The SFC is also proud to hold the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (#20008). In 1959, Guy Carawan succeeded Zilphia Horton as director of the music program at Highlander Folk School after Horton’s death in 1956, and both Guy and Candie were heavily involved in the School and Center. Here are a couple of posts about their collection.
We look forward to seeing you on the 18th for this presentation and discussion on this pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement, and learning more about her organizing and educating at the Highlander Folk School. go.unc.edu/Ruehl
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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).
Archival collections with more limited items related to Elizabeth Cotten:
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
Singer, folklorist, activist and organizer Guy Carawan is a hero. He died last week at the age of 87. At the Southern Folklife Collection, we are lucky to be in the presence of Guy and Candie through the legacy of his work archived in the Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008). Like many heroes, Guy and Candie Carawan worked tirelessly and constantly. Prior to their meeting at the Highlander Folk School in 1960 to present day, the Carawans dedicated their lives to fighting for social justice through political engagement, education, and organizing. They believed in the power of song and the unbreakable spirit forged when multiple voices rise up in harmony and solidarity. Numerous media outlets have detailed Guy Carawan’s legacy in obituaries this week. More people have learned of Carawan’s role in popularizing an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” teaching it to organizers at the first meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh in 1960, this week than ever before. Our hope is that the materials presented here can expand from that moment and expose more of the world to the life and work of our friend and hero, Guy Carawan.
Every year, scholars from around the world expose me to new facets of the Carawans’ work through their research. Choosing what to share to honor Guy’s life from a collection of almost 20,000 items is an impossible task. Hundreds of open reel and audio cassette tapes made by the Carawans document the cultures of various groups of people in the South including significant speeches, sermons, and musical performances recorded during major civil rights demonstrations and conferences in Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta. These recordings include master tapes of several documentary albums released on Folkways Records and feature such influential figures as Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, Len Chandler, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and Nashville Mayor R. Benjamin West.
Numerous field recordings of worship meetings, songs, stories, and recollections from Johns Island, S.C., document elements of the African American heritage of the rural South Carolina Low Country. Included are complete recordings of all-night Christmas and New Year’s watch meetings held in Moving Star Hall, a community praise house, as well as interviews with civic leader and activist Esau Jenkins about socio-economic improvements and efforts to overcome racial discrimination and poverty on Johns Island in the 1950s and 1960s. Listen to Esau Jenkins talk about his life on St. John’s Island followed by a prayer from the Moving Star Hall church, from open reel tape FT3617:Track 01Track 05
Born 7 July 1927 in Santa Monica, Calif. Guy’s father was from Mesic, North Carolina in the Eastern part of the state. While pursuing a degree in mathematics at Occidental College, Carawan studied folklore with Austin Fife and began to perform as a folksinger. He subsequently completed a master’s degree in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he continued his study of folklore with Wayland Hand. During the early 1950s, Carawan grew interested in incorporating folk music and topical songs into progressive socio-political activism and became involved in the People’s Song movement, meeting such activist-musicians as Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. In the late 1950s, Carawan released albums on Folkways Records, including Songs By Guy Carawan, SFC call number FC5349, featuring the playing of John Cohen (who Carawan met at jam sessions in Washington Square Park).
Carawan released a number of albums with Folkways, his second featured liner notes by Alan Lomax. In 1959, after the death of his teacher and collaborator Zilphia Horton, he became the director of music at the Highlander Folk School, an institution that provided instruction in social organization and was a meeting place for people interested in the civil rights movement and related causes in the South.
Candie Anderson, also from southern California, became interested in the black civil rights movement while in high school. She attended Pomona College near Los Angeles, but spent her junior year of college at Fisk University, a historically African American institution in Nashville, Tenn. While there, she participated in pro-integration demonstrations led by black students in Nashville. She became acquainted with Guy Carawan during a workshop at the Highlander School.
Candie and Guy Carawan remained affiliated with the Highlander Center and with the predominantly black community of Johns Island, S.C., where they addressed issues of racial discrimination and rural poverty, particularly through a citizenship education program formulated by the Highlander School.
They participated in major civil rights campaigns in Birmingham, Atlanta, and other southern cities. Participating in Freedom Rides and the Birmingham Mass Meeting.
Through workshops at the Highlander Center and elsewhere, they collected variants of African American spirituals and other songs for use in civil rights demonstrations and shared them with other participants, publishing a number of books like the following We Shall Overcome! (Oak Publications, 1963).
Throughout their careers, the Carawans have sought to document the music and culture of various groups of people with whom they have worked. They have been involved in the production of seventeen documentary recordings and seven films and have written five books, including three anthologies of songs associated with the civil rights movement. All the while, Guy continued to perform and record on his own as well as produce recordings by other artists. He will be missed but he will not be forgotten.