Yesterday was Pete Seeger’s birthday. He would have been 96 years old*.
I don’t really need to tell you what Seeger did in his life. His accomplishments, as well as his setbacks, are well-documented – from his early days with the Almanac Singers to the Weavers, the time he showed up to testify in front of Congress with his banjo, to tell them he and all Americans had the right to associate with any political party, the resulting blacklist, the years of touring schools and off-the-grid gigs, the documenting folk music around the world, the giant boat he built to draw attention to the fact that the Hudson River needed to be cleaned up, the festival, the persisting until he was welcomed back on the national stage, the singing a Woody Guthrie song at the inauguration of an American president, even after his patriotism had been called into question a half-century earlier. And on and on. The man was an epic hero of sorts, and an exceptional banjo picker to boot.
One of the things Seeger did in his life as a champion to the evolution of American folk music was to copyright a number of traditional songs. As I understand it, his motivation was that someone would copyright them sooner or later, and he’d rather the “ownership” of those songs be as close to their source as possible.
One such song that he copyrighted was “We Shall Overcome.”
Seeger gets a lot of the credit for that song, in the mainstream memory. But he shared the copyright with three other people – Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan.
Many of you know I’ve been researching over the past five years or so about the life and work of Zilphia Horton. I moved from Seattle to Asheville, NC, in the fall of 2010 to pursue that and have been, slowly but surely, making progress.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, allow me to sum up. Zilphia was a musician, teacher, and organizer, who grew up in Northwest Arkansas and lived out her adult life in Central Tennessee, about an hour and a half from Nashville. She was also an incredible cook, a mother, and at least a couple generations ahead of her time on pretty much absolutely everything, it turns out.
But the way she “made her living” – which I put in quotations because for the most part she wasn’t personally paid a dime – was by filling the role of culture director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN. In Zilphia’s day (1935-56), Highlander did everything from operating a nursery school and teaching people how to can things from their garden, to holding workshops that empowered labor union members and civil rights activists, to throwing square dances and volleyball games. They were also investigated by the FBI for about 1100 pages worth of suspicion of Communism, etc. Hers is a long and complex story, and one of these days I’ll nail it down well enough to put it out in the world, but for now, I’m just going to focus on 1953.
Zilphia and her husband Myles hosted countless travelers through the years. Among them were a young Almanac Singers-era Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who, according to Guthrie’s biographer Joe Klein, drove away from Highlander and their time with Zilphia discussing what songs could do in the world.
Then, in 1953, a trio of other folksingers passed through: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan. By then, Zilphia had been teaching “We Will Overcome” to everyone who would sing with her at every workshop and rally and gathering for the past seven years. Zilphia’s version was a lilty, free-rhythm, old Southern style. There was a drawl to it, if melodies could drawl. I’m not talking about twang, I’m talking about the speed of molasses pouring out of a jar. In Zilphia’s mouth, it was a song that sang itself, almost in iambic pentameter. It was in 4/4, sort of. Her sister Ermon Faye would, until the end of her life, wish that Seeger had never changed the “will” to “shall,” because “we will” was alliterative and it pulled you along. Seeger, on the other hand, thought that the word “shall” opened one’s mouth wider and made a stronger sound.
The important thing in this story is that Zilphia taught the song to Hamilton and Carawan, the latter a charismatic performer who understood what it took to give a song legs. He added the triplet rhythm that transformed the old labor hymn into the civil rights anthem. It made the song trot out like a heartbeat. Seeger appreciated this addition.
Three years after Zilphia and Myles welcomed Elliott, Hamilton, and Carawan at Highlander, she died from kidney failure after accidentally drinking carbon tetrachloride. (That is another long and complicated story awash in rumor.) The role of culture director at Highlander was left empty for a few years until Carawan answered the call and stepped up. From 1959 forward, Guy Carawan took Zilphia’s legacy in a whole new direction, setting a bar for cultural organizing that – along with Zilphia’s legacy – continues to drive the Highlander Research and Education Center to this day. And, by extension, it drives a lot of movement organizing in the South, in general.
It’s been a number of years since Guy was sitting in that role at HREC, but he and his wife Candie – who has also been an important fixture in the world of Highlander as well as the greater movement for justice and equality in America – have been living next door to the center for many years.
It was there that I met Guy and Candie, in the Highlander library, one day in early 2011. By then, Guy had lost many of his memories of Zilphia and his early time in that role, but what was unignorable about him and Candie was their total love for each other and their incredibly kind hearts. The only thing he could ever really tell me about Zilphia was that she was a wonderful lady, but I’m grateful to have learned even that from him.
Carawan, in his day, was an infectious performer. He was a sort California surfer dude, tall and hunky. If you just saw him walk in a room, you probably never would have guessed that he had a heart of gold for social justice and could pick a guitar like nobody’s business. Even as age had its way with him and his memory, he continued to play the heck out of that thing and lead songs when called upon. Anytime anyone wanted to swing by and jam with him, his door was open.
I’ll always regret never having time to take him up on that.
Yesterday, on Pete Seeger’s birthday, I learned that Guy had passed away. As the socials and various media outlets mourned the loss of Ben E. King – another incredible, important voice – I struggled to find any word about the tremendous loss of Guy Carawan. Falling short, I decided to write one of my own.
Indeed, the loss of Carawan, like the loss of Seeger, is a difficult one to take. Especially now, as the civil rights movement is swelling anew. In the wake of high-profile police brutality cases and large-scale protests and active resistance from Ferguson to Baltimore and far beyond, we have more than enough of a soundtrack to go with it – the voices of the 24-hour news cycle, the voices of everyday people on Twitter and Facebook, the voices of racist politicians and sensationalist cable news hosts. But what’s missing is the soundtrack of singing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s happening, but it’s getting drowned out by the din of “reporting.”
We’ve got to learn from our elders and do something about that.
In 2012, I attended a weeklong workshop called the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute, at Highlander. There was a whole lot of singing there. And, toward the end of the week, we decorated a rocking chair that was placed just outside the workshop center, looking out over the hill, toward the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. Today, it’s easy to imagine the spirit of Guy Carawan sitting there rocking, picking on a guitar.
Rest in power, sir, and thank you.
This article originally stated that Pete Seeger would have been 98 years old this weekend, but that was just bad math.