The first We Shall Overcome took place over the weekend of October 2/3/4 2015 and comprised 250 gigs in 123 towns in 8 countries on 3 continents. It raised an estimated £125,000 of cash, food, clothes and bedding for those hardest hit by austerity.
Joe explains how it came to happen.
“On May 8th, in the immediate aftermath of the General Election, I logged into Facebook and posted an excerpt from a speech given by Clydeside trade union activist Jimmy Reid in 1972:
‘…..the widespread, implicit acceptance of the term ‘the rat race’ conjures a picture where we are scurrying around scrambling for position, trampling on others, back-stabbing, all in the pursuit of personal success. Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We are not rats, we are human beings!’
Jimmy was voicing his fears that society was changing irrevocably and that we were in danger of losing our humanity.
The post was a part of my response to a perhaps inevitable result at the ballots. On an island riven by nationalist sentiment, anti-immigration propaganda, and an unprecedented and sustained hate campaign against those on welfare, the party most responsible for creating, feeding and fuelling these divisions clawed its way in. We faced five more years of class war from the top, and they were revelling in it.
There were two possible reactions to it: to spend ANOTHER five years calling them names, or to do something POSITIVE about it. The question was what.
My friend Stephen Goodall came up with the answer. He commented on my Jimmy Reid post:
‘We need a coordinated night all over the country of musical protest. Let’s pick a date.’
And so it began.
Within two days we had managed to mobilise every left-leaning musician we knew and we had our weekend, October 2/3/4; and thanks to The Hurriers we had a logo and a name- WE SHALL OVERCOME.
The remit is this: we put together a series of gigs all booked and run locally, but each flying the one banner nationally- We Shall Overcome. Rather than admission charges we asked for donations for local food banks and/or voluntary cash collections for local homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The gig could be anything, the majority were musical, but we had poetry, storytelling, comedy, cookery, traditional dance, DJ sets, karaoke, snooker competitions, art auctions, film nights and board game contests and people up and down Britain and Ireland coming together in the spirit of cooperation, all showing solidarity in the face of this state-inflicted misery they call austerity, and all in peaceful defiance of those who would use it as a weapon against society’s most vulnerable.
We also linked up with Philosophy Football to produce a t-shirt, the proceeds from which will be shared between four longer term campaigns:
Child Poverty Action Group
The People’s Assembly
and our idea went global, with events springing up in the US, Canada and Australia.
Thousands of people made it happen with their hard work, dedication and desire to do something positive in the face of the politics of despair. This was a fight back, not with bricks and bottles, but a fight back with compassion, reclaiming that humanity Jimmy Reid feared we’d lose; a ground-up movement of ordinary people pooling their resources and doing anything in their power to help, to make a difference; but more than that, it was a gathering of the clans, a chance to build new alliances, forge new bonds, and move forward with renewed energy and conviction, full of fresh ideas- empowered.
Make no mistake about it, this wasn’t about not going down without a fight, this was about not going down at all. Together, we SHALL overcome.
On Friday October 16th 2015 Joe picked up the People’s Choice gong at Yorkshire Gig Guide Grassroots Music Awards on behalf of We Shall Overcome. He gave the following speech:
“Thank you. First I’d like to dedicate this to Beryl T Peril who sadly lost her long battle with cancer a few days before We Shall Overcome, and who I know would have loved it….and who I know would have felt as awkward as I do about me standing here tonight. This one’s for you Sonja.
For those of you who don’t know what We Shall Overcome is, it was born the day after the General Election last May. Social Media was awash with blame and recrimination and whining and bitching and moaning and gloating and was a very negative place to be. I’m not someone who wallows in bad news and I was casting about for something creative, something positive to turn all that energy to. My friend Stephen Goodall said:
‘What we need is a night of musical protest all over the country.’
Now Steve and myself had been involved in playing and organising benefits for food banks for a couple of years and I suggested marrying the two together- and We Shall Overcome was born.
We basically just sent word out into the world hoping to get maybe 10 or 15 gigs on the same night and make a statement. But it kinda took off. By the time we reached our night it was a full weekend….a 9 day weekend…and instead of those 10 or 15 gigs we had 250….in 123 towns and cities…across 8 countries on 3 continents, and we estimate that we managed to raise a total of £125,000 worth of cash, food clothing and blankets for those at the sharp end of austerity.
Now austerity doesn’t just mean a few Public Sector pay freezes and the fact that your local librarian is now a volunteer. Austerity drives people from their homes and leaves them shivering in shop doorways; austerity sanctions people on benefits leaving them penniless; austerity drives people into meaningless jobs earning poverty wages so they graft all week and STILL can’t pay the bills. This is the invisible face of the Cuts. Thousands of people not only shivering in shop doorways, but shivering in sleeping bags sat in armchairs in their own front rooms because they have had to make the awful choice between heating and eating, and in the sixth largest economy in the world that is not only shameful, to me it is unacceptable and THAT is the country We Shall Overcome was born into.
We were conscious from the start that we could be viewed as some kind of Lefty Red Nose Day, were all people had to was turn up with a 4-pack of beans and it bought them the right not to have to think about politics again for 5 years; but by keeping our events in the communities they were designed to help, we wanted to make the connection between what we were doing and who we were doing it for. In this way we wanted to create the next generation of community activists, people who weren’t prepared to sit around waiting for someone somewhere to do something about it, but who now felt THEY were that someone, that THEY could do something about it. We wanted to empower a generation. I played six gigs that weekend in six different towns, but everywhere I went the reaction was the same. People were amazed by how much buzz there was around the idea, and how happy people were to FINALLY be doing something creative, something positive, instead of being sat around complaining. The best thing I heard all weekend was the wonderful lady who took me to one side and said:
‘Thank you. For years I thought I was the only person who cared, that everyone else had given up. Now I see there are thousands of people like me up and down the country who all feel the same way, and for the first time in years I feel some hope for the future.’
As soon as I heard that word I knew we were winning. See you can give someone a MEAL and they can make it through the world, but give them HOPE and they’ll CHANGE it.
Lastly we wanted to re-establish the link between live music and communities, and vice versa. For years now music and musicians have occupied this tiny, selfish little space where all that matters is money and fame, but music wasn’t born under a spotlight, it was born around campfires when someone suddenly realised they had a talent for telling stories in rhyme and setting them to tunes. They weren’t professionals, they worked in the fields or at the mills just like everyone else. This is the role I see musicians in today. We get in from work and out we go again, and we sing our stories, we make people laugh, we make people cry, we gather them together, we spread a message of hope and we do all we can in our own small ways to make the world a better place; not because there’s a reward there for us, but because that is what musicians DO, that is what we have ALWAYS done, and we should be damn proud to follow in that tradition.
So from the Gang of Five- myself, Stephen Goodall, Matt Hill, Tony Peter Wright andJamie Bramwell; from Val Colvin, Steve White, Pete Yen, Pauline Town and all the HUNDREDS of people who made We Shall Overcome happen, I want to say a big THANK YOU.
And next year we WILL be back. Join us.”
People did just that, and #WSO2016 ran from 1st to 9th October comprising 262 gigs in 114 towns and cities raising a similar amount of help.
Every year since we have battled on moving online with live streamed events during lockdown including the WSO Isolation Festival on Easter Sunday 2020 which raised £28,000 to keep our front line support networks running when gigs couldn’t fund them.
In total, We Shall Overcome has run more than 1100 gigs helping to raise an estimated £750,000 worth of food, cash, clothing, bedding, furniture and electrical goods. As the fallout from Covid lands on those already struggling with Universal Credit, zero hours contracts, poverty wages, housing shortages and benefit sanctions, as poverty in our communities gets worse still, we will be fighting back for as long as it takes.
Why not join the party?