Elizabeth Cotten: Resource and Subject Guide

Elizabeth Cotten holding her guitar, Sparky Rucker on the left
Elizabeth Cotten holding her guitar, Sparky Rucker on the left. Photo from Mike Seeger Collection. (PF-20009/23)

With the recent announcement of Elizabeth Cotten’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought today would be the perfect time to release this resource guide. So much of the writing about Elizabeth Cotten is marred by misogynoir – the combination of sexism and racism. Music writers often underplay Cotten’s musical and technical skill, instead describing her as gentle and humble. Many of these writings also focus on her childhood and then skip to her musical career, avoiding discussion of the first half of her life doing housework for white families. While her style and repertoire has influenced many other musicians, she remains underappreciated and undervalued. There are not enough secondary sources about her life and music, and I hope this blog post can be a starting guide for anyone interested in researching and writing about her.

In addition to this resource, check out the the Southern Folklife Collection’s special event from 2020,”When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten”, featuring Elizabeth Cotten’s family, Yasmin Williams and Alice Gerrard. 

Unless otherwise noted, the following biographical details and quotes interspersed throughout this blogpost come from the album notes from Elizabeth Cotten Vol. 3: When I’m Gone. The quotes are taken from interviews with Elizabeth Cotten conducted by Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger throughout the 1960s and 1970s. You can read the full album notes here or listen to the original interviews in the Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger collections linked below.

Black and white photo of Elizabeth Cotten as a young woman, sitting in grass with her legs crossed and her hands behind her head.
Elizabeth Cotten (PF-20009/16). in the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Elizabeth Cotten’s mother, Louisa Price Nevills was from Siler City, North Carolina and came from a farming family but she worked as a midwife and did housework. Cotten recalls that all of her uncles on her mother’s side played fiddle and her mother would sing old songs such as “The Man is Burning” and “Hallelujah T’is Done.” The name Nevills came from the enslavers of Cotten’s father’s family. Her father, George Nevills came from Chatham County, made liquor and worked in an iron mine as a dynamite settler. He died early in Elizabeth Cotten’s life and some of her fondest memories of him include braiding his hair with her sister. 

As a child, Elizabeth Cotten (born 1893 in Chapel Hill, N.C.) always loved music and was especially drawn to organ and piano. She recounts a man who lived nearby her childhood home who played guitar:

“He let the children come when he’d have this music, and dance in his yard…That’s where I learned how to dance, waltz and two-step, do the cakewalk, Frisco… buck dance. And I just danced my little head off…  My brothers were there and we’d all dance together, my sister, me, and my brother… In the band they had some kind of horns, the drum, and this big, old guitar – double bass thing.”

Since the banjo and guitar were the instruments around, those were the instruments she taught herself to play. She would stay up all night practicing. Cotten went to school until 4th grade and generally liked it but eventually had to start making her own money, earning $0.75 per month which she saved up to buy her own guitar. 

After Elizabeth Cotten was baptized at around 14 years old, the church told her she couldn’t play the “worldly songs” she had been playing on guitar. She explains,“I didn’t stop all at once ‘cause I couldn’t. I loved my guitar too good. And then it weren’t too long ‘til I got married and that helped me to stop because then I started housekeeping”. When she was 15, she married Frank Cotten and had her only child at age 16. During this time she still lived with her mother and sister while her husband worked in New York as a chauffeur. She moved between Chapel Hill, New York and D.C. primarily doing housework for white families. When her daughter got married, she divorced Frank. In interviews with Alice Gerrard, she talks about how hard domestic work was:

“I worked awfully hard there because she liked you to wash her floors and things on your knees. And she had plenty of floors for you to wash… had me crawlin’ on my knees savin’ her boards in her house– and the house is there yet. She says, “Elizabeth, you put your detergent in this bucket, [and] this is the bucket of clean water…” and I, fool, did exactly what she said. I would wash the floor, wipe it up with that rag, put that in the bucket, then over here I’d take my clean water and wipe and rinse my cloth in that. And I’d do that from her attic all the way downstairs…”

Elizabeth Cotten didn’t start working as a musician until the late 1950s, when she was in her sixties. While continuing to do house work, she recorded her first album in 1957 with the help of Mike Seeger. There are many retellings of how Elizabeth Cotten met the Seeger family which you can read about in other publications. By the time she was in her seventies, she had a solo career, performing at the top folk venues and folk festivals. She became most well known for her composition “Freight Train”, which she wrote as a tween in Chapel Hill. Cotten didn’t receive any royalties or credit for the song until a lawsuit that still only gave her one third credit (you can hear her family talk about this in an interview from the McCabe Guitar Shop Collection). When she was in her eighties, she was still working as a musician and won a Grammy for Best Ethnic and Traditional Recording in 1984 at age 91. That same year she was named as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. She is a 2022 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

“I love to feel independent, I do… I feel good. I’m proud of myself. I didn’t know I could do all these things that I’m starting and the more I think about it the more I think I can do it.” 

Archival collections with significant amounts of materials related to Elizabeth Cotten:

Mike Seeger Collection, 1923-2013 (20009)

Given the close connection with the Seeger family, the Mike Seeger collection holds many recordings of Elizabeth Cotten playing in both formal and informal settings, as well as a handful of photos. Recordings include live shows, practice tapes, and interviews. The Smithsonian Folkways LPs and CDs also come from this collection. 

Two clips from SFC Audio Cassette FS-20009/12936

St. Louis Blues, Elizabeth Cotten with Mary Jefferson singing. January, 1979. 

Rueben’s Train, Elizabeth Cotten with unidentified singer. January, 1979.

Alice Gerrard Collection, circa 1872-2009 (20006)

Alice Gerrard considered Elizabeth Cotten a friend in addition to having toured with her and interviewed her. Gerrard’s collection includes recorded interviews, informal recorded music and several photographs. The conversational interviews between Cotten and Gerrard are particularly moving, talking about childbirth, domestic house work and dealing with racist encounters.

“You could watch a person the way the act, and that makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes the act might not be towards you, but if you’re the only one there you watch their actions. I’ve been in many a place and they ask you to eat, for an instance. And the way they ask and the way they do you say, “no thank you.” You might be hungry… It’s different with you. You’re white. And I’m Black. That gives me a different feeling. That makes me kind of watch them where you wouldn’t, see? It makes you watch people and know what they say and see if you think they mean it or not, you know? I know I’m Black, see, and the old way back times, the way white people treated Negroes… I heard my mama talk about it… And I think that growed up in the Black people by hearin’ about it through their parents or maybe their godmothers or their godfathers, whoever raise them. And it makes them have that little drawback kind of feelin’ that maybe you wouldn’t think about, see?  And that makes me sometimes sit – and I say nothin’, and they don’t know what I’m thinkin’. I’m thinkin’ deep… and I’m not sayin’ anything. And listening to what they say. And you can near about know which way to go – know whether to run or sit…” (6)

McCabe’s Guitar Shop Collection, 1967-2013 (20511)

McCabe’s Guitar Shop has hosted many legendary musicians, including Elizabeth Cotten. In this collection, you can watch a 7-part interview with Cotten and her family in 1984 conducted by Nancy Covey. The interview goes into Peter Paul and Mary taking credit for Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Freight Train.” You can also listen to recordings of Elizabeth Cotten performing at McCabe’s Guitar Shop throughout the 1970s and 1980s. 

North Carolina Folklore Broadcast Collection, 1976 (20105)

This collection contains several recordings from the North Carolina Folklife Festival (pre-curser to the Festival of the Eno) that Elizabeth Cotten performed at in 1976. 

Stefan Grossman Collection (20578)

Although this is a collection level finding aid, the collection does contain multiple items related to Elizabeth Cotten including videos of multiple performances by Elizabeth Cotten solo, with Mike Seeger and a guitar workshop with Elizabeth Cotten and John Fahey. Published versions of these are available through the UNC libraries (listed below). 

black and white photo of Elizabeth Cotten performing in a tent with her guitar.
Elizabeth Cotten performing. Photo by Steve Kruger in Baltimore, MD, 1972. From the Mike Seeger collection #20009, pf0018_0003.

Archival collections with more limited items related to Elizabeth Cotten:  

Highlander Research & Education Center’s Audiovisual materials, 1937-2008 (20361) 

The Highlander Research & Education Center comes with a long history of civil rights activism and education. This collection includes one video of Elizabeth Cotten performing.  

Pete Kuykendall Collection (20546)

Through the Kuykendall Collection finding aid, you watch Elizabeth Cotten perform on Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest” from the 1960s. This video is available for streaming on the UNC campus. A published version is available in the video resources below. Some clips are also available on YouTube. 

Sing Out! Collection, 1937-2014 (20550)

This collection includes a recording of a gospel workshop with Elizabeth Cotten, Janette Carter, Lily May Ledford and Ola Belle Reed in 1980. 

Paul Brown Collection, 1950-1999 (20382)

Paul Brown’s collection includes the “Libba Cotten Special”  episode of his NPR show “Across the Blue Ridge”  with recordings and interviews about her life and music.

Dick Waterman Collection, 1960-2003 (20533)

This collection contains several photographs of Elizabeth Cotten at festivals and venues suchs as Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Newport Folk Festival. 

Bill C. Malone Collection, 1950s-2016 (20315)

Music historian Bill C. Malone’s collection includes one recording from the Oklahoma State University Festival in 1972.

Gary Kenton Collection, 1971-1989 (20321)

This collection includes an audio recording of an undated telephone interview with Elizabeth Cotten by music journalist Gary Kenton. 

Alan Kanter Collection, 1972-2009 (20549)

Audio engineer Alan Kanter’s collection includes a recording of Elizabeth Cotten at the San Diego Folk Festival in 1977.

North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Films, 1951- 1988 (20448)

This collection includes a 30-minute documentary titled Got to tell it: A tribute to Mahalia Jackson from 1983 about Mahalia Jackson and Elizabeth Cotten directed by Studs Terkel. 

Greenhill Family/FLi Artists/ Folklore Productions Collection, 1947- 2014 (20542)

This collection includes some photographs of Elizabeth Cotten and a recording of a live performance in 1978. 

Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, 1965-1989 (20004) 

The SFCRP organized tours throughout the south with both Black and white musicians. Elizabeth Cotten participated in some of these tours and this collection includes her artist file with correspondences and publicity about her involvement with the project.

DK Wilgus Papers, 1883-1996 (20003)

This collection includes an artist file containing clippings and other items related to Elizabeth Cotten collected by folklorist DK Wilgus. 

“You know the tune and you just learn it. Just keep the tune in your mind and just keep on workin’ with it ‘til you get something. The way I do, I play it to my own sound, the way I think it sounds. If I’m playing a song and if I don’t quite know it, you could finish it off with some kind of sound. I just do it according to my sound… you just get a sound. You just put the sounds together and what sounds alright you just go on with it. And all of them little things you heard me playin’, that’s the way I got it. I don’t know nothing about no notes, I can’t read music. You just get a song and know it and just keep fooling around with it ‘til you get it to sound like you want it to sound. And whether it’s right or wrong I just go on with it if it sounds to suit me… I tried hard to play, I’m telling you. I worked for what I’ve got, I really did work for it.”

Archival collections and items without finding aids: 

National Public Radio Collection, 1975-1984

This collection includes interviews for profiles about various folk musicians, including Elizabeth Cotten. 

NC folklife festival and Alan Jabbour Folklife Section Collections (1974, 1976, 1978)

These recordings are from the NC folklife festivals in 1974, 1976, and 1978 that Elizabeth Cotten performed at.  

Folklife festival 1974:

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454337 https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454111 

Folklife festival 1976:

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454083 

Folklife festival 1978 :

https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454121 https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb2454295 

Elizabeth Cotten (right) and Bessie Jones (left) at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1969. From the Alice Gerrard Collection #20006, pf0076_0003.

Request copies at Wilson Library

Wilson Library FAQ page

Commercial video recordings in the library catalog: 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Mike Seeger & Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 1991.

Cotten, Elizabeth, Mike Seeger, and Keith Newman. Ramblin’ Mike Seeger & Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 1991. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, Mike Seeger, and Mark Humphrey. Elizabeth Cotten with Mike Seeger. Sparta, N.J.: Vestapol Productions, 1994. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and John Miller. The Guitar of Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2002.

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Elizabeth Cotten: In Concert, 1969, 1978 & 1980. Place of publication not identified: Vestapol Productions, 2004.

Fuller, Jesse, and Elizabeth Cotten. Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotton: Masters of the Country Blues. Newton, NJ: Yazoo Video, Division of Shanachie Records Corp, 1992.

Homemade American music.” Aginsky, Yasha, Carrie Aginsky, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Tommy Jarrell, Lily M. Ledford, Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Sonny Terry, Dewey Balfa, Dopsie Rockin’, Allie Young, Nathan Abshire, Tony Balfa, Raymond E. François, Dennis McGee, Wallace Read, Canray Fontenot, Leopold François, and Robert Jardell. Four American Roots Music Films. Sparta, N.J: Vestapol Productions, 2007.
16mm film print: Folkstreams.net Collection (Film F-20384/74)
Streaming: https://www.folkstreams.net/films/homemade-american-music

Me and Stella. Directed by Geri Ashur. Place of publication not identified: Phoenix Films, 1977.

Travis, Merle, Kirk McGee, Sam McGee, Mance Lipscomb, Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Gary Davis. Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar. Sparta, N.J.: Vestapol Productions, 2003. 

Wenders, Wim, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Richard Pearce, Charles Burnett, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, Paul Allen, Jody Allen, and Ulrich Felsberg. The Blues, a Musical Journey. New York: Sony Music Entertainment, 2003. 

Commerical audio recordings in the library catalog: 

Cotten, Elizabeth. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes. Recorded 1957-1958. Smithsonian Folkways, vinyl LP. 

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6648585

Cotten, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cotten: Vol. 2, Shake Sugaree. Recorded 1967. Folkways Records, vinyl LP. 

Cotten, Elizabeth, and Mike Seeger. Shake Sugaree. Recorded in 1965. Re-released in 2004. Smithsonian Folkways Records, compact disc.

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6647067

Cotten, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cotten: Vol. 3, When I’m Gone. Recorded 1979. Folkways Records, vinyl LP. 

Online version: (https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6648426

Cotten, Elizabeth. Live. Recorded in 1983. Arhoolie Records, vinyl LP.

Ledford, Lily M, Ramona Jones, Ola B. Reed, Suzanne Thomas, Elizabeth Cotten, Janette Carter, and Rose Maddox. Women of Old Time Music. REcorded in 1981. Heritage Records, vinyl LP.

New Lost City Ramblers., Seeger, P., Cotten, E., & Highwoods String Band. 20th anniversary concert. Recorded in 1986. Flying Fish, vinyl LP. 

Online version. https://catalog.lib.unc.edu/catalog/UNCb6128401

Other repositories with related materials:

American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress 

Ralph Rinzler Collection at the Smithsonian 

Tatiana Hargreaves is a first year graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science Master of Science in Library Science program. She is a lecturer of bluegrass fiddle in the music department at UNC and performs internationally with banjo player Allison de Groot. She received her BA in ethnomusicology and music performance from Hampshire College in 2017.

Phillip MacDonald’s Field Experience with the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection

Below is a guest post from Phillip MacDonald (pictured below), who is going into his second year at UNC’s School of Information Science’s Master of Science in Library Science (SILS) program. Before attending SILS, Phillip received a masters in Folklore at the UNC and started his interest in archives and special collection by working on the Frank Clyde Brown’s field recordings at Duke Libraries. After graduation, Phillip hopes to work in archives and special collections. Over this past summer, Phillip helped process over 1,000 videotapes found in SFC’s Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361) for his program’s field experience. At SILS, students can gain professional practice in an information organization for class credit. Phillip hoped to specifically work with audiovisual in an archival setting for his field experience and found working at SFC over the summer as “an ideal place to do so.”

Phillip MacDonald standing in the woods holding a camera
Phillip MacDonald (courtesy of Phillip MacDonald; photo by Cara Smelter)

The Southern Folklife Collection has been housing analog audio discs from the Highlander Research and Education Center since the early 2000s. These materials include acetate discs and transcription discs of radio programs, recorded songs, and voices of leaders from the civil rights movement, including Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Miles Horton, and Zilphia Horton. Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the research interests of past Wilson research fellow, Genevieve Hay, many of the acetate discs are accessible and streaming on the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361) finding aid.
In 1971 the Highlander Folk School was re-chartered as the Highlander Research and Education Center. Before the name change, Highlander was best known as an institution for working towards labor union mobilization and Citizenship Schools to help African Americans gain access to voting before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Highlander Folk School also contributed to music’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In the years after the renaming, the center continued to focus on labor organizing. In Appalachia, the center focused on the anti-strip mining and worker safety. On a global scale, Highlander worked on environmental and labor issues around the world. A vast amount of these efforts is documented in the new addition of Highlander Research and Education Center videos.
In March of this year, arsonists set the center’s main office building ablaze. The center later announced on their Facebook page that they found a symbol associated with the white power movement in the parking lot next to the rubble of the building. Soon after the fire, the center contacted Steve Weiss, SFC’s curator, to pick up more audiovisual materials as soon as possible. Weiss and former SFC Assistant, Aaron Smithers, arrived the next day.
three rows of videotapes from the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection
a sampling of videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361)

This new addition to the Highlander’s collection consists of over 1,000 items, including  16mm films and various analog audio and video formats, but the bulk of the incoming items were videos used at the center’s library. The video addition contains materials that speak to the center’s labor support efforts through workshops and conferences on the Bhopal disaster, North Carolina farmworkers, environmental health, furniture workers, women’s health and safety, community-based economic development, and many more.
an image of Paulo Freire on a televison screen
Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, appears on a handful of videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361)

In regards to the center’s efforts on labor and social justice organizing throughout Latin America, the addition contains numerous Spanish and bilingual materials dealing with Chiapas textiles, political unrest, higher wages, the Aguas Blancas massacre, and more. Additionally, this video collection documents the Highlander Research and Education Center’s history- containing raw and edited footage of the center’s numerous workshops, their 50th and 75th-anniversary celebrations, interviews with Myles Horton, and his memorial.
U-Matic and 1/2 inch open reel videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection
U-Matic (left) and 1/2″ open reel (right) videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (# 20361)

This addition also represents numerous video formats. The most ubiquitous video format is probably VHS, which is here in abundance, but the addition also contains U-Matic, U-Matic SP, DVCAM, and 1/2 inch open reel video. This variety of video formats document how long the Highlander Center has been creating media. Overall this collection contains a plethora of information on social justice and labor organizing from the latter half of the twentieth century.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
THANK YOU Phillip for your many contributions in processing the videotapes found in the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection – your passion and hard work will undoubtedly aid researchers for years to come. And a special shout out to AV Assistant, Melanie Meents, who also assisted with the project. She’s currently hard at work processing additional audio and film elements found in the collection. Both Phillip and Melanie’s inventories of AV materials will soon be live on the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (#20361) finding aid – stay tuned!

 
 

Documenting the origins of SNCC in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection

The back of Guy Carawan singing to audience in auditorium at Shaw University, Durham, NC, 1960. Founding meetings of SNCC.
Our colleagues at Duke University are hosting a conference March 23-March 24 to honor the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the creation of the SNCC Digital Gateway, a “documentary website tells the story of how young activists in SNCC united with local people in the Deep South to build a grassroots movement for change that empowered the Black community and transformed the nation.” [“About,” SNCC Digital Gateway]
In solidarity with the conference and the SNCC Legacy Project, we present these two images from the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).  The top image shows the back of Guy Carawan singing to the audience in an auditorium at Shaw University in Durham, April 1960. Brought together by the encouragement of SCLC Executive Director Ella Baker and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protest leaders founded SNCC at this meeting.
The image below shows the members of newly founded SNCC demonstrating the power of music and the movement at Fisk University. Guy Carawan is playing guitar, Candie Carawan is second from the left in the back row, and Congressman John Lewis is at the far right. These images serve as a powerful reminder that youth have been, and remain, at the forefront of activism advocating for social change.
Members of SNCC singing onstage at FIsk University, 1960, including Guy Carawan, Candie Carawan, and John Lewis, amongst others. PF20008_0058_0006_002. Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008).

Early Protest Songs from the Highlander Research and Education Center

We are glad to present a guest post from scholar Genevieve Hay, recipient of a research award to work with sound recordings in the Southern Folklife Collection made accessible as part of our ongoing project,  Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources. Both the project and Ms. Hay’s visit are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 

Highlander Research and Education Center Collection (20361) Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The collection includes acetate and transcription discs documenting the struggle for justice through political and social activism. Recordings of folk music, protest songs, labor songs, and African American religious songs were a large part of this movement and appear here. Acetate discs in the Highlander Collection consist of radio programs, recorded songs, and voices of leaders from the civil rights movement, including Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, and Zilphia Horton. Electrical transcription discs contain a variety of radio programs on issues related to the work at the Highlander Folk School. For more information about the Highlander Research and Education Center Collection #20361, see the finding aid, http://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20361/ Myles Horton founded the Highlander Folk School in 1932 as an adult education institution based on the principle of empowerment. Horton and other School members worked towards mobilizing labor unions in the 1930s and Citizenship Schools during the civil rights movement beginning in the late 1950s. They worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Guy and Candie Carawan, Septima Clark, and Rosa Parks, among others. In 1959, the School was investigated for Communist activities and confiscation by the state of Tennessee. Soon after, its buildings mysteriously burned to the ground. The Highlander Folk School was re-chartered in 1971 as the Highlander Research and Education Center near Knoxville, Tenn. Copyright Notice Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of making a research trip to The Wilson Library and the Southern Folklife Collection’s audiovisual archives. As a literary scholar whose research focuses on the intersections of literature, music, and social change, I was especially eager to review the SFC’s Highlander Research and Education Center Collection. The Highlander Folk School has served as a major hub for civil rights and labor activism since the 1930s. Under the guidance of musical directors like Zilphia Horton and Guy Carawan, the school also contributed to music’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement.
The SFC’s archives feature a range of music, stories, and interviews recorded at the school. These recordings offer insight into the kinds of hymns and music that Highlander collected and shared in its early years. Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the work of the SFC team, many of these items are now available to stream online.
In this week’s “Field Trip South,” I wanted to share a few of the hymns and spirituals from these early recordings. Embracing the long-standing tradition of using religious music to protest worldly injustices, participants at Highlander gathered songs from across the South and arranged new adaptations. Indeed, the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” came into the national spotlight thanks to collaborations between local leaders and the Highlander staff: factory workers Anna Lee Bonneau and Evelyn Risher taught a version ofthe song they’d learned on the picket line in Charleston, SC to Zilphia Horton, who rearranged the song and shared it with others. You can listen to two variations of the song, then titled “We Will Overcome,” below. These recordings were digitized from Highlander acetate discs call numbers FD-20361/750 and FD-20361/754. Though these recordings focus on a single verse, the verses were often listed and performed together, as reflected in the songbooks Highlander produced. Some of these songbooks are included in the SFC’s Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008):

0:33   We will overcome, We will overcome,

0:39   We will overcome, some day.

0:47   Oh, down in my heart, I do believe

0:55   We’ll overcome, some day.

1:03   We’re off to victory We’re off to victory

1:11   We’re off to victory some day Oh, down in my heart,

1:23   I do believe We’ll overcome, some day.

 

0:31   We will overcome, We will overcome,

0:41   We will overcome, some day.

0:49   Oh, down in my heart, I do believe

0:58   We’ll overcome, some day.

1:07   The lord will see us through The lord will see us through

1:15   The lord will see us through some day

1:23   Oh, down in my heart,

1:28   I do believe

1:32   We’ll overcome, some day.

 

Like “We Will Overcome,” most songs in these early recordings trace their roots to African American spirituals and hymns. Though many of the lyrics are quite similar to earlier versions, Horton and her collaborators often adapted the songs to fit contemporary concerns. The school routinely emphasized this adaptive practice, as you can hear in the prefatory remarks to 1937 broadcast of the spiritual “No More Mourning”:


In another recording, Horton pairs “No More Mourning” with the hymn “Farewell to All Below”:

0:03  Farewell, farewell, to all below,

0:11  My savior calls and now I must go

0:20  I launch my boat upon the sea

0:28  This land is not the land for me

0:36  I launch my boat upon the sea

0:45  This land is not the land for me

1:00  No more mourning, No more mourning, No more mourning after a while

1:16  And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave,

1:26  Take my place with those who loved and fought before

 
By abridging “Farewell to All Below” to the opening verse which stresses “this land is not the land for me,” Horton highlights the shared concern of the two hymns: that the world leaves little space for many people, particularly the formerly enslaved and their descendants, who taught the songs to Horton. Coupled together, “Farewell” and “No More Mourning” stress the isolation of the present and gaze towards a better future. With the affirmation “before I’ll be a slave / I’ll be buried in my grave,” the song also expresses a determination to act. Furthermore, the declaration “I’ll take my place with those who loved and fought before” calls up and celebrates the emancipatory power of joining together. It is precisely these concerns that echo throughout the recordings in this collection: a balance of rallying optimism and engaged critique.
These are, of course, only a few examples from the SFC’s extensive collection of materials from and about Highlander. For more history and music from the Highlander school, check out the numerous streaming links available through the Highlander Collection finding aid. You can also browse the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection for more insight into Highlander’s later years, or take a look at Aaron’s previous post about Guy Carawan’s work at Highlander and across the South.