A Forgotten Labor Chapter of a Civil Rights Anthem

by Stuart Elliott

Country and Western singer and deejay Texas Bill Strength was probably the second artist to record “We Will Overcome, ” which with a minor word change became the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Joe Glazer had included it in the CIO’s Department of Education and Research  78-rpm album Eight New Songs for Labor, which also included Glaser’s classic “The Mill Was Made of Marble.”  Shortly after, Glaser taught the song to Texas Bill Strength who was hired by the CIO as part of Operation Dixie.

“We Will/Shall Overcome,” based on a African-American hymn, was used as a protest song in 1945, when CIO tobacco workers in South  Carolina  sang it on their picket line, was picked up by the Highlander Folk Center.  Intriguingly, a letter printed on the front page of the February 1909, United Mine Workers Journal states that “Last year at a strike, we opened every meeting with a prayer, and singing that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome’.” But nobody knows whether this song had any connection to the song we know today.

In 1960 Highlander music director Guy Carawan sang  the song at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, N.C., in 1960 and it rapidly spread through the Southern civil rights movement.  But in the previous decade,  Strength probably preformed the song before more people than anyone–at hundreds of CIO conventions and rallies, And this single was released on 4 Star Records, the  home of such country starts as Hank Locklin, Maddox Brothers and Rose, and  Webb Pierce.

Strength’s version drops some of the lyrics commonly sung to “We Shall Overcome.”  But it has a verse that is not usually sung that fits will with the message of the song.

We will build a new world
We will build a new world
We will build a new world

The website Hillbilly Music has a biography of Strength which includes some paragraphs on his CIO role.

In 1950, Bill’s career took another turn, this time as part of the staff for the labor organization, CIO on January 15, 1950. During that time, he was doing radio transcriptions with George Baldanzi, then Executive VP of the Textile Workers Union of America and National Director of the CIO Organizing Committee. The transcriptions were aired over 126 stations. At that time, the CIO had over 6.5 million members, so Texas Bill and his record label, 4-Star Records, took advantage of that and created a slogan for Bill, “…the Boy with 6 and a half million sponsors.”

The 1951 Cowboy Songs article notes that Bill was such a hit with his CIO bit that he logged over 57,000 miles of traveling on tours, personal appearances as well as visiting those in hospitals and institutions as well as his attendance at union meetings and conventions for the CIO. Impressively, it was said that he entertained upwards of a quarter million people at … those conventions. Like many artists, Bill shared the stage with many of the mainstays of country music in that era. But Bill also got to entertain some well-known political figures of the era due to his work with the CIO, including Vice President Alben Barkley, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Congressman Christopher of Missouri and Maurice Tobin, Secretary of Labor.

There are some other Texas Bill Strength records which you might enjoy “Paper Boy Boogie”, “Cry, Cry, Cry”, ““Hillbilly Hades”“, and “Call of the Wild.”

Stuart Elliott is part of the editorial team for Talking Union.

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