Music as Social, Personal, and Literary Inspiration as Exemplified by “We Shall Overcome” by PortiaLily Taylor

“Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The words of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton resonate with the thought that music is more than mere sound. It can be something ethereal that seeps into one’s very being and doesn’t leave. Then music, especially when intertwined with lyrics, can transform beyond notes and words. It can become the “sort of spirit” of which Bulwer-Lytton writes. It can become inspiration.

MUSIC AS INSPIRATION THROUGHOUT HISTORY

Throughout history, music held the role of inspiring both groups of people and individuals. Battle hymns and patriotic songs inspired entire nations to war during times of ancient Greece and Rome. Poems of love and longing were set to music with the result of inspiring adoration and romance. In fact, the oldest, complete musical composition entitled “Song of Seikilos” from first century Turkey, is said to be a love song written to the author’s wife. Its theme of appreciation for life and love is found in its words

While you live, shine

have no grief at all

life exists only for a short while

and Time demands his due.

Of course, many, more modern examples of musical inspiration may be found. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” provided hope for the entire country that prosperity would return. Another example of a song that inspired a social movement is “I Am Woman,” the Helen Reddy composition that became an anthem for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s and beyond. Of course, songs provide inspiration on a personal level as well. “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme song of the film Rocky III, certainly led many to the gym for workouts as they listened to that tune and sang along to its lyrics. And, how many people have been inspired to change their personal lives after being inspired by the words of “Amazing Grace”? Similar spiritual inspiration continues in Christian contemporary music such as Nichole Mullen’s “Redeemer” from 2000.

Some songs inspire both individuals and groups of people. One such example is “We Shall Overcome.”

“WE SHALL OVERCOME” AS AN EXAMPLE OF MUSICAL INSPIRATION

Before becoming a symbol of liberation and hope across the world, “We Shall Overcome” started as a song enslaved people would sing to declare their belief that beyond their tribulations, “I’ll be all right someday.” After the end of slavery, injustice and inequality based on race continued and so did the popularity of the song. In 1901, Methodist minister C.A. Tindley published it as “I’ll Overcome Someday.”

The song later became a popular anthem in the labor movement, beginning with tobacco workers in 1945. Some union members brought the song to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee which was a center for training labor and civil rights organizers. Student activists began its use at sit-in protests for desegregation across the South. As the church song spread its inspiration, its lyrics changed to reflect this growth in its influence. The song became “We Shall Overcome” and was published by Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger in 1960.

In the summer of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led what became known as the “March on Washington.” 300,000 people gathered to call for the end of segregation and discrimination based on race. Before Dr. King addressed the crowd, a twenty-two year old folk singer, Joan Baez, took the microphone and sang “We Shall Overcome” as she strummed her guitar.

In my novel Sarah Finn, Cathryn, the eleven-year-old protagonist, watches the event on television and is especially enthralled by Baez and the lyrics of the song.

“But, when Miss Joan came to the microphone with her guitar and began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” I was all ears. That is until William picked that moment to get up and start dancing in front of the TV. He might have been just antsy from sitting so long, but that was no reason to act a fool. Momma had to shush him three times. Only then could I hear Miss Joan as she sang,

‘We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace

We shall live in peace some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome one day.”

[from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor]

My main character Cathryn has heard the song in church and knows it is the inspirational anthem of a movement that seeks to improve the lives of people like her. But, she also comes to realize that the words of the song have a more personal inspiration as well.

“I don’t know why but I teared up when I watched Miss Joan sing those words on Sarah Finn’s TV that day in August. I thought maybe there would be a day when everyone was treated equally, and all this hatred would go away. Maybe we could really live in peace and overcome all the bad in life like Dr. King wanted. But, so far it wasn’t happening.

I thought about Pastor Walker’s sermon and living in the Holy Spirit. Maybe that was the way to find the ‘peace’ Miss Joan sang about. And, through that ‘peace’ maybe we could really ‘overcome’ anything. But, if I’m being honest, I must admit I couldn’t always live in the spirit and find peace like Dr. King or Pope John. I didn’t think I could even be like the people at Dr. King’s marches who practiced what was called ‘nonviolence’ even when people were being pretty violent toward them.

As final days of August raced past and another year at Boomer D. Brown Elementary was about to begin, I thought about trying to find the peace Miss Joan Baez sang about. But, it still hadn’t found its way ‘deep in my heart.’ Grandfather Tanner continued to live in the backroom of Sarah Finn’s house and while he was around, there was no way to believe I would overcome my feelings toward the ole coot.”

[from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor]

Cathryn holds the words of “We Shall Overcome” as inspiration for her to seek “peace, deep in [her] heart” so she can “overcome” the resentment and anger she feels toward the racist grandfather who fails to even acknowledge her existence. Cathryn knows the song is a symbol and guidepost of the movement to promote civil rights. But, she also comes to realize “We Shall Overcome” as personal inspiration.

Thus, “We Shall Overcome” is incorporated into my novel as a symbol of the civil right movement which is a background for the events that enfold and impact my characters, as well as the personal inspiration the book’s protagonist uses to influence her desire for gaining “peace, deep in her heart” despite obstacles she faces to that peace.

USING MUSIC AS AN INSPIRATION FOR YOUR WRITING

“We Shall Overcome” is an inspirational anthem for social movements and spiritual quests pursuant to the experiences of characters in my novel Sarah Finn. However, songs, such as this one, have inspired more than characters in a book. They have inspired the writing of entire literary works. I recently read two children’s books with “We Shall Overcome” as their titles and their inspiration. One was written by Bryan Collier and the other by Debbie Levy.

Many examples of music as literary inspiration exist. The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” inspired Haruki Murakami to write his novel of the same name, and Dolly Parton used her own song as the basis for her picture book A Coat of Many Colors.

Music may inspire authors in many ways, as Amy J. Wall suggests in her article “How to Use Music to Enhance Your Writing.” She states, “writing can be greatly influenced and improved by using [the] visceral response to music.” She goes on to explain three ways to incorporate musical inspiration into one’s writing.

  • Rhythm

The first way Wall describes involves consideration of the music itself. She finds musical rhythm can influence the “rhythm” of your writing. For example, word choice and sentence length can promote different emotional responses in the same way as music.

  • Enhancement of Setting

Secondly, she describes how music can enhance the setting of your writing. You probably listen to music, so should your characters. Inclusion of music can provide insight into the time period, geographical location, or a character’s personality.

  • Theme

Sarah Finn encompasses concepts of redemption, tolerance, and equality. The pursuit of such qualities is entwined in the words of “We Shall Overcome.” Thus, my use of that song exemplifies the third way Wall finds music may support your writing – its use as an inspirational theme. Another song that comes to mind to illustrate Wall’s point is “You’ve Got a Friend.” It would be the perfect piece of music to inspire a book with friendship as its theme.

Check out Wall’s article at https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-use-music-to-enhance-your-writing-5dbc78e6adb6.

The word music stems from the word muse, referring to one of the goddess sisters in Greek mythology who presided over the arts. So, the very origin of the word “music” is founded in its inspirational force. So, I suggest authors, especially writers of fiction, seek inspiration through music as an influencing guide for both authors and their characters.

Remember the words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton that music, admitted to the soul, becomes a spirit that never dies. So, use the spirit of music to inspire your writing and, perhaps, as a song may reach the soul, so may your writing.

by PortiaLily Taylor

Image: “We Shall Overcome” sheet music (via Library of Congress, public domain image)

References

Ager, M. and Yellen, J., 1929. Happy Days Are Here Again.

Collier, B. (2021). We shall overcome. Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.

Davis, L. (2016, September 16). The oldest complete composition in the world is utterly heart-breaking. Classic FM. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/latest/oldest-song-in-the-world/

Horton, Z., Hamilton, F., Carawan, G., Seeger, P., 1960. We Shall Overcome.

King, C., 1971. You’ve Got a Friend.

Levy, D., & Newton, V. (2014). We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song. Disney-Hyperion.

Lytton, E. B. (2022, January 12). A quote by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Goodreads. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from www.goodreads.com/quotes/99561-music-once-admitted-to-the-soul-becomes-a-sort-of

Mullen, N., 2000. Redeemer.

Murakami, H. (2000). Norwegian Wood. (J. Rubin, Trans.). Harvill.

Newton, J., 1772. Amazing Grace.

Oxford University Press. (n.d.). We Shall Overcome. Oxford Reference. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803121757648  

Parton, D. (2016). A Coat of Many Colors. Grosset & Dunlop, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Reddy, H. and Burton, R., 1972. I Am Woman.

Staff, H. N. (2016, August 4). The music of war. HistoryNet. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.historynet.com/the-music-of-war.htm  

Sullivan, F. and Peterik, 1982. Eye of the Tiger.

Taylor, P. (2022). Sarah Finn. Unpublished manuscript. 

Tindley, C.A., 1902. I’ll Overcome Someday.

Wall, A. J. (2020, October 1). How to use music to enhance your writing. Medium. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://writingcooperative.com/how-to-use-music-to-enhance-your-writing-5dbc78e6adb6  

4 thoughts on “Music as Social, Personal, and Literary Inspiration as Exemplified by “We Shall Overcome” by PortiaLily Taylor”

  1. So incredibly profound…. I’m going to re read it several times, at different times of the day to see what new messages appear. You are such an incredible communicator of complex concepts to soon makes sense to the reader. Good job awesome baby sister!   BTW, along the same lines of your insight into the impact of music… did you see that Dolly Pardon and James Patterson are partnering up on creating some new characters, a book ad an album. Google it…and it reinforces your message. Amazing and timely. Pauline Holloway teamholloway@mindspring.com

    Like

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