THE READING ROOM: Get to Know Zilphia Horton, An Activist Who Used Music to Make ‘A Singing Army’
Over Labor Day weekend in 1941, photographer Edward Weston and his wife, Charis, the sister of Highlander Folk School’s librarian, Leon Wilson, stopped at the school for a visit. Weston was traveling across the country taking photographs to accompany a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As Kim Ruehl points out in her vibrant new biography, A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School (University of Texas Press), Weston recognized in Zilphia Horton, who with her husband, Myles, operated the Highlander Folk School, “a quality…that would naturally fit in the context of Whitman’s signature poetry. … Through Weston’s lens, we see a young-looking Zilphia — she was thirty-one — hair cropped to shoulder length and slightly wavy … her face embodies an image of hope and faith.” In another photograph, she “holds a grass leaf in her mouth and tugs on it with her hand, a flirtatious, knowing look in her eyes.” As Ruehl writes, this photograph was the final image in Weston’s book along with Whitman’s lines: “Anticipate the best women! / I say a girl fit for These States must be free, / capable, dauntless, just the same as a boy.” For Ruehl, “this was in so many ways, the work of Highlander — and the work of Zilphia Horton in particular — written as a poem, nearly a century earlier.”
Drawing deeply on archival research and oral history, Ruehl, former editor-in-chief of No Depression, brings brilliantly to life the woman who through songs and singing inspired hundreds of others to lift their voices to sing full-throatedly words that brought communities together to work for change, especially in matters of labor and civil rights. Ruehl chronicles Horton’s life from her childhood and youth in Arkansas, where she played classical piano, to her restless spirit, her curiosity about music, and her desire to be a peer of the men around her — not simply to fall in love and marry one, as society and, to some extent, her family expected her to do. By the time Zilphia Mae Johnson arrived at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, in February 1935 — founded in 1932 by Myles Horton, Don West, and others to address community problems and as a center for educating and organizing individuals around issues of labor and workers’ rights — she had already been active in labor organizing, but she had also had a vision of the ways “she might use music to move her own story.”
At the Highlander Folk School she meets Horton, who also had a vision for a school that would teach workers about labor laws and organizing. He had been given the property by Lillian Johnson, a retired Bryn Mawr professor who “had 250 acres and fourteen buildings in Grundy County in Central Tennessee for which she was seeking a meaningful use.” But, though he found people from the community and elsewhere to help him realize his vision, he soon recognized, as Ruehl observes, that “all these different people doing small pieces of culture work seemed to him a too-fractured approach. He wanted to find someone who could tie it all together with concrete ideas and a clear vision.” He found that person in Zilphia, and they married on March 6, 1935, and ran the school together until her untimely death by accidental poisoning in 1956. Zilphia, writes Ruehl, “exuded creative energy and had a magnetic personality. She had the knowledge and artistic instinct to transform what at that point was a vital, if disorganized, program, into something more like a vision with a corresponding curriculum.”
As Ruehl said in a recent interview, Zilphia Horton was “a phenomenal teacher. She didn’t go into long explanations or lectures, she was this personality and you wanted to do what she asked you to do.” Just as important, Horton taught people the power of music to carry messages of change to the world, and she collected folk songs and hymns and rewrote the lyrics so individuals could sing them as anthems of empowerment. As Ruehl writes in her book, Horton “was an important catalyst for some of our most vital anthems like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ But Horton didn’t just share these songs; she impressed upon people the importance of drilling into their meaning. She conveyed the power of music and the reason it can be effective. When people who had spent time with her sang these songs, they knew exactly what kind of tool they were wielding. She emphasized that music is the lifeblood in the heart required to change the world.”
A Singing Army vividly recreates the social and cultural history into which Zilphia Horton lived, and it brings to light her enduring achievements, her passionate vision for the arts and music and the ways they shape the human heart and effect social change, and her exceptional contribution to folk music and folk music scholarship.
I caught up with Ruehl on Zoom recently to chat about the book and about Zilphia Horton.
Tell me the story of the book. What prompted you to write it? How long did it take you to write it?
I think I first heard her name around 2006, at the time I was working for about.com doing their folk music site, writing these little histories of folk songs. Every time I looked up a movement song I came across her name and I just became curious about who she was and what she was doing with these songs, because in that era there’s not a lot of women tied to writing folks songs or collecting them. For a few years periodically I would come across her name and Google her and hope somebody had written something on her (laughs), and of course they never did. So I finally decided in 2010 that I should probably take this on, and I moved to Asheville to take this on to be closer to Highlander and get started on researching. I had no idea it was going to take 10 years to piece this story together.
Did you come up with the book’s title?
I did. It is a book about Zilphia but there’s a lot of other people in there, too. It’s about the idea of collaboration. The work she did couldn’t have existed without a bunch of other people working together.
Does Highlander have an archive?
Myles was meticulous about keeping notes. For the school’s 25th and 50th anniversaries, they did interviews with everybody they could get to sit for an interview. A lot of what was useful to me was in Wisconsin. Thorsten, Zilphia’s son, was at UW-Madison doing graduate work. Zilphia’s papers are in Nashville; everything’s scattered all over, which was part of what made this so hard. Her song collection and lots of recordings are in Nashville.
Can you talk a little about the Highlander Folk School?
They opened in 1932 in Monteagle because they were offered this land by Lillian Johnson. Lillian had these plans to use the land as a retreat center; she had these cabins built and was going to bring people in to do literacy education, but it didn’t work out for her. She gifted the property to Myles and Don West. The land was perfect for their use. People now think of Highlander as a civil rights school, but that didn’t happen for 20 years. Myles grew up in rural Tennessee, and he saw this extreme poverty and wanted to empower people to change their situation. That was it; there was no movement or politics or anything. It was really just about empowering poor people. Once they got people together to talk about their problems, that’s when they realized that the best way to deal with this, initially, was doing labor education or organizing unions; that was in the beginning in 1933-1934; Zilphia didn’t get there until 1935. Over the course of the next few years, they were training all these people on labor laws and labor unions, they started to realize these unions are segregated and we’re only going to get so far empowering poor people when these poor people are separated by the law. So, in the ’40s they started to make a really meaningful, intentional effort to fix the segregation issue and that evolved into the civil rights work.
What are some of Zilphia’s greatest strengths? Her greatest weaknesses?
She was really visionary, but in a different sense than Myles. She could zoom so far out and understand the big picture and could see where everybody fit in the picture, and he was good at moving people through that big picture. It was her biggest strength as an artist to be able to see what the arts can do and what the opportunity is with the arts, and then to be able to teach that to people. That was a special kind of power that so few wield. She had a presence in a room like Maya Angelou, her sister said. One of those people you just want to know and you want to do what they tell you to do and you know they’re always right (laughs). On the flip side of that, being an artist in this isolated place she struggled with some of the politics and backlash they got. She had a hard time when they were under scrutiny, it really hurt her.
So Zilphia collected songs and put them in a songbook?
She did a study of the folk music of the Southern mountains partly because she was a classical musician and she didn’t know that stuff and partly because she understood that the music people used to get through hard times was going to be useful to get through the hard times. She taught songwriting classes where people would spend a couple of hours a day learning how to change the lyrics of the songs they grew up singing. I think she took that from Joe Hill [the early 20-century and labor activist and organizer whose song “There is Power in a Union,” for example, uses the tune of the hymn “There is Power in the Blood (of the Lamb)”]; she didn’t have enough access to Black culture to know that that was part of the African American folk tradition; that became sort of central do what she did. Teaching people how to change the lyrics was teaching them that this is the way you change the world a little bit at a time. If you have the power to change this whole song you have the power to change this whole situation.
Can you talk a little about the power of music and the power of singing?
Her thing was that people get lost in discussion and debate and things get really charged, but when you’re singing you have to cut out a lot of the argument to get to the verse and the chorus. You have to get to the essence of what you’re singing and what you believe. Because humans are social creatures, when we hear people singing from the heart, we’re drawn to it. We all share these basic needs of connection, safety, and dignity. When regular Janes and Joes get together and sing “We Shall Overcome,” it really cuts past people’s heads and goes straight to their hearts. Once you know that about music, you may as well use it. In her time it was about convincing bosses and people to put pressure on the bosses to cut a deal. After she died the songs became ways of trying to convince people of shared humanity.
What surprised you in writing the book?
Everything was surprising. I feel like for ten years I came into this thinking she was this woman in a man’s field, and she collected these songs. I had no idea that she used all these elements of culture; she knew how to cook; she could taste food and know what was in it. She was a Renaissance woman in certain ways. I was surprised at her gun skills, at her marksmanship.
What lessons or themes do you hope readers take from your book?
The most important thing is the power we all have to make any difference in the world, to make the world a better place. One thing I took from this is a deeper understanding of the rifts that exist in society, the fact that turning everything into a partisan political issue is not productive. We’re all just people, and we have a lot in common, and if we can start from there we can solve some stuff and the arts are a really great way to do that.