Guy and Candie Carawan; Song leaders for social change

Candie Carawan has one of those low, sweet voices that seem to be right next to you when she's singing - and when she's talking to you it's as quiet and confiding as if she's telling you a secret. She wears her hair in bangs like the stripes on a tabby cat's forehead, and she is tall and thin with a comforting presence.

Her husband, Guy, is tall with shaggy, curly blond hair that cascades into side whiskers. When he sings, he roams around, hunching slightly over his guitar. His bright, brown eyes seem to catch everyone's gaze, one at a time. For all his length, there's something elfin about him. Both of them, in their different ways, are able to get a group of people to sing along with anything, even a song that's being made up on the spot.

They should be able to; they've been song leaders for social change for over 20 years. Maybe they would disagree with the word ''leaders,'' since they are co-directors of cultural programs at Highlander Center, a residential adult-education center that considers the people who come there to be the leaders.

Highlander Center was started by Myles Horton in 1932 as a meeting place for people at the grass-roots level who were trying to correct the inequities in their lives. Horton firmly believed (and still does) that the solutions to the problems are available - from the people who have the problems. As former acting-director John Gaventa says, ''people don't come here to get a degree. They come when they have problems they're trying to grapple with. And if they're not trying to grapple, we don't have a program.'' And Guy and Candie Carawan don't have a song.

But there has been plenty of grappling and plenty of singing in the center's rocky, controversial, 50-year history. In the '30s and '40s, the center trained union leaders. In the '50s, when Horton and the staff realized that labor reform couldn't go far in a segregated society, they changed the center's focus to civil rights. Alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, the seamstress from Alabama who, after attending a workshop at Highlander, one day refused to move to the back of the bus, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. About 1965 the center turned to the rural poor in Appalachia - miners, factory workers, and people with toxic dump sites in their back yards. Now, in the '80s , Highlander is in a transitional phase, hoping to link the black rural poor of the deep South and the white rural poor of Appalachia, so they can solve some of their common problems.

There's a song for everything, from old union songs like ''Roll the Union on'' and ''You Can't Scare Me, I'm Sticking to the Union'' to the galvanizing anthem ''We Shall Overcome'' (which came out of a Highlander center workshop) and more modern complaints like ''Black Lung'' and ''The Nuclear Game.'' The songs are about grim situations, but so are older folk songs, such as ''She Walks the Hills in a Long Black Veil.'' Guy Carawan says, ''You can't just spend three days talking about your problems. It's a downer. You have to have also things that are uplifting. Culture was (always) an important part of workshops.''

It all started with Myles Horton's first wife, Zilphia. Although trained in classical music, she was interested in folk music - and she was also interested in making it respond to the struggles the folk were currently involved in. There was dancing, too, while dance caller and union organizer Ralph Tefferteller worked there, and hoedowns still occur on coal miners' picket lines. Zilphia Horton was a collector of folk songs. At the beginning of workshops, old standards like ''Barbara Allen'' and ''Amazing Grace'' would be sung to bring people together with something from their culture that they all knew and were proud of. Then, Guy Carawan recalls, they would ''make use of the melodies and things to write songs and make up new songs . . . that talked about their problems.''

That's where ''We Shall Overcome'' came from.

Striking fruit and tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., had changed the words of a black spiritual to a song they sang on picket lines to keep their spirits up. ''It was very personal,'' says Candie Carawan, ''it was 'I will be all right, I will be all right, the Lord will see me through,' very personal words. . . . They changed it to 'we will overcome,' instead of 'I will be all right,' and then 'we will organize' and 'the Lord will see us through.' They kept that verse (from the original hymn). . . . These were both black and white tobacco workers that used it on the picket line, and they came to a workshop at Highlander and tried it, and Zilphia heard it, recognized right away what a powerful song it was. And she played the accordion, so she slowed it down more to an anthem speed, I think more to fit the way she was used to doing songs, really. . . . And when groups would come from other parts of the South for other workshops, she would always use it as one of the songs, so it began to spread in this new form.''

Guy Carawan came to the center in 1959, after Zilphia passed on. ''I know that . . . for four years or so, there had been nobody there giving time and energy doing that cultural work, and there was a great lack in the school. Aside from her use of music, she just supplied a lot of warmth,'' Guy says. The year he came to Highlander just happened to be the year before the student civil rights sit-ins started in the South. During the early years of the civil rights movement, he would turn up, improbably for those segregated times, at rallies and meetings in the deep South to teach blacks freedom songs that came from their own gospel traditions.

''The beauty of a lot of the Afro traditions . . . [was] they were singing all the songs and actually dancing to them or moving to them all together.'' says Guy Carawan. ''That's true of African music.The body music and the singing go together. And it's communal. There's no such thing as an audience. There's always a call and a response and a part for everybody to be included, and so many of those freedom songs have a repetitive line or a chorus, plus they also had structure so that you could add in new verses real easy.''

Meanwhile, Candie Carawan, then Candie Anderson, was spending her junior year away from Los Angeles's selective Pomona College at all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Brought up by liberal parents in predominantly white, southern California neighborhoods and schools, she had planned, ever since writing her senior paper in high school on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott, to go to Fisk. That, she says, is where her education really began. She had to deal with racial discrimination herself; people were suspicious and hostile toward a white person at a black university. She met people who had always carried weapons because, she says, ''their life was dangerous.'' While people at Pomona College were secure in the knowledge that their parents could take care of them, if necessary, even middle-class blacks at Fisk were getting ready to fight for survival. When she got there, the sit-ins started, and she joined them.

In the early days, she recalls: ''There wasn't a common body of song, so people would take things like 'The more we get together, the happier we'll be' - and 'Onward Christian Soldiers' was another song - and they just didn't go anywhere. We would sing them dutifully at the beginning of a meeting, but they didn't empower people or uplift you. . . .'' Meanwhile, aided by Guy Carawan, more black spirituals were beginning to be adapted to the civil rights movement.

In 1960, with other students from the sit-in movement from all over the South , Candie Anderson found herself at Highlander Center singing ''We Shall Overcome'' as Guy Carawan played the guitar and, no doubt, egged people on with his bright brown eyes. The appeal of the song was immediate, Candie remembers. ''People would recognize it as something they felt like singing,'' she says. ''Guy, in the meantime, had gathered . . . quite a body of adapted spirituals through his work at Highlander, so he really taught songs that weekend. And again, it was the process of just sort of introducing them. . . . We all went away from that weekend just sort of armed with a new body of songs.

''It was nice,'' she says. ''It was like reintroducing to younger black kids this song that had really come from their tradition that their generation hadn't heard.''

''And the nice thing about that, too,'' says Guy Carawan, again referring to the fact that the Afro-American tradition is based on call and response with everyone singing, ''you didn't have to wait for special people to show up to lead the songs. Everybody knew 'em, there were common melodies that people knew , so people at a party or in a jail cell or on a picket line, or just any group of people, most people felt they could start singing them.''

That's something that must have come in handy for his future wife, who was arrested four times at demonstrations. ''The role of the music in those days was really to fortify yourself,'' she says. ''There were mass meetings every night, when you would come back from these demonstrations and sing together. Also, there was the whole sort of black preaching, . . . another form totally new to my experience at that time of feeling group solidarity. Someone would be out there with the words, but they'd be rolling off his tongue and the whole congregation would be 'amen'-ing him and bearing him up. And by the end of it, you felt like you would do whatever that person told you to do.

''I, coming from a very elite, white, middle-class college on the West Coast, was very worried about that demagoguery; that's the way masses get moved. It is the way masses get moved, but in a very positive and good way, . . . because it had this real moral power behind it, and it was so clear in those days what the right thing was. It wasn't like you were being manipulated, it was you were all coming together and getting your consensus and strengthening yourself.''

She returned to Pomona for her senior year, and that spring she and Guy were married. After she graduated, they came back to Highlander and spent their honeymoon teaching art and music at an integrated camp the center was running to get kids ready for school integration, which was coming the next year.

She says all this, sitting peacefully - their dog Bruno at her side - on the grass at the center after Sunday breakfast during a recent economic-development workshop. For someone who has seen 20 years of struggle, she is unravaged. She is instead gentle and sympathetic. You wouldn't mind trying out verses on her because she listens with a steady, intelligent gaze and seems to honestly like what she hears and whoever is talking.

''There is something so tenacious about the real cultural roots of people in this country,'' she says, ''that what seems to really become an important body of songs for people, when they're in struggle, is something that they're really closely identified with.'' In line with Highlander Center's philosophy that the answers lie with the people, and in line with their own love of folk culture, the Carawans have been ushering new, meaningful verses into the world, not composing their own folk songs.

Likewise, in the songs about mine safety, the haunting, melancholy twang of the old-English-influenced music of Appalachia, with the long, wordy lines of old-time laments, give 20th-century warnings. In ''Which Side Are You On,'' written in the '30s by Florence Reece of Harlan County, Ky., to the tune of a religious song, ''Lay the Lily Low,'' the singer says, ''If you don't want your husband to die in the mine, better meet me tomorrow on the picket line.''

And ''You Can't Scare Me, I'm Sticking to the Union'' was sung to an old dance tune called ''Redwing,'' according to Guy. In that song, he says, ''You've got a good combination - you've got a message and something somebody can kick their heels up to and get some of that out of their system.''

Guy Carawan also has a career performing the songs, besides his work at Highlander. When you talk to him, he talks in the inimitable rolling, singsong but serious voice folksingers always use to introduce their songs. On ''Songs of Struggle and Celebration,'' his upcoming album (Flying Fish records), he sings with command, but obeys the genre. He sings freedom songs in Afro-American rhythm, and gives poetic shape to the long, sad lines of Appalachian laments. On the album he tells about how Mary Ethel Dozier, a black teenager at a workshop on integration at Highlander, contributed a verse. ''Deputized thugs,'' as he calls them, came to the center while the workshop was watching a movie; they turned off all the lights, and began ransacking people's luggage. To calm everyone down, Mary Ethel Dozier started humming ''We Shall Overcome,'' and sang to its tune the words ''we are not afraid.'' New verses come that quickly and unexpectedly all the time, if not as dramatically.

One workshop got older Appalachian singers of the Florence Reese generation together with creative younger people from coal-mining areas, and a new generation of songs began. But even members of a workshop on such a prosaic subject as cutbacks of federal funds will come home with a song in their hearts.

''Usually when people come to Highlander - 30 or 40 people from mountain communities - we just ask who (sings),'' Guy says. Some people just naturally start writing songs, other people get the idea at the workshops we have at Highlander. . . . They can make up songs or just take a simple church song, like 'This Little Light of Mine.' They can sing, 'I'm gonna tell Ronald Reagan, I'm gonna make it shine,' '' or whatever is appropriate to the situation.

John Gaventa, until recently the center's acting director, doesn't see one big, unified movement coming for '80s activists, but several smaller fights. ''I think any movement that emerges now is not going to be single-issue,'' he says, sitting in his office in a little house under a tree that looks out on the Blue Ridge Mountains. ''What's happening is that people are fighting in lots of different areas over issues that are affecting their lives.'' He listed ''access to land, rights to basic human services, control of information, environmental health, labor organizing. Underlying all these issues are demands for more participation on the local level, for more power on a local level, and for more economic democracy.''

Reflecting these various struggles, there's not a single, wrenching anthem like ''We Shall Overcome,'' but a lot of poignant songs about various topics. The challenge has been the isolation of small, rural communities with similar problems from one another, not unlike the early isolation of civil rights workers. Highlander Center gets them together to work on the problems, and songs get transferred from one town to another. Now, on front porches in little Appalachian towns and on picket lines by coal mines, they're singing about the destruction of the ecology, black lung, mine cave-ins, toxic waste, and nuclear disasters.

And whatever turns '80s activism takes, you can bet that Guy and Candie Carawan will urge new verses out of people to fit the problems. As they play their guitars and roam around stages and circles of people pondering the issues, they'll sing them something they recognize, even if they haven't heard it before.

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