewed Seeger during his research. Seeger told Gamboa in 2006 that "nobody knows exactly who wrote the original." Seeger then sang what he believed to be the original lyrics, which matched Shropshire's “If My Jesus Wills,” Gamboa said.         

Seeger, who died in 2014, had asked in the early 1990s to have his name legally removed from “We Shall Overcome” and another folk standard,  “Guantanamera,” court documents show. In 2012, in another interview, Seeger said "it's very probable" that Louise Shropshire taught the song to the woman who taught it to him.         

Music historians cite at least three other hymns as the possible origin of “We Shall Overcome.” 

In 2014, Louise Shropshire's artifacts and papers — including original sheet music — were given to the University of Cincinnati's Rare Books and Archives Library.         

That donation by Robert A. Goins Shropshire came on the heels of Louise Shropshire's 2013 induction into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame and community celebration of her life and work at Inspirational Baptist Church in Forest Park.          

Born in 1913 as the granddaughter of slaves and daughter of sharecroppers in Coffe County, Alabama, Shropshire moved with her family in 1917 to Cincinnati as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South.          

Her musical talent showed early in life. She was 16 when she married Robert, 13 years her senior. She and her husband used money from their successful bail bonds business to assist civil rights workers who'd been arrested and jailed in the South. Through her activism, she was introduced to King and Shuttlesworth and befriended them.  

Louise

Lee Daniels, who produced and directed “The Butler,” spoke during the ceremony at inspirational Baptist. He said the rights holders demanded a six-figure rights fee for him to use the song in his film about the White House butler. He paid $16,000 for a 3-second clip.

“We Shall Overcome” is conspicuously absent from the 2014 film “Selma,” a retelling of 1965 voting rights marches. Gamboa said producers could not afford the rights fee.

Yet the song would not and has not been silenced. It's sung by marchers on the King holiday each year and by demonstrators in Women's Marches.          

John Morris Russell, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, who directed that performance, calls “If My Jesus Wills” the "most important piece of music ever composed in Cincinnati."         

" ‘If My Jesus Wills,’ by Louise Shropshire, has the essence," he said, "the core of the great worldwide anthem ‘We Shall Overcome.’ In her use of the words, phrasing, melodic fragments, it's central to this extraordinary anthem."         

Shropshire is said to have written “If My Jesus Wills” between 1934 and 1942, when she published it.

In 1961, she helped Shuttlesworth relocate from Birmingham, Alabama, to the pulpit at Revelation. In 1966, she was a founding member of Shuttlesworth's new church, Greater New Light Baptist, in Avondale and continued to serve as the music minister.         

"She was a sweet lady, very demonstrative, but she didn't take no stuff of any kind," said Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester, another daughter of Shuttlesworth and wife of her father's successor, the Rev. Harold Bester.         

Ruby Bester and Massengill recall Shropshire as an exacting choir director who was serious about the purpose of sacred music to praise God.         

"She never talked about the hymns she had written," Massengill said. "It was never about her."

Yet her song was everywhere. Marchers sang it in the streets. It was a staple of mass meetings in black churches across the South. A 22-year-old Baez sang it in 1963 at the March on Washington.          

King used the phrase “We Shall Overcome” as the rousing finale of a speech he delivered March 17, 1966, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.         

"And so I can sing anew, 'We shall overcome' and we shall overcome because (Thomas) Carlyle is right, 'No lie can live forever.' We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, 'Truth crushed to earth will rise again.' We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, 'Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.'"         

That speech traces its origins, Gamboa writes in his book, to any number of dinner parties that King attended with Shuttlesworth during the early 1960s at the Shropshires' home.         

After dinner, many people told Gamboa, Louise Shropshire would sit at her piano and play and sing several of her hymns, including “If My Jesus Wills.” King asked Shropshire — whom he respectfully considered an elder — if he could change "I'll overcome" to "We'll overcome."         

She said, "I don't mind."