Seattleite in Asheville: Where my work has driven me these months
Sometime in June, 2010, I woke one morning from a dream. In the dream, I’d just finished writing a proposal for a book-length biography about Zilphia Horton.
For the most-of-you unfamiliar with Zilphia, she was a singer and a teacher, an activist, labor organizer, musicologist, extraordinaire. She played piano, dobro, and accordion, and was a champion of the notion of group singing for social change in the 1930s-’50s. That song Mavis is singing came to us in part through Zilphia, as did a large number of other songs. More or less. (Putting it like that far over-simplifies what I’ve come to know and understand about her work, but I’ve also learned you have to have an elevator pitch in this business. So there you have it.)
At the time, I’d been tossing Zilphia’s name around my head for about a year, wishing someone would write that book. I’d come across her peculiar, memorable name somewhere near half a dozen times at that point, as only a peripheral mention when reading about other things. The third time this happened, I looked her up and found only a short couple of paragraphs full of juicy tidbits about things like “We Shall Overcome,” references to Rosa Parks and Septima Clark, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, the labor movement, Civil Rights… Each consecutive time I saw her name in print, I looked her up again. Still nothing.
The fact that I sat for a year or more thinking “someone should write that book” is, in itself, kind of humorous now.
After all, six months ago, I finally packed my life into a dozen or so boxes and hopped on a train out of Seattle. Two-thousand-six-hundred-eighty-nine miles later, I landed in Asheville, NC. My stated mission: I had come here to research for a book I was going to write about the life and work of Zilphia Horton.
I didn’t know a damn thing about her, her work, or that of Highlander Folk School. I just knew I hate flying. I knew researching about a southerner who had been heavily involved in the southern labor movement and the early days of the civil rights movement, from my bright yellow living room in dark rainy Seattle, oh-so-far away, struck me as silly.
So here I came, and I’ve learned quite a bit in the past six months.
For one thing, I’ve cycled through a few emotions about the south. I grew up in the south, sort of. My hometown in Central Florida held close proximity to fern farms, muddin’ and cow-tippin’. There were big pickup trucks in my high school parking lot, with CB radios and rebel flags draped across their back windows, or stuck to the bumper in a much smaller version, emblazoned with phrases like “It’s heritage, not hate.” And yet, I didn’t know anything about southern history. Certainly not the history of the southern labor movement and its thick, close ties with the evolution of the civil rights struggle. That part has kind of blown my mind.
What’s been even more ground-shaking thus far is my eventual coming-around to understanding the south. It’s been central to my research for me to be here, driving these roads past confederate flags, which still wave in random places on high flag poles alongside the highway. To have my fair share of fried chicken and collards, barbecue ribs and saucy creamed spinach with bacon in it (god bless Asheville’s 12 Bones BBQ). To get the hang of the fact that the neighborhood bar plays Appalachian fiddle tunes on the speakers on the couple of nights a week when a live stringband isn’t available for sitting in the corner. Not because the city hipsters want to feel tied to something real and rural for a change, but because that’s what this part of the world sounds like, and has for a couple centuries.
It’s taken me six months to come around to the richness of this region, to understand that just because I’m south of the Mason-Dixon line doesn’t mean I’m in racist territory (in fact, I believe there weren’t many slaves at all in North Carolina, and indeed there were areas quite near Asheville which sided with the Republic rather than the Confederacy in the Civil War). But I’m getting away from myself.
Some of you know I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund my initial research – money which would get me far enough to write the proposal I dreamed I’d written last June. (Some of you even tossed some money into the pot, for which I’m incredibly, daily grateful.) I’m coming to the end of the money I raised through that campaign, but it’s taken me so far.
I’ve been back and forth a few times, between Asheville and Nashville (where the Tennessee State Archives hold some remarkable information and recordings – she was a hell of a singer). I’ve been to Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly Highlander Folk School) to talk with some of the kind folks who still work there, and I’ll be back there next month for a 5-day workshop. I’ve been to the original school grounds, which were confiscated by the state of Tennessee in 1960. Some of the buildings (including a house Zilphia and her husband Myles built themselves) have been destroyed. Others are just people’s homes now.
I’ve visited Zilphia’s grave and talked with some of her colleagues. I’m heading to New York in a few weeks to meet with someone else, planning a trip to Wisconsin this summer to peruse their rather extensive archive. And that’s just the beginning. This whole thing – researching for a book on someone about whom so little has been written – feels like a constant treasure hunt. From seemingly minor details about the life of a complete stranger to elements of American history I wonder if the average person has ever even considered, it’s tough to not take the easy analogy and call the whole thing a giant puzzle.
Bookwise, I have an outline and summary hashed out, a chapter…
I started writing a second chapter, but that was just a lesson in coming to terms with the fact that I still have nowhere near enough information to write any more words. I’ve yet to speak with Zilphia’s family, for example, and I’m waiting to press them until I have as much info as I can find anywhere else. Conscious of the fact that nothing else of this scope has ever been shared about this woman, I feel bent on doing her life and work some remarkable and honest justice. It’s a very deliberate process characterizing someone who’s been gone a half-century, but whose work is still so timely and relevant. Also very illuminating and energizing.
I have gleaned enough from my research and explorations thus far to come to sort of understand what this story is about. Without her name making it much farther than a small circle of friends and activists, Zilphia Horton’s work has permeated the world for decades and generations, and will no doubt continue to do so.
I’m nowhere near close to done with this project, and feel still so early in my research. I wish I could share everything I know with you right here and now, but that would defeat the purpose of writing the book and getting you to actually read it when it’s finished.
Instead, I’ll share this podcast I recently recorded with DJ Joe Kendrick and local folksinger Carol Rifkin for WNCW’s What It Is program, discussing Zilphia’s life and work (far as I know it), and the notion of singing for social change. I hope you enjoy it. It’s about 15-minutes long.
And now I’ll leave you with another song Zilphia gave us: