2021 We Built a Fortress of Folk – Interview with Carolyn Hester

Content Warning: Racism, Racial Slurs, Prejudice.

On May 15, 2019, Carolyn Hester and her daughters, Amy and Karla Blume, were my special guests at the WERA.FM audio suite in Arlington, Virginia. Carolyn generously granted me an interview for my weekly radio broadcast Wasn’t That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation. Several days later, I met them at the Peoples’ Voice Cafe in New York City for the venues’ last show of the season. What follows is an edited transcript of our interview.

Susie Erenrich: Welcome to Wasn’t That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation on WERA-LP Arlington, Virginia 96.7 FM. I'm in the audio suite with Carolyn Hester and her daughters, Amy and Carla Blume. I am so excited that you're here. Thank you.

Carolyn Hester: We’ve really been looking forward to this Susie. It's special. You've touched me and my life so many times. So, thank you for this. We've had a visit already and we’ve had a lot of green tea. That sounds just so calm, doesn’t it?

Susie Erenrich: For folks who aren't familiar with Carolyn, she was a woman pioneer and trailblazer back in the heyday of the 1960s Greenwich Village scene in New York City. Carolyn, you often refer to yourself as a “chick singer.” Talk about what it was like to be a female performer during the folk revival.

Carolyn Hester: It’s complicated. I wanted to be nowhere else. Yeah, that was the thing. The idea of living alone was a little tough, but there was really no alternative. In 1960, I married Richard Fariña. We were married about a year and a half and after that I was happy to be alone again. With the first marriage you just do it too fast, you know what I mean? Right now, I’m working on my memoir and trying to write about that. Often, I get questions about my life in the Village but also the people that I knew.

One person I got to know was Bob Dylan, and then he recorded on my first Columbia album. But I really started back even before then, because that Columbia album — where Bob Dylan was discovered — was my third album. First, when I was 20 years old, I recorded for a man named Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico. He had hits with Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly. So, I think it was that Buddy Holly connection that drew Dylan my way. That's sort of an interesting thing, trying to put all that together, because, of course, Bob Dylan ultimately became one of the biggest rock stars this country has ever had. He'd say that I was his connection to Buddy Holly, which is really a very nice thing to say. I don't know who knows, but on my first Columbia album I had a band that, in addition to having Bob Dylan in it, had Bruce Langhorne, who ended up playing on many albums for Dylan. Billy Lee was my bass player because he'd been Odetta’s bass player. Billy Lee is the father of Spike Lee, the great filmmaker.

We were all trying to rise to the top, like the good cream does. I had been blessed getting an early start. Because of Buddy Holly's great success, I got to have a nationally distributed album on Coral Records, which was part of the Decca family. And then I started getting bookings by people who were, more or less, show business bookers. But I, myself, was not drawn really to show business. I was much more drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar question of the Vietnam War. It just was so important to me. Other people who felt like me came to the Village — people like Phil Ochs; of course, Dylan; and then Judy Collins came.

And we kind of became known as the children of Woody [Guthrie] and Pete [Seeger], which is a great compliment. So that was the guts of it, the heart of it. I feel like we built a fortress of folk. We weren't afraid to consider these questions about society. I remember we were just heartbroken when Pete Seeger got banned from the Hootenanny show. So, we started a protest against that show. Apparently, just the fact that he had been called up before the [U.S. House of Representatives] Un-American Activities Committee scared television enough to ban him from the air. Why doesn't he have freedom of speech like Americans are supposed to have? That really inflamed us. I had done two of the shows, but I immediately announced that I wouldn't be doing any more. I had the producers calling me. I met one at the Village Gate one night and he wanted to know why I wouldn't be coming on. I said, “I wouldn't be me exactly the way I am without Pete Seeger. If there's no Pete, then there's no me for real.” So, I told him, “I can't stand him getting blacklisted by ABC.” You know, I just wasn't going to stand for it. Well, others joined in and some fell away from the protest, but it lasted for like two years. And the show did finally end. Our protest was a success… I suppose I don't even know if we had anything to do with that, but I do know that we have a satisfaction in that we did what we knew we must do.

Susie Erenrich: Continuing along those lines, several years later, in 1964, Gil Turner convinced you to join the Mississippi Caravan of Music, a group of troubadour-allies who went South to help break the back of Jim Crow. Could you tell folks what it was like to be in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer Project?

Carolyn Hester: I really think we were totally frightened the whole time. Especially because — by the time we got there — three civil rights workers, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, had gone missing. While we were there, they discovered the bodies. And it was something I didn't want to look at. I didn't want to be there. We went because it was one of these things where I can't be an American if I don't go witness. And that was what we felt we could contribute. It was to be a witness. They were young people, college age kids — 10 years younger than we were. They were out there signing up people in the voter registration drive, “One Man-One Vote,” through the COFO — the Council of Federated Organizations.

They organized the Caravan of Music. We were sent to all kinds of locations in Mississippi — to churches, to places where we started to sing some songs, freedom songs, or whatever kind of songs that would help people. It would hopefully energize them and take their minds off their fear for a little while. That's one of the great things that Pete Seeger has left us — marching goes better with singing. And that was it. That was what Pete called the living folk process. In Mississippi, that's where we saw it. I want to try to talk about that in my memoir as much as I can. I'm so grateful that I got invited to go.

Jackie Washington, Len Chandler, and so many others were there. I think it was different for them. Some of them had done more marching than I had. But believe me, that situation was a stark contrast. I had noticed in some of the towns, I saw things that I would have never seen. And I'm so glad I did, because some of the communities were just lost. They owed their soul to the company store. You know, the rich plantation owners had given them credit or whatever, and they were never going to pay it off. And the little kids were wandering around. They looked like they were living in a third world country and not in America. And I just want to say, I don't want us to create that again.

Susie Erenrich: While you were in Mississippi in 1964 with the Caravan of Music, you had a scary hotel experience. You were sharing a room with Alix Dobkin. Can you talk about the incident?

Carolyn Hester: Yeah. Alix is a great, great musician and soul. She and I shared a room in Jackson, Mississippi. Gil Turner was right next door on the same floor. We had arrived in Jackson the night before. This was around early August of 1964. We asked the hotel to give us a wakeup call at six o'clock the next morning. We were going to have breakfast, and then we were going to go to downtown Jackson to meet Bob Cohen, who headed up the Mississippi Caravan of Music. Bob was a very close friend of Gil Turner, and they were in a group together called the New World Singers.

So, what happened was, at 5:30 the phone rang. And I thought, “Oh gosh, I hope nothing's wrong.” So, I answered it. And the voice on the other end said, “Okay, n****r lover, it's time to get up.” And that just exploded us, you know? And we quickly got down to breakfast. We came back and when we walked out of the elevator to our floor, there on our doors, scrawled in black, was “KKK” [Ku Klux Klan]. And, wow. We didn't sleep too well the whole time we were there.

A lot of people had the same experience. Fortunately, our guitars were okay. Nobody had bothered them. We let Bob Cohen know what had transpired. And as we were standing across the street from the COFO office, he said, “Before we go in, I want you to know that your pictures are going to be taken. See that car over there — that's the local police. And this car over here — that's the local sheriff. And that car over there — fortunately, that's somebody from the Justice Department. They know we're here.”

Susie Erenrich: As we wind down our time together, I want to ask you one more question. As you're currently writing your memoir, can you provide a sneak peek for our audience?

Carolyn Hester: Before we came here, I asked my daughter Amy, “Well, if I talk about the book, what should I say?” Amy is here — Amy, say hello. So, what was it you thought I should talk about?

Amy Blume: Well, one of the things that is interesting to me, as someone who wasn't there, is that through most of the book you discuss a lot of folk singers who were really important to the movement but who are now forgotten, because things get lost to time. And so, part of the memoir is a family tree of folk musicians. Hopefully, one of the things this book will do is remind people of the who and what and where and how. Key puzzle pieces that will fill in the gaps. It's not just about Bob Dylan. It's all of the people who came before, who were there behind the scenes and who were singing in the coffee shops and marching.

Carolyn Hester: You're right. And so, we hope that in the book, we'll actually have a family tree. We'll show the names of all these people who belong and who would enjoy being seen on that family tree. That was really an important kind of a revelation and connection for me. Folks in the Village at that time were a family. And it hasn’t been discussed in that way. So that's one of the things that’s different in this book. I don’t know when the memoir will come out. I haven't approached any publishers, and I've still got things to work on. Who knows if I'm going to finish it this year or next year. New things keep happening. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to have more chapters.

Susie Erenrich: I want to thank you for tuning in to Wasn’t That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation on WERA-LP Arlington, VA 96.7 FM. The fabulous Rusty Roberts is the on-air engineer. He sits by my side every week to ensure the success of this show. My gratitude to David Lamb — who recorded the session for this episode. And of course, a special shout-out to Carolyn Hester and her daughters, Amy and Karla Blume, who graciously spent part of the afternoon with me at the WERA.FM audio suite.

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