History of Hymns: 'I Shall Not Be Moved'
By C. Michael Hawn
“I Shall Not Be Moved”
African American Spiritual/Folk Song
Songs of Zion, 35
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 water,
I shall not be moved.
The African American spiritual and its evolution within American society—like a great river shooting off hundreds of tributaries to be joined together somewhere further down the way—give us the richest opportunity to view the tradition in a way that unleashes the powerful human story it holds. (Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1992, p. 13)
“I shall not be moved” is a stellar example of Johnson Reagon’s premise. Sociologist David Spener identifies “I shall not be moved” as a product of enslaved persons in North America beginning in the early nineteenth-century camp meeting tradition (Spener, 2016, pp. 33–36). Songs in the camp meeting tradition and spirituals shared an affinity for being transmitted primarily by ear rather than through the eye (printed score). Orally conceived and conveyed songs are often constructed in ways that allow for spontaneous variations that suit the situation in which they are being sung.
The efficacy of this song in other settings became apparent, especially by the early twentieth century. Some spirituals develop a life beyond their community of origin. Such is the case with “I shall not be moved.” The song’s spirit of immutable steadfastness draws upon Psalm 1:3a: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (KJV) and a similar reference in Jeremiah 17:7–8. The refrain also echoes Psalm 121:3a: “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved” (KJV), and Psalm 16:8b: “he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (KJV). Other contexts, especially revival meetings, labor movements, and civil rights protests, have adopted and adapted the spiritual because of the resolute determination embedded in its refrain. Its call—response structure opens it to countless variations depending on the social context.
While the exact origins of the song will not likely be known, one of the earlier printings available is in the seminal collection, Spirituals Triumphant Old and New (1927), compiled by African American composer, choral conductor, and singer Edward Boatner (1898–1981). Boatner heard many spirituals from his father, an itinerant Methodist minister, who, in turn, learned them from Boatner’s enslaved grandparents. This may have been one of those spirituals that was passed down through the generations. In his collection (No. 9), Boatner is listed as the composer with the following ascription: “Copyright, 1925, by Boatner.” However, Boatner was likely the arranger since several other well-known spirituals in the collection also bear his name. The difference is that no other song ascribed to Boatner also bears a copyright notice. By 1939, the Stamps-Baxter company claimed the copyright as it appeared in its collection Calvary Songs (1944) in a version that begins “Glory hallelujah, I shall not be moved,” arranged by gospel song composer, Homer F. Morris (1875–1955). While it was not uncommon for majority-culture publishers in this era to alter and claim copyrights to songs of African American origin, the song is not included in the monumental Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual: A Documentary Collection (1993). Though designated as an African American Spiritual (or Traditional Spiritual) in most recent hymnals, various copyright claims, including those by Boatner in 1925, and its lack of listing in common sources of spirituals support the notion that its origin may be commonly shared in Anglo and Black camp meeting gatherings as proposed by David Spener.
Hymnary.org indicates that the hymn was included in several collections in some form after Boatner’s publication during the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. African American hymnals published from the 1980s forward were influenced by Boatner’s version including Songs of Zion (1981), Yes, Lord! Church of God in Christ Hymnal (1982), This Far by Faith (1999), African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), and Lead Me, Guide Me, 2nd Ed. (2012).
Boatner’s version begins with the refrain, “I shall not be, I shall not be moved.” In most versions today, the first “be” is dropped, resulting in the more direct “I shall not, I shall not be moved.” Eight stanzas follow the refrain:
- When my cross is heavy, I shall not be moved . . .
- The church of God is marching, I shall not be moved . . .
- King Jesus is the Captain, I shall not be moved . . .
- Come on and join the army, I shall not be moved . . .
- Fighting sin and Satan, I shall not be moved . . .
- When my burden’s heavy, I shall not be moved . . .
- Don’t let the world deceive you, I shall not be moved . . .
- If my friends forsake me, I shall not be moved . . .
Taken en toto, these stanzas echo the spirit of Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (KJV).
From Black Spiritual to White Revival Song
Alfred H. Ackley (1887–1960), known primarily for “I serve a risen Savior” (“He Lives”), copyrighted a separate song, “As a tree beside the water” (“I Shall Not Be Moved”), in 1909. Other than the primary theme, neither the music nor the text resembles the song in Boatner’s collection. Related to the spiritual, white revival compilations included a version of the song almost simultaneously with the publication of Boatner’s collection. The song appears in Dallas publications Evangel Bells (1927) and Gospel Melodies (1928) compiled by Baptist song leader Robert H. Coleman (1869–1946), beginning, “Jesus saves forever, I shall not be moved.” This was followed in quick succession with Revival Gems No 3 (1929), edited by prolific southern gospel hymn composer Samuel W. Beazley (1873–1944). Beazley’s compilation designates Boatner as the composer with the original 1925 copyright (now owned by Beazley). Rather than repeating the first line, this version adds a rhyming phrase in each stanza. None of the stanzas in Boatner’s collection were included in Revival Gems:
- Jesus keeps forever, I shall not be moved;
He forsakes, no never, I shall not be moved.
- On His strength depending, I shall not be moved;
And his cause defending, I shall not be moved.
- His, the love enfolding, I shall not be moved;
His, the grace upholding, I shall not be moved.
- Friend so high and holy, I shall not be moved;
Friend so meek and lowly, I shall not be moved.
- From the Bible story, I shall not be moved;
Living for His glory, I shall not be moved.
- With the faithful going, I shall not be moved;
All His goodness knowing, I shall not be moved.
- By his truth I’m standing, I shall not be moved;
Doing His commanding, I shall not be moved.
In this version, Boatner’s language of resistance with Jesus as the Captain, drawn from Ephesians 6, has been replaced by more common gospel song tropes of love, biblical and spiritual faithfulness, and obedience. Beazley’s audience was different from Boatner’s. Several revival collections published in the late 1920s include these stanzas with Boatner’s name as the composer. From the earliest publications, two conclusions may be drawn: first, the origin of the song probably resides in the African American community; second, beginning in the late 1920s, the song was adapted and used by the white revival tradition as well.
A shorter version circulated in the 1930s and 1940s containing familiar phrases from the gospel song repertoire of this era:
- Glory hallelujah, I shall not be moved;
Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved.
- In his love abiding, I shall not be moved;
And in him confiding, I shall not be moved.
- Tho’ all hell assail me, I shall not be moved;
Jesus will not fail me, I shall not be moved.
- Tho’ the tempest rages, I shall not be moved;
On the Rock of Ages, I shall not be moved.
“We shall not be moved” - Taking “I shall not be moved” from the Revival to the Streets
The labor movement of the late 1930s and 1940s in the United States was a singing movement. John L. Lewis (1880–1969), president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960, noted famously:
A singing army is a winning army, and a singing labor movement cannot be defeated. Songs can express sorrow as well as triumph, but the fact that a man sings shows that his spirit is still free and searching, and such a spirit will not submit to servitude. When hundreds of men and women in a labor union sing together, their individual longing for dignity and freedom [is] bound into an irrepressible force. (Quoted by Zilphia Horton, 1939)
Spener traces the first appearance of “We shall not be moved” to a wildcat strike of twenty thousand coal miners in West Virginia in 1931 (Spener, 2016, p. 42). Versions of the song spread to union organizers and workers in the textile mills and garment factories of the South in 1934, Southern agricultural workers in the Sharecroppers’ Union in 1937, and the United Auto Workers in Michigan plants in 1936 and 1937. The Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, became an ally of the labor movement in teaching songs to workers. Song leader and activist Zilphia Horton (1910–1956) produced books and mimeographed song sheets for local and state meetings of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions by the late 1930s that included “We shall not be moved.”
A particularly poignant narrative cites the power of singing this song to maintain a picket line during the Peekskill riots in Westchester County, New York, in 1949. African American soloist Paul Robeson, strongly associated with his pro-trade union stance and civil rights activism, had been asked to sing at a benefit concert. Howard Fast, the concert’s organizer and literary figure of the time, described the scene:
Many, many times, for as long back as I can remember, I have heard people singing that old hymn, but I never heard it sung as it was sung that night, swelling out over the hills, full of the deep rich voices of men who had fought so well. It was a moral enigma to the Legion heroes. They saw a line of Negroes and whites, arms locked, ragged and bloody, standing calmly and singing—and the singing stopped them. They halted a dozen feet from us, and their screaming stopped. They stood there in silence, watching us and listening to our song and trying to understand what sort of people we were—that has always been a difficult thing for them to understand. (Fast, 1951, quoted in Spener, 2016, p. 59)
Though an attack ensued, the protesters survived, and local police accompanied them to safety.
Stanzas of the song varied from meeting to meeting and protest to protest. Examples follow:
The union is behind us, we shall not be moved . . .
We’re fighting for our freedom, we shall not be moved . . .
We’re fighting for our children, we shall not be moved . . .
We’ll build a mighty union, we shall not be moved . . .
Black and white together, we shall not be moved . . .
Young and old together, we shall not be moved . . .
The song’s popularity in the labor union movement provided a natural bridge to the civil rights movement. Guy Carawan (1927–2015) succeeded Zilphia Horton in the Highlander Folk School in 1959, working with African American activists and encouraging them to participate in the civil rights movement throughout the South (Spener, 2016, p. 63). Carawan, often credited with popularizing “We shall overcome,” helped the movement transition from singing “more formal church hymns. . . [to] more rhythmic and emotive spirituals that were a part of the African American religious tradition.” (Spener, 2016, p. 64) On April 1–3, 1960, he held the first civil rights song-leading session as a part of the Seventh Annual Highlander Folk School College Workshop involving eighty sit-in leaders from all over the South (Dunson, 1965, 39–40).
“We shall not be moved” – Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement
Carawan’s activities supplemented the singing of African Americans and whites who joined the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “We shall not be moved”—an emphatic statement in the first-person plural—joined “We shall overcome” as defiant anthems of solidarity (see https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-we-shall-overcome). Carawan traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1960 to participate in a gathering organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of more than two-hundred student sit-in activists from around the South. He taught song-leading strategies and songs, including a repertoire of “freedom songs” based on spirituals and other songs in the African American tradition. Drawing on the earlier work of Zilphia Horton, Carawan introduced a newer version of “We shall overcome” as well as “We shall not be moved” and “This little light of mine.” Thus, the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement drew upon newer versions of nineteenth-century spirituals as one of the sources for the newer “Freedom Songs,” fostering strength and solidarity in the movement. The transformation of lyrics and melodies from the older repertoire was at the heart of the Freedom Songs, and “We shall not be moved” held a prominent place in the burgeoning canon (Spener, 2016, pp 65–66).
The following are recorded examples from this era by those who disseminated “We shall not be moved”:
- Ella Fitzgerald: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKxssU0egNI
- Pete Seeger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY0xY3Zos0Y
- Sweet Honey in the Rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7f31gMNZvA
- The Freedom Singers at the March on Washington (1963): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duvoETGVvYU
- R&B, soul, and gospel singer Mavis Staples (b. 1939) provides a particularly poignant account of singing “We shall not be moved” in a restaurant where she and a group of friends were denied service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcDpmzQh3YU
“No nos moverán” – A Song for Spanish-Speaking Activists
Many spirituals have been translated into Spanish. Among those, “No nos moverán” (literally, no, no, they will not move us) played a role in activism among Spanish speakers in and beyond the United States.
The song was sung during the pecan sheller’s strike when six to eight thousand workers spontaneously walked off the job, and thirty-three women workers were crammed into a jail cell meant for six—“the black hole of Texas”—in 1938. The brutal police action was met by those singing a hastily prepared Spanish translation of “We shall not be moved.” Having difficulty with a singing translation of the third line, the following was sung: “como peñón que resist el viento” [“like a rock that stands against the windstorm”]. (See Spener, 2016, p. 78–82.)
This makeshift Spanish translation disappeared for almost thirty years when the song came to life in 1966 during the United Farmworkers (UFM) movement under the leadership of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and others. Though the lyrics were still fluid, “No nos moverán” and “Nosotros venceremos” (“We shall overcome”] were bedrock songs that sustained the movement. Spanish lyrics written by Agustín Lira and Luis Valdez became the standard Spanish version (See Spener, 2016, pp. 82–87).
No, no, no, no nos moverán
Unidos en la lucha . . .
No, no, no, they will not move us
United in the struggle . . .
When the government of elected Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, “No nos moverán” was played repeatedly over Radio Magallanes as a voice of resistance during the coup d’état that resulted in the removal of Allende and the establishment of the repressive and brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet from 1973–1981 (See Spener, 2016, pp. 17–26).
In the 1960s, folk singer and activist Joan Baez (b. 1941), the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, gave benefit concerts and sang at rallies, picket lines, and funerals. The song was featured on her first Spanish-language album Gracias al a Vida (1974).
Baez took the song to other Spanish-speaking countries, including Madrid in 1980 following the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco (1892–1975), and Chile in 1981 following the ouster of Pinochet (Spener, 2016, pp. 87–89).
“We shall not be moved”—the Legacy in Recordings, Films, and Books
“I/We shall not be moved” has reached iconic status in various media. The continuous influence of this song is evident in numerous albums, documentaries, DVDs, and films that carry the title of the song. Various causes quote the first line of the song in the titles of their books. Maya Angelou (1928–2014) titled a book of her poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), as a tribute to the song and those who used it in causes for justice. A selected list of recent books follows: We Shall Not Be Moved: The Desegregation of the University of Georgia (2002); I Shall Not Be Moved: Racial Separation in Christian Worship (2007); We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina (2012); We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired (2013); We Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists Debate Race, Gender, and Homosexuality (2014); and We Shall Not Be Moved: How Liverpool’s Working Class Fought Redundancies, Closures and Cuts in the Age of Thatcher (2016).
Edward Boatner and Willa A. Townsend, eds., Spirituals Triumphant: Old and New (Nashville: National Baptist Sunday School Board, 1927).
Guy Carawan and Candie Carawan, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1990).
Josh Dunson, Freedom in the Air: Song Movements of the Sixties (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1965).
Howard Fast, Peekskill USA (New York: Civil Rights Congress, 1951).
Zilphia Horton, Ed., Labor Songs (New York: R.R. Lawrence and Textile Workers’ Union of America, 1939)
Erskine Peters, Ed., Lyrics of the Afro-American Spiritual: A Documentary Collection (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993).
Bernice Johnson Reagon, We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).
Matthew Sabatella, “We Shall Not Be Moved: About the Song,” Ballad of America, https://balladofamerica.org/we-shall-not-be-moved/ (accessed December 2, 2022).
David Spener, We Shall Not Be Moved/No nos moverán: Biography of a Song of Struggle (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016), https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1kft8ff.8 (accessed December 2, 2022).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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