April 12, 2016

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Poetry Friday: 5 Questions for Debbie Levy

Greetings, Poets!

Last Friday, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with Debbie Levy's new picture book, WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE STORY OF THE SONG. [Read the post here.]

Find it at IndieBound
As promised, Debbie is here in person to tell us more about the book, which explores the history of this Civil Rights anthem in free verse. But first...

This week's Poetry Friday blogroll is brought to you
by my friend and fellow Marylander
Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske
at The Opposite of Indifference.
I'm thrilled that you're here today, Debbie! I am so curious about the genesis of both the song and the book WE SHALL OVERCOME that it was hard for me to stick to five questions, so let's dive in.

What was the genesis for the idea that became WE SHALL OVERCOME? I’d like to know more about the concept that songs have back-stories. Why did you choose this particular song’s story to tell?

I began gathering string on the life of this song years ago. “We Shall Overcome” and issues related to “We Shall Overcome” kept popping up during research on other books for young readers that I wrote—a book about bigotry, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a book about the lives of enslaved people on southern plantations. So I began filing my discoveries away.
Find it at Amazon.

Find it at IndieBound.

What went into the file, especially early on, wasn’t specifically or only about the song “We Shall Overcome.” In working on my children’s book about plantation slave life, for example, I was captivated by first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people describing their music. And I was struck by this observation by Frederick Douglass, from his autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished . . . to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

The precise words and tune of “We Shall Overcome” don’t date back to slavery days, but for me there is an undeniable connection between this song, which has so frequently been sung to embolden those fighting for justice and to comfort those who have suffered, and the songs of which Frederick Douglass spoke. I found, and the book chronicles, a history of voices upon voices singing songs that evolved into “We Shall Overcome,” with people making changes in the lyrics and melodies to suit their circumstances. I wanted to create a book that could reach even the youngest readers, and put them in touch with the history of an activity they all know something about: singing.

What role does music play in your own life? Do you listen to music when you’re writing?

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. (Do you?) I like quietness.

[AA: I’m with you, Debbie. I love listening music, but find it too distracting when I’m writing.]

But music has played a large role in my life. I’ve played piano since I was a little girl. I don’t play well—I play worse now than I did as I child—and my sight reading of music is abysmal. But having a piano in my life feels necessary. In this I know I am influenced by my grandmother, Rose Salzberg, who was a piano teacher when she was a young woman in Poland and Germany and whose playing in our home and in her own home was a constant soundtrack in the life of our family here in Maryland. Certain Chopin pieces, which were her favorites, bring me to tears.

Rose's Sheet Music
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)
If musical talent skipped a generation in my case, it did land squarely on my sons’ shoulders. My eldest is a jazz musician working in New York and abroad. My youngest is a talented singer, although it’s not something he chose to make a career of. It’s awfully sweet when they visit and the house is full of live music again.

What was involved in tracing “We Shall Overcome” back to its beginnings in slavery, but also in tracing its progress in more recent history as the song spread around the world?

My research for this 32-page picture book was as far-ranging as any research I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of research as a lawyer, editor, and writer. The sources range from songbooks to academic studies; from decades of newspaper articles (here’s a favorite headline from a 1967 New York Times article: “Popularity of U.S. Rights Hymn Irks German Reds”) to liner notes from LP records; from books about the civil rights movement to articles about African American song traditions to interview transcripts.

Remember the file I mentioned earlier, in which I started collecting the bits that helped me conceive of and write this book? Another signature item that went into the file was the text of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech in March 1965 urging passage of the Voting Rights Act after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, in which he echoed the words of the song:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Then when I found video of that speech and actually heard his distinctive twang saying these words—very moving to me. (Here’s the text and the video:

One more tidbit: before I started my research, I had no idea that “We Shall Overcome” has been sung by schoolchildren in India for years. I believe that you are more likely to find kids in a school in Mumbai who know this song, and who have sung it at school assemblies, than if you go into a school in this country.

I loved your book THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, which looks at early Nazi Germany through the eyes of your own Jewish family. Threads of that book’s focus on history and human rights appear again in WE SHALL OVERCOME. Do you have a personal connection to the song?

Thank you for loving THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, Laura, which has a special place in my heart since it’s about my mother. As for a personal connection to the song “We Shall Overcome”—I have the same connection any other human has to a song with such rich history, significance, and power. Maybe my response is sharpened by my roots in a family that experienced persecution during the Nazi era. But you know, a picture book is collaboration. 

The illustrator of WE SHALL OVERCOME, Vanessa Brantley-Newton (, has distinct and personal memories of being subject to the injustices of segregation during her 1960s childhood, the types of injustices that gave rise to the use of the song as a civil rights anthem. Working on this book was a deeply personal experience for her. And the editor who first acquired the manuscript of this book—her roots are in India, and the song’s story resonated for her in part because of the connection she felt personally to the tradition of singing “We Shall Overcome” in that country’s schools.

What are some ways that classroom educators might use your book to introduce a unit on the American Civil Rights movement?

I’d suggest that educators begin with a kid-appropriate discussion of the type of injustices that underlay the rise of “We Shall Overcome.” In my own interactions with young students around this book, I have been finding that they don’t necessarily grasp the notion of racial bigotry at first. (I don’t view this as a bad thing!) But we do need to introduce them to this part of our history, which, as we adults know, isn’t really a thing of the past.

So I like to begin by talking about unfairness, with some “what if?” questions. What if . . . you couldn’t go to your favorite park because of hair color? Had to sit apart in school or on bus or in movies because you go to a different church—or don’t go to church? Couldn’t go to the place where they serve the best ice cream in town because only blue people can and you are orange?

They giggle, but they get it. And then I talk about how, not so long ago, restaurants could refuse to serve you a meal if you were African American. I explain that, in those days, if you were African American, if you were Mexican American—you could not drink out of the same water fountains as white people in some parts of the country. I share photographs of these and other segregationist practices. They are pretty striking.

And I ask: if you were being treated so unfairly, or if someone you loved were, how would you feel? We can agree that being treating this unfairly could make you so angry and frustrated that you might want to fight. But fighting with your fists could create even more problems for you and it probably wouldn’t get you what you wanted.

We discuss other ways to fight—not with your fists but with your brain. You could join with others who are treated unfairly. You could tell everyone out in the world about what was happening. You could march in protest. You could quietly, but firmly, demand your rights.

Miami University Freedom Summer
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

I explain, again showing photos, that this is exactly what African Americans, and others who wanted to help fight the unfairness, did. They fought with their brains. And I explain that there was another important way that people fought with their brains. Yes, they marched, they sat in at lunch counters, they protested. But they did something else.

Anti-segregation March
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

THEY SANG! We talk about how singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard. And if inside you are feeling a little scared or sad, singing can give you courage and can lift your spirits—especially if you’re singing with others.

I’d also encourage educators to read the book aloud and, where the lyrics are excerpted, sing them. I’d encourage them to go to the online sources listed in the back of the book and on my website to hear the song being sung by different people, and in at least one different language.

Once the students have read the book and had discussions like the ones I’ve described, I love to ask them to come up with new verses that would apply to their lives today, in their schools or neighborhoods—and we sing them together.

Thanks for your questions, Laura!

Thank you so much for answering them, Debbie. I think you captured the heart of WE SHALL OVERCOME with these words: “Singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard."

Debbie Levy is the author of the picture books We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (2013); Dozer’s Run: A True Story of a Dog and His Race (2014); the young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (2013); The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (2010); and other books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young people of all ages. The Year of Goodbyes was a Kirkus Best Book of 2010, a Parents’ Choice Award recipient, a VOYA Nonfiction Honor Book, and a Sydney Taylor Award Notable Book, among other honors.  We Shall Overcome has been named a 2014 Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book, a Bank Street College Best Book, and a 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book.


Diane Mayr said...

I, like Debbie Levy, find a certain comfort in the fact that younger kids don't know of the segregation history of this country. Once kids get to the social media age where it seems that anything and everything is said out loud, I wonder if they will find it easier or harder to ignore the bigots because they do not have the background history? I always opt for more history, but I wonder if the rest of the world does...

Linda said...

Laura, I really enjoyed reading this. I always love learning about a writer's process and an idea becomes a book! Thanks for sharing this, and thanks to Debbie too!

Linda B said...

Wonderful to hear about the background process of the book, and the dedicated research (threads) over the years that make it so good, also about the illustrator's and the editor's connections. Thanks Laura for sharing this interview, and Debbie, for writing the story.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Such a rich and thoughtful post - and the ideas about how to share this important history in the classroom are so well articulated. Thanks, Laura and Debbie, for sharing.

Tabatha said...

The connection between song and story reminded me of Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (a movie about South Africa). If you haven't seen it, I'll bet you would like it.
I love that you have your grandmother's sheet music, Debbie. Thanks, Laura and Debbie!

Mary Lee said...

Fascinating to read about all of her research! Can't wait to use this with REVOLUTION by Deborah Wiles.

Anonymous said...

So interesting to learn how the book came together. Regarding the song, the quote from Frederick Douglass says it all. Thank you, Debbie and Laura.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Such a rich and informative interview-- thank you to both of you!

GatheringBooks said...

Hello there Laura, I actually borrowed this book from our library a few weeks back, and I can't wait to feature it for our current reading theme. If and when I do push through with the book feature, I shall definitely link up to this fascinating interview with Debbie. :)

Debbie Levy said...

Laura's blog posts get the best comments! Thanks to all for your thoughts; thanks to Laura for asking the questions.