Susan Erenrich June 2018

The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Zilphia Horton: The Singing Heart of the Highlander Folk School

By Susan J. Erenrich and Candie Carawan

Listen to Episode 12: A Tribute to Zilphia Horton

Susan J. ErenrichSusan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series).  She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.

Candi CarawanCandie Carawan has been based at the Highlander Center in Tennessee for more than fifty years. She worked alongside her husband Guy as a cultural worker in the South, ushering in many of the important movements for social change. Together they performed nationally and internationally. They produced four books and more than a dozen documentary albums reflecting traditional cultures of Deep South, African American, and Appalachian communities and the adoption of these cultures into social movements. They have also recorded 12 albums of their own music. Guy is best known for spreading the song, “We Shall Overcome” throughout the South in the early 1960s. He played guitar, banjo, and hammered dulcimer. Sadly, Guy passed away on 2 May 2015. Candie has continued her important journey. She is also an artist and potter.

Dear Friends,

Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features my dear friend, Candie Carawan. She has written about an influential, relatively unknown figure in American history, Zilphia Horton. Zilphia, an accomplished instrumentalist and vocalist, was “The Singing Heart of the Highlander Folk School.”

For those not familiar with Highlander, it was launched in Monteagle, Tennessee in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West. It is a place where “average citizens can pool their knowledge, learn from history, sociology, and seek solutions to their social problems” (Dunson, 1965, p. 28). Cultural expression has been a salient component of the school’s curriculum since its earliest days when Zilphia joined the staff in 1935.

Known as Zilphia Mae Johnson, prior to her marriage to Myles Horton on 6 March 1935, she incorporated the arts into every facet of the Highlander program. The daughter of an Arkansas mine owner, and a graduate of the College of the Ozarks, she was determined “to use her musical and dramatic abilities in some field of radical activity” (Glen, 1996, p. 43). Highlander was the perfect venue.

Zilphia died in 1956. Prior to her passing, she amassed 1,300 songs from unions, progressive organizations, traditional Appalachian culture, and the South (Dunson, 1965). This corner honors Zilphia, a woman who truly believed in horizontal leadership, and left an indelible impression on the cultural activists who tried to fill her shoes. I hope you enjoy Candie Carawan’s piece, which draws heavily on interviews with Zilphia’s sister Ermon Faye Duschenes and former Highlander staff member Ralph Tefferteller. A companion Zilphia Horton tribute accompanies this month’s column. It is from the 31 March 2017 Wasn’t That A Time radio broadcast.


Dunson, J. (1965). Freedom in the Air: Song Movements of the 60s. New York, NY: International.

Glen, J. (1996). Highlander: No Ordinary School. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Zilphia Horton: The Singing Heart of the Highlander Folk School
By Candie Carawan

Zilphia Horton is perhaps best known for her role in shaping and passing on the historic anthem of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, "We Shall Overcome." The song came to Highlander in 1947 with striking food and tobacco workers from Charleston, South Carolina. As a staff member, Zilphia always asked what songs people knew and what songs were being used in their campaigns back home. When she heard "I Will Overcome," with its new words of “we will organize” and “the Lord will see us through” she knew it was a song with meaning for communities all across the South. She adapted it to her accordion and sang it at union meetings and community gatherings, and at Highlander workshops. It became a kind of theme song at Highlander throughout the labor movement period of the 1940s and 1950s.

From its earliest days, Highlander Folk School was a place that nurtured cultural expression as well as educating for change. Founders Myles Horton and Don West had each been impressed by the strong role that cultural expression served in the Danish Folk School movement. As people struggled to solve difficult problems in their communities, they tapped into sources of self and community worth. Myles knew that he would need skilled staff members to draw upon the cultural strengths in Southern communities.

Zilphia Mae Johnson was a talented and well-trained musician and singer. The child of an Arkansas mine owner, she graduated from the College of the Ozarks and went off to teach high school music and Spanish in Salisaw, Oklahoma. She came back to her hometown of Paris, Arkansas, and began to join young people at the home of Claude Williams, a local Presbyterian minister.

Her sister Ermon Fay Duschenes remembers:

Claude was a very interesting person. A lot of the young people gathered at his house, just to be sociable and to talk about ideas. Zilphia did some singing there, but not much. It was more to talk about what kind of a world we live in. In 1935 she left home and went to Highlander. Claude Williams got her interested in going. Zilphia went to Highlander after an argument with my father over smoking. I guess it was really a matter of one will against another.

She was married to Myles less than a year after she got there. She was probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight. (March 1935.) She was doing music there and giving some interesting life to the kitchen and to the food. She was doing singing and using the piano. She had to develop a repertoire once she got there. She did not know the folk songs when she came. She started collecting in the mountains in Tennessee and then when she came back to Arkansas to finish her degree in choral music, she went into the mountains there and collected (personal communication).

Ralph Tefferteller was another early Highlander staff member. Growing up in East Tennessee, he was familiar with traditions of dance and play party games, pie suppers, and ice cream socials. He left the mountains to study at Union Theological Seminary and found that people in the North wanted to learn about his Southern heritage. He made it a point to relearn the traditional dances and put them to good use at Highlander. He explained that there was a twofold approach to singing at Highlander:

Highlander was an interesting mix of “conservers” and new ideas: The mix of traditional songs and music, which were to be found in the lives of the Cumberland mountain people, with the new struggle songs, which were evolving out of the sharecropper experiences in West Tennessee, the eastern part of Arkansas, and other areas in the Southeast as the sharecroppers attempted to form unions, organize, and seek better economic and social concessions from the owners. They turned to the old traditional tunes in order to construct their parodies, and to use the familiar for voices of hope and protest and determination. People in poor, rural areas came together for singing in the rural churches, so this was a familiar art form for them, and made it possible for them to use it effectively when it came to the need to carry new and strong messages to each other and to the outside world.

I would say the cultural program was sort of co-leadered, during the short time I was there (1934-38), between Zilphia and myself. I headed the outreach part of the community work in recreation, and I was the dance instructor in residence. Zilphia was really the musically talented person, and had this great ability to get others involved in music. Of course, the singing became deeply embedded in all of the work at Highlander through the years. She came with the technical training; I came with some of the spirit, and very little formal training. I just had a deep love and appreciation for people, how they lived, sang, and used music in their lives, whether at the work site, in the fields, or in the factories.

The cultural work evolved from the people we were working with. We picked up on the opportunities of the moment — the patterns of topical interest growing out of the experiences of people who came. After all, Highlander was a place where you threw what you had into the pot, as it were. You brought yourself; you brought the sum of your experiences; and along with these, came the different modes of life — from the factory, the field, and the farm. Those experiences, by the mid 1930s, had already generated some of the great struggle music in the Southeast part of the country.

It was also during this time that there were disturbances occurring in mills and factories in the lowland — especially around Chattanooga. Someone could call up and say, “Hey, we’ve got a strike on and I need help. Come on down!” Many a morning I can remember getting in the old rickety station wagon — some half dozen of us — and making the run from Monteagle down to the picket line to reinvigorate tired folk and let them know they had friends who would put themselves out and stand to help a flagging spirit.

This was one of the functions of a place like Highlander. It meant that there were informed, finely honed human-service skills in the Highlander community that could be summoned in time of crisis. Whenever there was trouble, there was usually a way in which Highlander could make a contribution.

One vital aspect of that contribution and that spirit is that of music. When people like Zilphia would get songs going on the picket lines, you could feel people’s spirits rising. Or in workshops — if ever there was a person who could invigorate and move a group of adults with musical participation, she was the prime example of an artist at work. The walls of the old building at Highlander rang with the songs of people during those years, and with the music, which she generated and was always encouraging individuals to create in their own way and to bring as contributions to the sessions that were held.

She knew, and would use, anything that seemed to suit the occasion — popular music of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Broadway tunes, old tunes. I’ll never forget how effectively she used the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in little playlets to arouse the emotions of either working people or people to who [sic] she was trying to give some appreciation of what the life of the unemployed worker was like.

It was just a joy to be a part of it with her and to sit in any group and to see how they would respond. She had an infectious type of presentation that enveloped you and drew you in. You weren’t on the outside as a spectator — you became wholeheartedly involved with the moment. And that was singing either one of the traditional labor songs, which spoke of the struggle of years past and had an application to today, or a new song that had been brought in by a participant in one of the workshops, which was then ingested and became a part of the collective material and would eventually appear in print as part of a little songbook. “No More Moanin’” for example, was literally put together right there in the kitchen at Highlander. People coming from wherever — factories, sharecropper country — brought a little of their lifestyles with them to workshops, and ways they had learned to communicate with each other, and singing was one of those ways.

The old songs became vehicles for carrying new messages, and singing became a unifying force. And because of those deep-rooted traditions of singing in churches and homes, it was very natural that singing should develop in the Southeastern part of the country as a natural adjunct to the struggle to overcome inhuman situations and to deal with them in song. Preachers and workers all had this sort of experience, whether they were Blacks or Whites (personal communication).

Many songs, which later became anthems in the Southern labor movement, were first used to draw people together at Highlander. Zilphia used songs to educate people too. She knew songs that spoke of struggles all around the world and included them in workshops and in Highlander songbooks. She thought it important that people involved in a local struggle realize that many others in distant places faced similar issues and had organized to resist oppression.

Zilphia traveled to the communities of workshop participants, as did other staff members. She sang on countless picket lines and in union meetings, and helped spread the repertoire of labor songs. She also mimeographed the words to songs and left them in communities after she had been there or passed them out at Highlander meetings.

Theater and creating skits and plays was another important cultural activity at Highlander. Zilphia developed the theater program and spent a period of time in New York studying with the New Theater League. Returning to her work at Highlander, she helped workshop participants build plays with music out of their own struggles. Often, they took the plays to union meetings and labor conferences. Those that were well received were then mimeographed and made available to labor groups around the country.

Mary Lawrence was on the Highlander staff in the 1930s doing educational work with unions. In 1945, she published Education Unlimited: A Handbook on Union Education in the South and made keen observations about cultural work:

At Highlander, during the regular six-weeks’ terms one of the most exciting courses has been dramatics taught by Zilphia Horton. Of course, the students turn up their noses in disdain when they first come. They all have preconceived opinions of dramatics and they aren’t very flattering. But when they find that no learning of lines or putting on dull plays is involved, just living out their own experiences, they fall for it like a ton of bricks.

One of the most amazing experiences we have in the class is watching the suspicious expression on their faces turn to one of hilarity and excitement as they let off steam acting out a picket line. They just outsmart each other in a hurry trying to improve that improvisation of a picket line. Yet they soon learn that a bunch of heads is a whole lot better than one. Each one is then asked to pick out a union problem to present to the group and is allowed to pick the actors he wants from the audience. They go into the hall for a short ten minutes, and after much gleeful shouting they come back and present the problem. Then the audience suggests ways of making it go over better. The result is that the class is putting on full length plays, completely improvised, on some vital problem of the day before the month is over. Often we take these plays to union meetings and we always give one on Saturday night to our guests. One of the best was “South of the Ballot,” a play about the poll tax.

Because of the isolation of the school, planned recreation and entertainment by the students is essential. The students are usually amazed to discover what wonderful times they can plan for themselves by themselves. The final night is always a big night. Several weeks ahead, the Entertainment Committee works on arrangements for the big night. Our main hall is turned into some kind of a cabaret, the motif varying from year to year according to the tastes of the students. The hall has to be completely redecorated, and our only tool is the ingenuity of the students. The other big job is lining up the entertainment in the style of a floor show. Working out the details for this program, the students realize what a wealth of talent there is among a group of amateurs. It gives them an idea of what could be done in their own locals by utilizing the talents of the group (Quoted in Glen, pp 81-82).

Another early staffer, an Antioch work student, Lanie Melamed adds to the description of the banquet:

The skits were always political action skits. They always had a political message. They were performed at the banquet at the end of a session. Two days before the banquet there was always time in the afternoons left for preparation for the banquet.

The banquet was the culmination of the term, and it became a kind of ritual, because every term would have it. Remember, it’s a residential setting. The intensity of the total experience of living together and working together — mostly the living and the meals and just sharing so much of yourself beyond your cognitive or your intellectual self-created the kinds of connections between people that are nothing short of magic. And the staff knew that, or had learned that, so the room was transformed.

The tables were put around all the sides of the room. There was a decoration committee that went out into the woods and got boughs and plants and flowers for every table. There was a program that was put together, and the menu was very, very special. Then there was a master of ceremonies that was appointed, and there were speeches, and there were little rolled diplomas with little ribbons around them given out, and there was singing. Wow. And that last night, singing because the closure, the whole idea of leaving was added to the emotionality of the event, and then there were the skits. Oftentimes outsiders came, big shots from the unions would come down to the banquet.

Then the people made testimonials. That was always the time for my tears.

Some of the most eloquent things were said. People would talk about what the school meant to them and what they had learned. That’s the juice of all this kind of work. In one week’s time, we see people change their perspectives — on themselves, their self-esteem, their ability — and also a lot of this preparation and learning was for the purpose of going out there on the front lines and doing a better job organizing, getting the fertilizer co-op started or whatever. You needed a lot of juice to be geared up, prepared, because you were going to be more alone once you were out there (Carawan, n.d.).

Lanie also described the influence that Zilphia had on her personally:

She was very genuine when she was working. She came alive. When she was leading singing, it was a total blending of herself with the music, with the people, and it never bombed. There was a magic when she picked up the accordion, and she just had a vibrancy and an aliveness in her voice and in her face that just made you sing. Made you want to sing. She, of all the people who were at Highlander, was the one I connected with. I guess I wanted to be that kind of a leader too. A person who was so congruent with what she believed, and her skill in being able to connect with people.

It seemed like the school was a living embodiment of what she believed. It didn’t seem like she was pushing herself to be part of it. Later in my life I did what Zilphia did. I was always interested in what she did, and later I was perfecting myself in the field of music and dance and people (Carawan, n.d.).

Zilphia’s younger sister Ermon Fay came to work at Highlander too in the early 1940s, glad for a chance to spend time with her big sister. She described a bleak time at Highlander during the war years. “The unions were turning away from the school and Zilphia wasn’t invited as much to go and sing for the unions.”

Joie Willimetz also talks of those times and tells how the staff went from around twenty people to three while she was there. She says of Zilphia, how sad it was that she did not live to participate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Zilphia died in 1956. The 60s would see a new resurgence of energy in the country and at Highlander. The role of music would incredibly stimulate the music of the movement.

Ermon Fay remembers: “I was there when 'We Shall Overcome' came to Highlander. Zilphia and I went into the library with these ladies from Charleston and started singing it and making up verses to go with it. Zilphia adapted 'We Shall Overcome' to the accordion and carried it around the South and the country to countless gatherings of people working and hoping for change.”

Zilphia was at the heart of the cultural work at Highlander for twenty years. Ermon Fay Duschenes has summed up her importance to the school:

Zilphia and Myles really acted like a team, but they performed quite different functions. Myles provoked people, and got them thinking. And Zilphia welcomed people. You have to have both things. You need someone to form an atmosphere and take an interest in the individual. Zilphia had a lot of energy and she was lively and curious and people reacted to her as a genuine person. She was an ear. She was a mother to people. She was fun. Zilphia had lots of ideas, and she was very capable. She gave you a sense of live, and of loving life. She encouraged any and everybody to do something creative.

The women at Highlander did the traditional things and then they did the educational work too. Zilphia got tired sometimes and discouraged. When the school was attacked she got discouraged.

The music, the cultural work, was the juice. The music by itself is not important. But the music used as part of the work, with its content, is very important (personal communication).

In Zilphia Horton’s own words:

Singing, poetry, literature — all these things that we think make life richer — are like the water lilies. What determines how beautiful that water lily is and how strong it is, is the rich mud at the bottom of that pond. And that’s the way I think about songs that we sing. To me, what people stand for represents the roots in the mud at the bottom of the lake. There has to be some central core that holds people together before anything worthwhile comes out in the way of culture. I don’t care if people do have one nationality, if they have one religion; there is something else that is essential before they can sing, and that is that they believe in something (Horton, unpublished papers).


Lawrence, M. (1945). Education Unlimited: A Handbook on Union Education in the South. Monteagle, TN: Highlander Folk School.

Carawan, C. (n.d.). Zilphia Horton: A profile. Unpublished manuscript, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, Tennessee.

Horton, Zilphia. Unpublished papers and recordings. Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly Highlander Folk School) records, 1917-2005. Wisconsin Historical Society archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.