We Shall Not Be Moved: About the Song

Marriott Strike

Founder's Note:

This article accompanies a new recording of "We Shall Not Be Moved" that I was invited by the record label Y&T Music to produce. I asked some of my favorite singer/songwriters, including Mandy Marylane, Arlan Feiles, and Karen Feldner, to join me. We released the single under the name Unity Congress. Below is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
-Matthew Sabatella

Introduction

In the United States and internationally, participants in twentieth-century social movements sang "We Shall Not Be Moved" to express unity and conviction. The song is based lyrically and musically on the religious hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved,” which was popular with both Black and White congregations in the first decades of the century. Aided by labor organizers in the 1930s, workers in various industries, including West Virginia coal mines, Southern textile mills, and General Motors plants, revised the lyrics and sang it as "We Shall Not Be Moved." The song strengthened them in their struggles against oppressive employers, low wages, and dangerous working conditions. In the 1950s and 60s, civil rights activists added new verses and sang it as they united for racial justice. The song crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was sung as "No nos moverán" in protests against Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. It journeyed back to the Americas and was the last song played on Chilean radio immediately before the military overthrew the democratically-elected government in a bloody coup d'etat in 1973.

Origins as "I Shall Not Be Moved"

Though there is no evidence of "I Shall Not Be Moved" in the hymnals and songbooks of the nineteenth century, some scholars believe that it began as an African American spiritual prior to emancipation. The song features hallmarks of the antebellum spiritual, including call-and-response lyrics, strong rhythms, and ease with which it can be sung and remembered. Earlier European-based psalms set melodies to Bible verses in their entirety. Spirituals interspersed words and phrases from scripture with personal reflections and ideas.

The following Bible verses provide the foundation for the text:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, for he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.
— Jeremiah 17:8–9

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
— Psalm 1:3

Whether “I Shall Not Be Moved” originated in the context of slavery or at a later time, it is clearly rooted in the musical traditions of the spiritual. Some sources attribute the song to composer Alfred Henry Ackley. His 1906 songbook Hymns for His Praise No. 2 included the title “As a Tree Beside the Water.” The song references the same Bible passages and includes the words “I shall not be moved” but differs significantly in melody and lyric.

Edward Boatner
Edward Boatner

The earliest known publication of “I Shall Not Be Moved” in its common form is from Edward Boatner’s 1927 book Spirituals Triumphant Old and New. Boatner was a composer and educator who arranged many spirituals for choir and vocal soloists. His arrangement of the song, with the following lyrics, became standard in many churches:

chorus:
I shall not, I shall not be moved
I shall not, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

verses:
Glory Hallelujah, I shall not be moved
Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

In His love abiding, I shall not be moved
And in Him confiding, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved
Jesus will not fail me, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

Though the tempest rages, I shall not be moved
On the Rock of Ages, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

Even in its purely religious form, many different sets of lyrics exist. Other common verses include:

Jesus is my Savior, I shall not be moved
In His love and favor, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

I'm on my way to Heaven, I shall not be moved
I'm on my way to Heaven, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

If I trust Him ever, I shall not be moved
He will fail me never, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved.

On His word I'm feeding, I shall not be moved
He's the One that's leading, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the waters
I shall not be moved

Taskiana Four, a jubilee quartet, made the earliest known recording of “I Shall Not Be Moved” for the Victor Talking Machine Company on July 21, 1926. Jubilee quartets, popular in the first half of the twentieth century, sang harmonized arrangements of spirituals as well as newer hymns. Taskiana Four’s recording featured the following verses:

King Jesus is my captain…
I’m going to join the angels…
Since I’ve been converted...
I’m going home to glory…
Glory, hallelujah…


Taskiana Four “I Shall Not Be Moved” (1926)

Other jubilee groups, gospel singers, and preachers, including Utica Institute Jubilee Singers, Reverend Edward Clayborn, Reverend D.C. Rice, and Blind Joe Taggart, recorded the song in the 1920s and 30s. Taggart, a singer and guitarist, recorded his version the same year as Taskiana Four.


Blind Joe Taggart "I Will Not Be Moved" (1926)

African American singer/guitarists Blind Roosevelt Graves and Charley Patton also recorded the song in the 1920s. Graves and Patton are best-known as blues artists, but they also performed and recorded sacred music.


Charley Patton "I Shall Not Be Moved" (1929)

The Labor Movement of the 1930s and 40s

Labor unions formed in colonial America and expanded through the nineteenth century as large corporations grew to employ many thousands of workers in factories and mines. Because individual workers are virtually powerless against oppressive companies and policies, unions leverage their members' collective bargaining power to negotiate specific changes from employers or instigate industry regulations and laws from the local, state, or federal government.

Labor publications often printed songs that expressed the beliefs and demands of unions. People sang them at rallies, marches, and on picket lines. Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant to the United States, brought union singing to new heights in the first decades of the twentieth century. He composed dozens of songs for Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union that sought to unite the working class in all industries. Hill explained the power of singing in movements:

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read but once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold common sense facts in a song, and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.

During the Great Depression, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized workers in many new industrial unions. Songs were an essential tool during the growing labor movement of the 1930s and 40s. Singing together builds a sense of pride, forges solidarity, expresses grievances, and keeps spirits high. Religious songs, in particular, have the power to raise social movements to near-sacred levels.

The first documented appearance of "I Shall Not Be Moved" in the context of the labor movement is from 1931, when striking coal miners in Kanawha County, West Virginia, sang it as "We Shall Not Be Moved." While scholars contend that the use of the word "I" in African American spirituals often referred to the collective "we," secular versions of the song, as sung in social movements, transitioned to "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Activist Helen Norton Starr traveled from Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, to Kanawha County to support the striking miners. She recalled the first time she heard "We Shall Not Be Moved":

The only place that could be secured for the meeting in that particular valley was the front of a dilapidated Negro schoolhouse that stood in a depression among the hills-hills so green and tree-covered that only a sharp eye could see the scars of the coal tipples. On the steps of the schoolhouse stood a mixed group of white and Negro miners and their wives, singing out their story and their hopes. The summer sun blazed down on them and on the miners' families seated on the slope in front. On the road above, a group of state "police" and mine guards watched, their guns conspicuously displayed. That strike was lost and the Kanawha Valley was not unionized until 1933, but "We Shall Not Be Moved" was sung all over the country and adapted to local conditions.

"We Shall Not Be Moved" proved to be an ideal song and one of the most commonly sung in the labor movement. Both Black and White workers, especially in the South, were already familiar with it, having sung "I Shall Not Be Moved" in church. It is memorable and easy for groups to sing without printed words. The call-and-response lyric structure enables a song leader, or anyone in the group, to sing out the first line of a verse and have everyone join in for the rest of the stanza. Singer, songwriter, and activist Lee Hays, known for his work in the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, referred to such songs as "zipper" songs because "you have to zip in only a word or two to make an entirely new verse."

Aided by the work of educational institutions associated with the labor movement, "We Shall Not Be Moved" quickly spread to struggles around the country. Labor colleges, including Brookwood, Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, and Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, provided education for labor activists and sent organizers to help with local struggles. These colleges used theater and music as tools for organization. Traveling actor and musician troops demonstrated effective resistance tactics through dramatization and singing. They published songbooks and sheets, many of which included "We Shall Not Be Moved."

In September 1934, striking textile workers sang it as they marched through mill towns throughout the South. By the end of the decade, the Textile Workers of America included it in their official songbook. Woody Guthrie, in the book Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, published the following lines sung in 1938 by striking workers in a Rockwood, Tennessee, hosiery plant:

Their orders are being canceled…
They kidnap organizers…
They black-jacked Daniels…
We're not afraid of tear gas…
We're not afraid of gun thugs…

The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union formed in the mid-1930s to fight the abuses of landlords. Their twenty-five thousand members, both Black and White, sang together to keep their spirits up as they took on landowners, police, and hired thugs. Jerold Auerbach wrote in "Southern Tenant Farmers: Socialist Critics of the New Deal" from Arkansas Historical Quarterly (1968):

Sharecroppers responded to their union… with boundless devotion and courage. Gathering in abandoned warehouses or in the cotton fields, always late in the evening after a full day of backbreaking toil, they sang "We Shall Not Be Moved" and recited the Lord's Prayer before attending to union business.

In 1936 and 1937, striking General Motors workers and their supporters sang together as United Auto Workers (UAW) occupied Michigan auto plants. One day, at Chevrolet Plant No. 9, company guards clubbed and gassed the workers inside. The UAW's Women's Emergency Brigade outside the plant broke windows to let in fresh air. The women then marched to support the workers occupying Plant No. 4. Journalist Mary Heaton Vorse described the scene in her 1938 book Labor's New Millions:

Down the hill presently came a procession, preceded by an American flag. The women's bright red caps showed dramatically in the dark crowd. They were singing "Hold the Fort." To all the crowd there was something moving about seeing the women return to the picket line after having been gassed in front of plant No. 9. A cheer went up; the crowd took up the song. The line of bright-capped women spread itself out in front of the high gate. Clasping hands, they struck up the song "We Shall Not Be Moved."

After a year of facing down company guards and police, the UAW succeeded in their efforts, forcing General Motors to negotiate.

At Commonwealth College, Lee Hays and director Reverend Claude Williams adapted religious hymns into labor and political songs. Hays brought the songs to New York and, with Millard Lampell and Pete Seeger, formed the Almanac Singers. They were a loose musical collective that specialized in topical songs that supported labor unions and protested racism. Other musicians who drifted in and out of the Almanac Singers include Woody Guthrie, Alan and Bess Lomax, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee, Sis Cunningham, and Earl Robinson.

The Almanac Singers sang "We Shall Not Be Moved" at many of their live performances. The 1955 expanded reissue of their 1941 album Talking Union included a recording of it, with Seeger leading the singing on the following stanzas:

The union is behind us…
We will stand and fight together…
We are Black and White together…


The Almanac Singers "We Shall Not Be Moved" (1941)

Seeger's subsequent group, The Weavers, also sang "We Shall Not Be Moved," and he often included it in solo performances. In his performance at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1980, Seeger led the audience in a singalong that included these verses:

We're young and old together…
We're women and men together…
We're city and country together…
We are Black and White together…
We're straight and gay together…
No nukes is good nukes…
Split wood, not atoms…


Pete Seeger "We Shall Not Be Moved" (1980)

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s

For African Americans, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution granted legal emancipation, citizenship, and voting rights. However, vernacular customs and the rise of Jim Crow laws enshrined infrastructures of inequality. During the 1930s, a civil rights movement began to coalesce that advocated for fairer treatment of African Americans. The movement gathered momentum in 1954 following the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.

Like the labor movement, the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s was a singing movement. Many of the "freedom songs" of the movement were spirituals or gospel songs from the Black church, sometimes with revised lyrics to reflect the current struggles. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed:

In a sense, the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang — the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. 'Woke up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom' is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that 'We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.'

The organizers who leveraged the power of music in the labor movement during the previous decades reinforced the singing. The Highlander Center, which promoted the racial integration of labor unions in the 1930s, broadened their scope to focus on civil rights in the 1950s. Highlander trained Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and John Lewis, among other movement leaders. Starting in 1960, Guy Carawan, the musical director of Highlander, led sessions at workshops to teach songs and song leading. There had been singing of formal church hymns in the movement, but Carawan introduced the more rhythmic and energetic spirituals that had served the labor struggle so well.

Carawan taught and led songs at a 1960 meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Among the many freedom songs Carawan introduced to participants was "We Shall Overcome," which would become an anthem of the movement. The meeting also gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC gave voice to younger African Americans, organizing marches, freedom rides to desegregate buses, and grassroots efforts to register Black voters in the South. SNCC field secretary Cordell Reagon assembled The Freedom Singers in the summer of 1962. They performed and led civil rights singing across the country in concert venues, college campuses, churches, demonstrations, and folk festivals. "We Shall Not Be Moved" was a staple in their repertoire.


The Freedom Singers "We Shall Not Be Moved" (1963)

Many labor movement songs expressed specific grievances or argued a position with "a few cold common sense facts," as Joe Hill noted. Most freedom songs, however, didn't attempt to convey information. Singing together was an expression of resolve and solidarity. It unified participants and demonstrated that unity to outsiders. People sang in victory, defeat, and to overcome fear. Phyllis Martin, SNCC field secretary, relates:

The fear down here is tremendous. I didn't know whether I'd be shot at, or stoned, or what. But when the singing started, I forgot all that. I felt good within myself. We sang "Oh Freedom" and "We Shall Not Be Moved," and after that you just don't want to sit around anymore. You want the world to hear you, to know what you're fighting for!

Spanish Language Versions in the Southwest United States, Spain, and Chile

As "We Shall Not Be Moved" was becoming widely-known in the labor movement of the 1930s, it was reborn in the Spanish language as "No nos moverán." Mexican migrants, mostly women and girls, working as pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas, faced very unhealthy conditions and low pay. In January 1938, approximately 7,000 workers went on strike. Police arrested and crammed as many as thirty-six women into jail cells built for six. In a cell one night, labor organizers from the CIO worked together to translate English-language songs into Spanish. An organizer recalls, "The only one that I can remember now was "We Shall Not Be Moved" ("No nos moverán"). We got the people in that jail singing that night!"

In 1962, United Farm Workers was born from the merger of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Filipino-American Larry Itliong, and the National Farm Workers Association, led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. They used music and theater extensively in their fight for farmworkers' rights in California and other states. Regarding the five-year strike against grape growers in Delano, California, Huerta recalls:

We sang "No nos moverán" every day. Because we were on those picket lines from early morning till late in the evening and we had to keep our spirits up on the picket lines. And one way that we kept our spirits up on the picket lines was to sing these songs… "No nos moverán" symbolized the spirit that we had and that we needed to maintain. To keep people strong and let them know that eventually we're going to win as long as we don't give up.

Folk singer Joan Baez, whose father was a Mexican immigrant, supported the farmworkers' cause. She performed and led the singing of "No nos moverán" and other protest songs at rallies, picket lines, and benefit concerts.


Joan Baez “No nos moverán” (1974)

In Spain, loyalists may have sung "No nos moverán" as early as the 1930s in protest against revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War, which resulted in the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In the late 1960s, protesters against Franco sang "No nos moverán" at demonstrations on university campuses. A group of musician-activists called Canción del Pueblo (Song of the People) helped popularize the song. During the financial and unemployment crisis in 2011, indignados (indignant citizens) sang it in post-Franco Spain. Spanish soccer fans still sing it to support their team during matches.


Adolfo Celdrán (from Canción del Pueblo) “No nos moverán”

In the early 1970s, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, faced strong opposition as he sought to improve conditions for the working class by socializing major industries. In support of their democratically-elected leader, the Chilean group Tiemponuevo recorded "No nos moverán." They learned it from a lo-fidelity recording by Canción del Pueblo member Fernández Toca.

The song became a prominent part of the nueva canción (new song) repertoire of socially-conscious folk songs that supported the left-wing Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) alliance advocating a peaceful transition to socialism. On the morning of September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew the government in a bloody coup d'état that ushered in a brutal military dictatorship. As the military took over radio stations, Radio Magallanes was the last loyalist station standing that morning. Following an inspirational address by Allende, Radio Magallanes played Tiemponuevo's recording of "No nos moverán." It was the last song played before the Chilean Army raided the station and bombed the presidential palace.


Tiemponuevo “No nos moverán”

Other Recordings

As either "I Shall Not Be Moved" or "We Shall Not Be Moved," the song has been recorded by many artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, The Seekers, Mississippi John Hurt, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Johnny Cash, Mavis Staples, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Dan Zanes, and Unity Congress, featuring Matthew Sabatella, Mandy Marylane, Arlan Feiles, and Karen Feldner.

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