January 27, 2018

"We Shall Overcome" is now in the public domain.

Changing "will" to "shall" was insufficiently original to turn the old spiritual into a new, copyrightable song, the federal judge ruled last September. How much money did Pete Seeger et al. rake in royalties before two film documentarians balked at paying "as much as $100,000 to use it in several critical scenes" and sued? But maybe that one judge is wrong, an more litigation would vindicate the copyright holder.  The case is now settled, we're told (NYT), seemingly because the royalties were less than the lawsuit was costing.

The erstwhile copyright holder seeks credit for having donated the royalties all these years to something called the "We Shall Overcome Fund" and for having “carefully vetted” the uses of the song. It warns us that now the song can be used “in any manner they wish, including inaccurate historical uses, commercials, parodies, spoofs and jokes, and even for political purposes by those who oppose civil rights for all Americans.”

That's called free speech. And the use of the song in parodies, spoofs, and jokes would should already have been permitted as a matter of fair use and freedom of speech — though not (until now) without a fear of litigation.

By the way, what is the good reason for changing "We will overcome" to "We shall overcome"? I can't think of one.

IN THE COMMENTS: Unknown tries to answer my question:
Shall has a softer feel and implies it will take longer and require perseverance?"
I say:
I thought of this and considered it not a "good reason."

I think "will" suggests that the people singing the words have a will and are ready to act to get what they want.

"Shall" suggests that they are passively waiting for the predicted future to arrive. I guess it's expressive of the nonviolence theme that helped white people feel the feelings that were necessary to achieve the desired results.

Don't say: I want something and I'm going to take it. Say: I believe that you will perceive that I deserve this and give it to me.
I can't remember where I originally read this example but picture a drowning man saying: "I will die, no one shall save me" or "I shall die, no one will save me." The first sentence is properly understood as the words of a man intentionally drowning himself and warning off would-be rescuers. He's informing us that he's committing suicide. The second sentence expresses despair over accidental drowning and the absence of a rescuer. I think there are old jokes based on this distinction, in which a member of a supposedly uneducated ethnic group is allowed to drown because he didn't know the proper shall/will distinction.

62 comments:

urpower said...

"Shall" has a biblical resonance?- shall and shall not, etc.

rhhardin said...

A descriptive grammarians account

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shall_and_will

In this case it marks solemn seriousness, as opposed to straight prediction.

Unknown said...

Shall has a softer feel and implies it will take longer and require perseverance?

-sw

EDH said...

It warns us that now the song can be used “in any manner they wish, including inaccurate historical uses, commercials, parodies, spoofs and jokes, and even for political purposes by those who oppose civil rights for all Americans.”

Okay, my mind went immediately to bukkake porn title, but that's just me.

By the way, what is the good reason for changing "We will overcome" to "We shall overcome"?

The former implies destiny, the latter duty?

TerriW said...

My old school Latin text (1940s) always, always uses shall for first person plural or singular in the future tense, without the shades of meaning differences mentioned above.

Sydney said...

How much money did Pete Seeger et al. rake in royalties before two film documentarians balked at paying "as much as $100,000 to use it in several critical scenes" and sued?
I assume a lot. Are they going to have to give it back to the people they fleeced?

Ann Althouse said...

"Shall has a softer feel and implies it will take longer and require perseverance?"

I thought of this and considered it not a "good reason."

I think "will" suggests that the people singing the words have a will and are ready to act to get what they want.

"Shall" suggests that they are passively waiting for the predicted future to arrive. I guess it's expressive of the nonviolence theme that helped white people feel the feelings that were necessary to achieve the desired results.

Don't say: I want something and I'm going to take it. Say: I believe that you will perceive that I deserve this and give it to me.

Ann Althouse said...

"Shall" also — to many people — sounds elevated (high class).

But it's actually a word you'd be well advised to eliminate from your vocabulary.

I thought this long before I read Bryan Garner's "Nino and Me," but it's a huge theme with him. Garner spent a lot of time trying to persuade Justice Scalia to get rid of the word.

BTW, I've spent a lot of time trying to convince people not to use the word "garner," but that doesn't apply to the last name Garner.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I decided a long time ago to call it a "sofa" instead of a "couch" because I thought that's what you're supposed to do and now, decades later, it turns out I'm some kind of a snob.

Bummer.

AllenS said...

Shall is a word that comes out when a person has their hand on their chin with the little finger raised.

Tim in Vermont said...

Interesting story involving Pete Seeger that would make a good movie, I think, the story of Elizabeth Cotten

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cotten

Greg Hlatky said...


Pete Seeger, the old Stalinist, bard of mass murderers. On the Wrong Side of History but lionized despite, or perhaps because of it.

Tim in Vermont said...

Well, you have to push a lot of deplorables into mass graves if you want to make an omelette! What’s yer problem with Stalin?

traditionalguy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
traditionalguy said...

I bet MLK changed it. He liked a Moses at the Red Sea holding up the Rod of God vibe when a March was scheduled in the morning facing an Army out to get arrest them . The waters Shall divide, and Israel shall walk across on dry land, and the Egyptians shall all drown, horse and rider thrown ito the sea.

EDH said...

"Shall" suggests that they are passively waiting for the predicted future to arrive.

Unless you take "shall" to be an imperative, a legal or religious "commandment" to act as a collective obligation, in this case to overcome a particular adversity.

"In common, or ordinary parlance, and in its ordinary signification, the term 'shall' is a word of command, and one which has always, or which must be given a compulsory meaning; as denoting obligation. It has a peremptory meaning, and it is generally imperative or mandatory. It has the invariable significance of excluding the idea of discretion, and has the significance of operating to impose a duty which may be enforced, particularly if public policy is in favor of this meaning, or when addressed to public officials, or where a public interest is involved, or where the public or persons have rights which ought to be exercised or enforced, unless a contrary intent appears; but the context ought to be very strongly persuasive before it is softened into a mere permission," etc. People v. O'Rourke, 124 Cal. App. 752, 759 (Cal. App. 1932)

Bob Boyd said...

Weguh ovacome that shit.

Mark said...

By the way, what is the good reason for changing "We will overcome" to "We shall overcome"?

Likely it has less to do with meaning or grammar and more to do with the aesthetics/sound of the two versions. Musically, the "we shah-" sounds better, with the "ah" sound being higher, than "we wih-" with the "w" following the "we" being wooden and the "ih" being lower in tone.

"We shall overcome" is more melodic and rhythmic.

Mark said...

If it was a black Southern preacher (or several) who changed it, that would be highly indicative that it was for the sound, since their preaching style would be more melodic and rhythmic, maybe changing it without even realizing it.

Shane said...

Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner spend quite a bit of time discussing "shall" in "Nino and Me."

CWJ said...

I thought had been "shall" all along. Silly me.

Big Mike said...

In federal contracting the word “shall” is critical; whatever the desired feature is, if it is expressed as something the system “shall” do then it is s legal requirement. Not so with things the system “needs” to do or “must” do or “will” do. If there’s something the system bring purchased “shall” do, and the system as delivered doesn’t do it then you’re going to be in court.

So if you are selling the government a box of hammers and they shall weigh two pounds apiece, then you must prove that each hammer in the box weighs precisely two pounds, not one pound fifteen ounces and not two pounds one ounce. Yes, it adds to the cost of selling hammers to the government, even if you negotiate a waiver that says two pounds plus or minus an ounce.

I was once threatened with legal action by the government’s contracting officer technical representative (COTR) because my team finished a project under budget and ahead of schedule. The way the contract was written we had to keep working on it another two weeks and burn up the rest of the funds. Your government in action.

tim maguire said...

I think "shall" is better. It may be completely subjective, but the sentence flows more pleasingly. Perhaps because it's a slightly longer word, thus shifting the emphasis a bit from the future goal (overcome) to the present hope (shall).

That said, I think it's outrageous how easy IP law makes it to lock up pieces of the public domain through incidental innovations.

Big Mike said...

BTW, I sang that song on election night when it was clear Trump was going to win, except I changed the words slightly. “We shall overcome, TO-day-ay-ay! Deep in my heart, I do believe, we have overcome today.”

I was a high school senior first time I sang it, with the original words, at a civil rights rally.

CWJ said...

Thinking about why I thought it was "shall" all along, I agree with Mark that it's more melodic. But more to the point, "shall" is gramatically correct; "will" is not. This seems to me to be a very Althouseian reason for the cahange.

tim maguire said...

Blogger Eric the Fruit Bat said...I decided a long time ago to call it a "sofa" instead of a "couch" because I thought that's what you're supposed to do and now, decades later, it turns out I'm some kind of a snob.

In that case, go whole hog and call it a chesterfield. Or even a davenport.

rhhardin said...

The rule is more complex that Althouse thinks.

The pleasure of descriptive grammar is discovering how complex the rules that you can't verbalize, but know, are.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shall_and_will is good.

Craig Howard said...

"Shall" is used in the first person; "will" in the second and third persons.

Though that grammatical convention has been ignored in the U.S. for a while, it's no more complicated than that.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

FWIW - Some time ago I read that the Beatles often chose words for their lyrics because of how they sounded rather than the meaning - and the same is true for Justin Vernon from up your way. To my ear "shall" takes a bit longer to say than "will" and matches/encourages the slight stretching out of "o-ver" in overcome. Using "will" makes it all choppier and rat-at-tat-tat. "Shall" gets me to bring out the legato phrasing more. Could simply be a case of sound over sense.

Curious George said...

The moronic "Solidarity Singers" used to sing a varition of "We Shall Overcome" changing the words to "Walker Won't be Governor Someday" and then "SOME DAY SOON!"

Wuh happened?

David said...

"We have overcome" is still not ready for prime time.

Phil 3:14 said...


"Shall has a softer feel "

How can that be, since so many sea creatures are protected by one?

mockturtle said...

The two words have different meanings and vary with person. I/we shall is equivalent to you will and I/we will with you shall. The distinction is seldom applied in the US, however.

Mac McConnell said...

I wonder if the Seeger family ever paid all those white trash hillbillies for the appropriation of their folk songs while doing the hard academic work as traveling musicologists.

Leslie Graves said...

My parents invited Fannie Lou Hammer to Wisconsin, to visit Spring Green in the mid-1960s in the years when it was also being visited by Lady Bird Johnson and others. (It was a showcase for the rural arts movement.) There was also a movement of Wisconsin farm families inviting inner city children to come and stay with them for weeks in the summer, and I think that is why Ms. Hammer visited. Anyway, one night that I recall, when I was about 10, we stood in a circle with her, holding hands, and sang that song.

Qwerty Smith said...

So, the private owners of the means of production (the song) have been parasitically exploiting labor (by collecting royalties, an unearned tax on production) because a dedicated communist (Pete Seeger) bequeathed it to them?

Anonymous said...

There's a traditional grammatical distinction, hardly ever observed now, according to which "I will" expresses an intention to do something (with futurity as an implication, since no one can intend to do something in the past), but "I shall" expressed prediction or, by extension, inevitability (since if we predict something, and the prediction is true, then the thing predicted must be necessarily true). It used to be taught that the polite forms were "shall I?" (submission to the course of events or to another's desire) but "will you?" (free choice to do something, without compulsion). Most of that has gone by the wayside, though some of the semantics survives in the related forms would and should: The latter conveys a sense of obligation that the former lacks.

Anyway, "we will overcome," in that reading, would suggest determination; but "we shall overcome" suggests destiny. An old-style Marxist might say "the proletariat will stand firm and socialism shall triumph!" in the same spirit.

Though it might have been just for euphony. The repetition of two w- sounds seems weaker and less emphatic than the phrasing with "shall."

chickelit said...

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills,; we shall never surrender..."

Churchill could conjugate the the future tense.

On the other hand, Leni Riefestahl did not direct a film called "Triumph Des Sollens."

chickelit said...

BTW, English and other Germanic language do not have a proper future tense, unlike the Romance languages. We use an auxiliary verb.

mockturtle said...

When we used to sing it [at protest rallies] we sang, We shall overcome. I've never hear it sung otherwise.

Theodore James said...

Pete Seeger also owned the copyright to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" which he had lifted from an African pop singer who's name escapes me right now. The African musician never saw a dime from Seeger.

For a communist and a self described man of the people he certainly seemed to profit from those less fortunate than he was.



Rabel said...

Mark got it at 7:09. As Seeger explained, "It sings better."

John Pickering said...

As several people have noted, it's just English grammar, which writers and speakers employ when they wish to show a standard command of the language:


The traditional rule is that shall is used with first person pronouns (i.e. I and we) to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third person forms (i.e. you, he, she, it, they).

There's no implication of intent in that use with regard to the first person.

I once had a teacher who would respond to airy and foolish remarks by saying, "Don't advertise your ignorance."

Ann Althouse said...

No normal American says “I shall” or “We shall” unless they are quoting some nonAmerican or reading something old. It’s just not idiomatic American English, so it doesn’t belong in the song other than to affect pretentiousness.

Karen said...

My instinct is that in this case, shall has an element of should. I will states future intent, I would have states a past conditional, I should have states a past prescriptive so wouldn’t “I shall” contain an element of future prescription or obligation, sort of like a future version of “I should”?

robother said...

We Americans WILL make America great again. No shillyshallying about it.

jimbino said...

As I remember, the distinction is important and regularly observed in specifications and contracts between government and its suppliers. "Shall" implies an obligatory requirement for a product, whereas "will" merely implies expectation.

For example, "The secure radio will be used to communicate with the B-52 bomber. Such radio shall be equipped with a spread-spectrum receiver/transmitter using 15kHz frequency-hopping, as described in the patent of Hedy Lamarr."

jimbino said...

See http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-will-and-vs-shall-in-contracts/

John Pickering said...

Ha! Addressing comprehensively how "normal Americans" speak, Ann concludes that using correct grammar is an example of affected pretentiousness.

Yet Ann had said, she couldn't think of a reason to use shall instead of why.

So, when Ann wrote that, did she know the rule, or not? Now that she knows it, will she follow it? Evidently not, she's a normal American, and she knows the difference between who is and who isn't. Yikes.

It's an explicit advertisement for ignorance. Then again, Ann regards the president as a shrewd thinker, a subtle humorist, and an honest man. So, readers, draw your conclusions.

John Pickering said...

sorry, typo in second graf, should read "shall instead of will"

apols

Bad Lieutenant said...


Craig Howard said...
"Shall" is used in the first person; "will" in the second and third persons.

Though that grammatical convention has been ignored in the U.S. for a while, it's no more complicated than that.

1/27/18, 7:48 AM



"We shall see" is correct usage.

John Pickering said...

I read right over this bit:

. I think there are old jokes based on this distinction, in which a member of a supposedly uneducated ethnic group is allowed to drown because he didn't know the proper shall/will distinction.

Hey, those must be pretty funny jokes! Ann doesn't know that distinction either! But she's not a supposedly uneducated member of an ethnic group: she's a Normal American.

chuck said...

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" also has an interesting story connected with Seeger. In the wikipedia article there is this tidbit.

The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus and released it as a 78 single entitled "Wimoweh", a mishearing of the original song's chorus of "Uyimbube", Zulu: You are a lion. Their version contained the chanting chorus "Wimoweh" and Linda's improvised melodic line. The Weavers credited the song as "Traditional", with arrangement by "Paul Campbell", later found to be a pseudonym used by the Weavers in order to claim royalties.

I like the Paul Campbell bit ...

mockturtle said...

No normal American says “I shall” or “We shall” unless they are quoting some nonAmerican or reading something old. It’s just not idiomatic American English, so it doesn’t belong in the song other than to affect pretentiousness.

Not true. Using 'will' in place of 'shall' in the first person is to misuse the form. To insist, "I will go to the movies" is quite different from stating, "I shall go to the movies".

Maybe it's because I was married 40 years to a Brit who always used the correct form.

mockturtle said...

Call me pretentious if you like. :-)

Steven said...

No normal American says “I shall” or “We shall” unless they are quoting some nonAmerican or reading something old. It’s just not idiomatic American English

Indeed.

Over a century ago, it was noted by linguists that the populations of native speakers of English used "shall" and "will" in full original subtlety, while populations of speakers of other languages who had adopted English (the Irish, Scots, Welsh, American populations of mixed ancestral nationality rather than pure English descent, and so on) either did not use the distinction or used them in simplified approximations of native English use (for example, by adopting a convention that 'shall' is always used in the first person while 'will' is used in the second and third persons).

Then, under the influence of mass media and immigration, the "native" pockets eroded. This happened faster in America (where the pockets of WASPs were smaller and thus had less inertia), but has overtaken England as well.

mockturtle said...

Althouse likes certain nuances but not others. ;-)

The Godfather said...

I shan't engage in this pointless debate.

chickelit said...

Karen said...
My instinct is that in this case, shall has an element of should. I will states future intent, I would have states a past conditional, I should have states a past prescriptive so wouldn’t “I shall” contain an element of future prescription or obligation, sort of like a future version of “I should”?

Remember when the State Department got caught up in parsing "shall" vs. "should"? link. I think Althouse blogged that one too.

Althouse is correct if the usage should reflect everyday American English.

RichardJohnson said...

We Shall not be Moved by The Almanac Singers. Pete Seeger was one of the Almanac Singers. The Almanac Singers released an album in the spring of 1941 with a number of anti-war songs on it. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, peace-loving Pete Seeger decided that he wasn't a lover of peace any more, and pulled the album. Uncle Joe spoke, and Pete listened.

Johnny Cash: I Shall Not Be Moved.

The Freedom Singers perform "We Shall Not Be Moved" at the March on Washington.

I SHALL continue to be pretentious and use "shall." I am not familiar with the shall/will distinctions in legalese. I tend to use "shall" to indicate strength of intention. "I shall do it," as in making damn sure I'll do it. "I will do it," as in "Yes, Mother, I will clean out the kitty litter box one of these days."

Jives said...

the grammar rule is: "Shall" is used with the first person pronoun, we shall, I shall. "Will" is used with all other pronouns. You/he/she/they will.

Stephen said...

Your analysis leaves out the possibility of something other than the individual will as an agent of change.

King said:

We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

We shall overcome because 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.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God, within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.

Would this message have read the same, or as powerfully, if he had said "We will overcome?"