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Hunter Professor Victor Bobetsky and Six of His Students Bring the Origins and History of "We Shall Overcome” to Life at NYU

On November 7, Victor Bobetsky, Professor of Music and Director of the Teacher Education Program in Music at Hunter College and six of his students from the music education program delivered a presentation focused on Professor Bobetsky’s research that led to the creation and publication of his book, We Shall Overcome: Essays on a Great American Song (2015). The presentation was held at NYU’s Tamiment Library.

The students, Jason Dirig, George Dulin, Nicholas Gant, Emma Sheffer, Erik Stenswold, and Hallie Stotler, introduced the presentation by singing the first verse of “We Shall Overcome.” They also sang a historically significant African-American freedom song dating from the Civil War (“No More Auction Block”) and two early African-American gospel hymns (“I'll Overcome Someday” by the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley and “I'll be Like Him” by Roberta Martin). These three songs have been identified by scholars as antecedent songs which contain similarities in text and music to the “We Shall Overcome” we sing today. The student performances were featured at critical points throughout Professor Bobetsky’s lecture.
“The six students from my vocal/general music methods class sang beautifully and with a lot of feeling. Their performances of the antecedent songs to “We Shall Overcome” proved to be a perfect illustration of the verbal points I made in my lecture. The audience loved everything. During the reception following the presentation, we received many positive comments,” said Professor Bobetsky.

In attendance was author Karen Karin Rosenberg who commended Bobetsky on making this important piece of history “clear and accessible not just to scholars but to young people.”

Maria Mejia, Administrative Coordinator for the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, also praised the presentation, saying, “The student performances were incredibly moving” and made it “easier to understand how ‘We Shall Overcome’ evolved over time and shed light on the various musical styles that influenced the song we know today.”

Professor Bobetsky added, “The students dedicated lots of time and energy to learning the songs, attending impromptu rehearsals which we held before class for many weeks. I felt a great sense of synergy with this group of young professionals as we worked together to bring these beautiful and historically important songs to life for the NYU audience. I am very grateful to my students for being a part of this presentation and I will remember this event for many years to come.”

The students relished participating in the event. Said performer Nicholas Gant, a music education student working towards his master’s degree, “I have sung spirituals my whole life but, to recreate them within the context of a lecture was an awesome experience. With this book lecture Dr. Bobetsky  has opened up a much needed dialogue for this generation in regards to the Negro Spiritual. “

We Shall Overcome: Essays on a Great American Song contains eight essays, two of which were written by Bobetsky. The book has been purchased by over 196 colleges, universities, and public libraries. According to Music Educators Journal, the collection is “a valuable resource to be used not just in the music appreciation or general music classroom but in any class that seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the African-American civil rights movement.”  

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