- Guy CarawanJuly 27, 1927–May 2, 2015
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I first met musician-organizer Guy Carawan in the early 1970s at a gathering at Highlander Center, when it was located for a time in Knoxville, Tennessee (its current home is in the country, in New Market). Guy was in his mid-forties and I was in my early-twenties. For the rest of my life until now, I have been listening to, learning from, and drawing inspiration from Guy, and indeed from his whole artistic family, including his wife and singing and song-gathering partner Candie, and their two children Evan and Heather.
What I remember most about my first and every subsequent encounter with Guy is his joyful approach to making music. It was something to be shared and he loved to do it; he knew how to draw you in to whatever song proved appropriate to the struggle at hand. That could include, at the time I met him, the struggle to free Angela Davis from the death penalty that I was involved in or the anti–strip mine and union struggles of Appalachian coal communities that he was involved in. His songs protested U.S.-sponsored wars in Vietnam and later in Central America, where he also learned a whole new set of folk music. Guy’s songs and singing helped to unite people around environmental issues. Most notably, he and Candie recorded, published, and orally transmitted hundreds of songs of the historic black freedom struggle in the South. Together, the Carawans helped us know southern music as a powerful testament to human agency, one that still evokes in us an infectious, irresistible urge to sing.
When he died on May 2, 2015, after a period of decline, the New York Times on its front page remembered Guy’s role in fashioning and communicating a version of “We Shall Overcome” that became an anthem throughout the southern freedom movement and, indeed, throughout the world. If you look him up, you will also find hundreds more songs, and scores of recordings, books, and oral histories that he and Candie gathered from the Deep South, the Sea Islands, the Upper South, the Appalachian mountains, and Central America. One cannot be educated in the folkways of southern music without a deep plunge into the Carawan collections. Through their recordings and songbooks, they helped local communities record and preserve their music, and at the same time made this music accessible to masses of people.
I was fortunate to be able to stay in touch with Guy and Candie through my own freedom movement studies, and at his daughter Heather’s house in Tacoma, Washington, a town in which we both live. There we traded verses of our favorite songs. As his memory began to lapse, Guy would sometimes forget that he had just played “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” or “Which Side Are You On?,” and play the song again. It was fine with me; he could play it over and over again as far as I was concerned. No one I knew, not even Pete Seeger, could make that banjo ring with the sounds of the Appalachians mountains the way Guy could. By his music, he would put you right in that space of tradition, musicianship, and struggle from whence the song came. [End Page 122]
Born in California to southern migrants, his mother a poet and his father a contractor, Guy graduated with a BA from Occidental College in 1949 and later with an MA in Sociology from ucla. He became involved in skiffle music with Lonnie Donnigan and others in England, traveled to the Soviet Union and China in the 1950s, and came home to the United States to join the American folk revival. He came to Highlander in the late 1950s to become its music director, following in the steps of the great singer and song-gatherer Zilphia Horton. As a musicologist, Guy learned the songs of the South and as a civil rights activist, with Candie, he...