Folk Song History of "We Shall Not Be Moved"

A Familiar and Powerful Protest Song

Close up musician playing guitar for audience
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"We Shall Not Be Moved" is a traditional American folk song whose lyrics likely stretch back to the slave era. Yet, there is no indication of when the song was written or who wrote it. Over the years, the song has been used for labor and civil rights movements as well as numerous sit-in protests as a show of resistance.

It is a spiritual song that was adapted by the activists of the 1930s, with lyrics changed to "We Shall Not Be Moved." It is very similar to how "We Shall Overcome" took on the collective voice in protest rather than its original singular voice. 

"We Shall Not be Moved" Lyrics

Typical of traditional spiritual songs, "We Shall Not be Moved" consists of a series of verses wherein a single line changes for each verse. This folk song style is common because it makes the song easy to remember and even easier for a song leader to sing with a group of people. The verse of "I Shall Not Be Moved" repeats the song's title a number of times, inserting one changing line:

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's standing by the water
We 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 for each union organization.
  • When the song was sung during the civil rights movement, verses were adjusted to reflect racial unity.

Because of the song's structure, only one line in each verse needed to be refashioned to be appropriate for the new context. Some of the third lines that have been appropriated for different movements and contexts are:

  • 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
  • When my burden's heavy
  • The church of God is marching
  • Don't let the world deceive you
  • If my friends forsake me

Artists Who Have Recorded "We Shall Not Be Moved"

Johnny Cash (purchase/download) and Elvis Presley (purchase/download) recorded two of the most notable versions of this song. Other great recordings have come from The Harmonizing Four, The Jordanaires, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Ricky Van Shelton, and numerous others.

Maya Angelou also titled a book of her poetry "I Shall Not Be Moved." The title is a tribute to the defiant American folk song and the movements it has inspired and accompanied.