May 8, 2015

Guy Carawan, 1927 - 2015

Guy Carawan, who taught the song We Shall Overcome to the Civil Rights movement, has died at 87.

The song wasn't his, nor did he claim it to be. In the tradition of American folk music and leftist social activism, Carawan saw himself as serving something greater. He shared freely what had been given to him freely.

The New York Times reports:
The song, variously a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest, had woven in and out of American oral tradition for centuries, embodying the country's twinned history of faith and struggle. Over time, it was further polished by professional songwriters.

But in teaching it to hundreds of delegates at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- held in Raleigh on April 15, 1960 -- Mr. Carawan fathered the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became "the 'Marseillaise' of the integration movement."
Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Carawan was part of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village, in New York, and was first sent to Highlander by Pete Seeger. He took over as music director in 1959 and, the next year, was present at the founding of the SNCC.

He provided the group with the music that came to define the movement.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Civil Rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled that it wasn't immediately obvious that folk songs and spirituals would play a role in the struggle for racial equality. Even though the movement was led by pastors and made up of deeply religious men and women, old religious music didn't seem particularly relevant to the cause. There wasn't any sense these songs needed to be be taken out of that past and applied to the present.

Hearing Carawan changed that, for Vivian and for others at the SNCC meeting in 1960.

"I don't think we had ever thought of spirituals as movement material," Vivian said. "The first time I remember any change in our songs was when Guy came down from Highlander. Here he was with this guitar and tall thin frame, leaning forward and patting that foot ... Guy had taken this song, 'Follow the Drinking Gourd' -- I didn't know the song, but he gave some background on it and boom --- that began to make sense. And, little by little, spiritual after spiritual began to appear with new words and changes."

As Carawan recalled that moment, the movement took the song he shared and immediately remade it for themselves, empowered by the song and making it something more.

"At a certain point, those young singers who knew a lot of a cappella styles -- they said, lay that guitar down, boy," Carawan told NPR. "We can do the song better. And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it acappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it -- a style that some very powerful young singers got behind (and) spread."

Carawan continued to work with Highlander until his health declined in recent years. In addition to promoting the social uses of folk music, he worked as a folklorist, documenting and preserving the music of the people of Appalachia and the people of the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands.

He is survived by his wife, Candie, and two children, Heather and Evan.

He will be remembered with a memorial at Highlander. The training center's official statement says Carawan's legacy is being carried on in music:
Here on the hill we still sing. We stand in that circle of rocking chairs, cross our arms, link our hands, and sing the songs that so many have sung before us -- and at the same time we learn and teach new songs from new communities struggling for justice -- sharing old and new alike in an ongoing chain of support and inspiration. This is Guy’s legacy. We will continue singing, and we will think of him when we do.