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We Shall Not Be Moved

December 1, 2010

The United Kingdom has seen a number of protests over the last few weeks about the proposed cuts to higher education and increases in tuition fees. Some of the protests have resulted in violence. This post is not about those protests. Those current events and thoughts have, however, in part prompted this exploration of  the traditional folk song, “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

As a folk standard, it has been used in the course of the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s in the USA, as a Union song during protests and marches, and reworked by the Liverpool Football Club as a chant – there are also versions by the Celtic and Rangers Football clubs – and dates back to at least the antebellum period in America. Recorded in a variety of styles including bluegrass, gospel, jazz, choral, country, and reggae by singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Judith Durham from The Seekers, Bird Youmans, Ricky Van Shelton, Ella Fitzgerald, and U-Roy, it has a similar traditional usage among the traveling peoples of Scotland and in Celtic folk music. Over 1000 musicians and singers from New Orleans produced this extraordinary Part 1 and Part 2 version, and Maya Angelou titled a book of her poetry I Shall Not Be Moved as a tribute to the folk song and the movements it has inspired and accompanied.

Typical of traditional spiritual songs, “I Shall Not be Moved” consists of a series of verses wherein a single line changes for each verse:

I shall not, I shall not be moved
I shall not, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
I shall not be moved

Also typical of many traditional folk songs, the lyrics have evolved through time to apply to the various causes about which the song has been sung. When the tune became an anthem of the labor movement, verses were adjusted to be appropriate to union organization; Jehovah, heaven, or God are often used interchangeably or omitted for the name of an organisation or cause. When the song was sung during the civil rights movement, verses were adjusted to reflect racial unity. Because of the structure of this kind of song, only one line per verse needs to be rewritten to be appropriate for the new context. Here’s a small selection of some of the third lines that speak to the kind of movements and organisations that have appropriated the song: The union is behind us, We’re fighting for our freedom, We’re fighting for our children, We’re building a mighty union, Black and white together, Young and old together, The church of God is marching, If my friends forsake me.

Like many of the period’s great protest songs, it sings of the refusal to bow to the powers that be and the importance of standing up for what you believe in. I’ve been pondering the origins of this song and thinking upon the ways in which it’s been used to declare dignity of the self and unity of like-minded people. Indeed, it was a performance of this song and a recounting of its history and origins by legendary Scottish folk performer (and former BBC presenter) Alasdair McDonald last week that  reminded me that “We shall not be moved” finds its genesis in Psalm 1 and that the dignity of the individual and the solidarity and resilience of community is rooted in God. It reminded me that if we look for the source of our dignity and worth as human beings from our ability to assert it against other people, we often overlook the heavenly source of hope, worth, and human dignity. As we begin the season of advent, it also reminded me of the way Jesus made himself low for us. I won’t be able hear this song again, in any context, without being reminded of the Truth of the immovable rock in whom our dignity is fully incarnated.

I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved – Psalm 16:8.

Image: “Tree planted by Rivers” by Martin Kuhne

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Pearl Harrison permalink
    December 1, 2010 1:10 pm

    It’s good to have your attention drawn afresh, as Alistair did last Thursday, to the roots of a song you’ve always known. Rereading Psalm 1 reminded me that we can’t simply declare ourselves to be as secure as the tree by the waterside, we have to fulfil the conditions of verses 1&2.
    Thanks for developing the train of thought which Alistair McDonald started last Thursday.

    • Dave permalink
      December 1, 2010 1:59 pm

      Thanks, as well, for the beautiful painting! Who is the artist?

      • Anna permalink
        December 1, 2010 4:10 pm

        Glad you like it Dave, it’s “Tree planted by Rivers” by Martin Kuhne. There’s an image credit at the bottom of the post with a link to Kuhne’s portfolio.


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