Communicating political principles through music was the strategy of two musicians of the mid–twentieth century. In New York City, early in her career, Ruth Crawford Seeger composed avant-garde classical pieces with a political message. Later, in Washington, D.C., she turned to transcribing folksongs as a means of moving political ideas across American social classes. Zilphia Horton, working in rural Appalachia, used music as direct action on the picket lines of the labor movement and later in the civil rights movement. Through the leadership programs at the Highlander Folk School, Horton taught folk music to many civil rights leaders. Each woman worked independently of the other in musical traditions usually thought antithetical, yet they were equally committed to social justice. They successfully employed music to further progressive politics in the twenty years preceding their premature deaths in the early 1950s, while leaving a legacy of effective musical strategies that would be adapted by leaders in later social movements.
Particular pieces of music stand out in American popular culture as auditory shorthand for social movements they’ve come to represent. Musicians themselves have similarly been associated with the politics of various eras. Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) and Zilphia Horton (1910–1956), who mobilized music for political purposes in the interwar years, were two such musicians...Feeling challenged by the circumstances of Depression-era America to promote social justice and solidarity, the two women pursued different avenues of musical activism. They nonetheless shared a sense of the political importance of the music of common people, seeing in it moving expressions of daily struggle and triumph. Horton and Crawford consequently became crucial transmitters of this musical legacy to future generations.
...This article presents and contrasts the ways in which Crawford and Horton employed music for political purposes. It brings to light three different strategies for communicating political ideas through music: communal performances of labor songs and other folk music at political demonstrations; professional performances of classical music; and transcriptions of folksongs.
Ruth Crawford Seeger
Ruth Crawford Seeger became politically engaged while living in New York during the early Depression years....In financially strained circumstances and surrounded by the more desperate poverty of countless others, both Crawford and Seeger felt strongly that making art only for aesthetic reasons was absurd: it became “almost immoral to closet oneself in one’s comfortable room and compose music for his own delight” (Tick 1997, 190n10).
Ruth Crawford Seeger teaching children in 1950. Peggy Seeger collection.
Crawford started working in 1932 on a commission for the Society of Contemporary Music in Philadelphia: two art songs with political content, which she titled “Two Ricercari.” The ricercari (from the Italian verb “to seek”) is a musical form resembling a fugue. The first song carries the subtitle “Sacco, Vanzetti,” and the second, “Chinaman, Laundryman.” The songs, based on poems by H. T. Tsiang, are composed in an avant-garde musical style. “Sacco, Vanzetti” mourns the death of two Italian anarchists living in Massachusetts, who were tried for a fatal bank robbery and executed in 1927. “Chinaman, Laundryman” describes the exhausting work and exploitation of a laundry worker, who calls his own position “worse than a slave.” Both songs feature highly emotional text with many exclamation points. Crawford’s primary intention in composing the songs was to compell the audience to absorb the lyrics...(Crawford Seeger 1973).
The songs express a political message through both text and music. Voice and piano are composed as opposite elements in both songs, struggling with one another and evoking the musical equivalent of class struggle....In “Chinaman, Laundryman,” a rhythmically relentless piano accompaniment symbolizes an oppressive external force, as well as the worker’s unrelenting pace of work (Tick 1997, 192)....
...[T]he political message of the compositions was directed toward intellectuals. The songs were performed in 1933 for a mass audience of leftist workers, but they did not resonate with the working class audience (Tick 1997, 193)... In 1936 Crawford started channeling her expertise, artistic sense, and energy in a new direction: toward the collection and transcription of folksongs.
In publishing American folksong transcriptions, Crawford followed in a long tradition of scholarship dedicated to the preservation of folk music....One of the first collections to contain folk music of many origins, including African American, was Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag (1927), to which Crawford contributed several piano accompaniments (Pescatello 1992, 102). This collection differed from the academic collections not only in its criteria of song selection, but also in its aim of reaching a popular readership.
Crawford’s transcriptions appeared in two books by John and Alan Lomax. The first collection, Our Singing Country (1941), did not sell well and went out of print in just a few years. Alan Lomax blamed the book’s failure mostly on Crawford’s approach, which he believed to be “too detailed to be used because the notation was so complex…. No one could handle it” (Tick 1997, 268n2). In folklore and classical avant-garde circles, Crawford’s work was well received...
This kind of precision and attention to detail is especially evident in her thesis…like work The Music of American Folk Song, published posthumously in 2001, which contains information on the transcription process, as well as on singing styles. The second Lomax book, Folk Song USA, appeared in 1947. Crawford soon published her own pioneering collection, American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), which were both designed for use in elementary grades, and American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953).
Growing up as the daughter of a coal mine owner and operator, Zilphia Johnson’s political interest was awakened by the Presbyterian minister, Claude Williams, who attempted to organize her father’s workers for the Progressive Miners’ Union (Carter 1994, 2). She joined the unionization efforts despite her father’s disapproval and was disowned by him as a result.
Wanting to deepen her knowledge of the labor movement, she came to the Highlander Folk School in January 1935. Highlander was an adult education center with strong ties to the labor union movement, which had been founded by Myles Horton and Don West in Monteagle, Tennessee, in the southern Appalachians. The move was a life’changing step for Zilphia; she became both personally and professionally involved in the school’s activities, taking on responsibility for the cultural program, which included theater and music. In March 1935, soon after her marriage to Myles Horton, Zilphia attended a worker’s theater workshop at the New Theatre School in New York City, where she learned the skills needed to bring the arts into leadership training programs (Glen 1996, 45). Both Hortons maintained connections to New York throughout their lives. The earliest was Myles’s association with Union Theological Seminary and Reinhold Niebuhr; in later years, Pete Seeger and other performers became conduits between the Highlander Folk School and the New York folk music scene.
Zilphia Horton singing on the picket line in the 1940s. Highlander Research and Education Center, Resource Center photo collection.
...Seeger, who formed the politically engaged Almanac Singers in New York City in 1940, recalled Horton’s musical and organizational skills:
She had a beautiful alto voice, an unpretentious rare voice, but not the show’off kind.…She brought out the talents of her audience and their enthusiastic participation. Her approach resembled more that of a Black singer and the Black church. (Austin 50)
...When Highlander’s mission shifted from labor organizing to civil rights around 1945, music became an even more important means of connecting with students, dovetailing well with the southern Black tradition of song as communication and protest. The Highlander Folk School provided a critical incubator for the civil rights movement, training potential leaders in the Black community, including young ministers, which helped build the churches’ capacity to mobilize congregants to act politically. The music program at the Highlander Folk School was a means of bringing an emotional charge to the movements it fostered (Morris 1986).
Horton was a pioneer at Highlander in the use of folk music as a tool of political mobilization. She adapted songs to serve in the political struggles—both labor and civil rights—of the mid—twentieth century. Of the many examples of her adaptations of the folk music heritage, one stands out as a powerful demonstration of her success: the transformation of the song “We Shall Overcome.” Originally an old Baptist hymn, “I Will Be All Right,” the song came to Highlander from the picket lines of the 1945 American Tobacco Company strike by the South Carolina CIO Food and Tobacco Workers Union in Charleston (Glen 1996, 177).
The lyrics of the song had already undergone many changes. In the era of slavery, the line of text was “The Lord will see us through.” This was altered by southern workers after World War II to “The union will see us through,” “We will win this fight,” and “We’re on to victory.” Horton saw a broader potential for the music, and in discussion with the Charleston strikers, planned new verses for the song to appeal to people other than unionized workers fighting for their rights (Austin 1991, 51). Horton continued to adapt the song’s text to suit the occasion. In 1947 she taught the song to Pete Seeger, who changed “will” (the original verb) to “shall” and added some new verses, including, “We shall end Jim Crow/ We shall live in peace/ All the world around” (Glen 1996, 177). Martin Luther King, Jr., first heard the song when Pete Seeger performed it at Highlander’s 25th anniversary celebration. In the 1960s Guy Carawan, who succeeded Horton as music director of the Highlander Folk School after her untimely death in April 1956, added other verses and further adapted the lyrics (Austin 1991, 51).
In her work at the Highlander Folk School, Horton made it a point not only to transform the songs she encountered, but also to preserve them...She was exposed to a variety of song traditions, including mountain folk music, American labor songs, international songs of political struggle, and Southern spirituals. She notated and published songs in a Highlander Songbook (Austin 1991, 49) and in a songbook entitled Labor Songs published in 1939 (Cohen 2002, 60)....
Zilphia Horton’s achievements can be seen in her musical legacy....Given its early commitment to an integrated society, it was only natural that Highlander would be intensively involved in the civil rights struggles of later years. One of Horton’s greatest contributions was making available to later generations of activists the musical techniques she developed with her collaborators.
Folk Music as Political Action
Understanding the power of folksongs to inspire collective action in politics depends in part on understanding the distinctive qualities of oral tradition. The transmission of oral knowledge requires the involvement of listeners who become part of the realization of the art form, blurring the distinction between performer and audience members....The process of fixing knowledge on paper, however, as when a song is transcribed into musical notation, does offer other advantages. Knowledge conveyed through literate means fosters a sense of distance or detachment not characteristic of oral traditions: an audience member does not need to be emotionally involved as a recipient of such knowledge. Because the literate tradition does not depend on the context of live performance, it can also be disseminated widely through publications.
The oral tradition in which Horton worked directly promoted political action. Her musical performances had an immediate effect on listeners...The flexible relationship between words and music helped an oral tradition of political song-making to survive for use in a variety of contemporary political struggles.
In contrast, both Crawford’s transcriptions of folksongs and her original compositions aimed to communicate a political message to an educated class. They served to preserve an art form that was threatened with extinction, while making folksongs available to an audience not otherwise likely to encounter folk music...Crawford wanted newly discovered folk material to earn consideration as high art and thereby enrich the American tradition of classical music.
Crawford’s work ... served to unite people of different class backgrounds... her folk music collections for children, which were widely used in schools to foster feelings of national belonging and heritage....
...Her argument is that folk music can powerfully convey a sense of different lives and build solidarity....The act of singing, which demands collective participation, also triggers identification with the situation described in the lyrics....
It is this belief in the personally transformative power of music, especially folk music, where Crawford’s and Horton’s ideas meet. Like Crawford, Horton argued:
The people can be made aware that many of the songs about their everyday lives … are songs of merit. This gives them a new sense of dignity and pride in their cultural heritage.… The folk song grows out of reality. It is this stark reality and genuineness which gives the folk song vitality and strength. (Adams 1975, 76)
...Committed to the ideals of democracy, they employed their music to motivate and educate Americans, and each confronted class-based obstacles to democratic solidarity. Horton chose direct action and succeeded in influencing policy outcomes, promoting unionization and desegregation in the South. Crawford’s attempts to use high art in the service of social progress were less successful. Her notion of music education in the service of socializing children for a new national democratic order is nonetheless politically noteworthy and demands further investigation.
Julia Schmidt-Pirro is a German-trained musicologist specializing in American avant-garde music. She teaches at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia, and is the founder of the Paideia Women’s Chorus.
Karen M. McCurdy is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Southern University. She studies policy change in the American political arena, particularly how new constituents are integrated in the legislative process.
Feeling challenged by the circumstances of Depression-era America to promote social justice and solidarity, the two women pursued different avenues of musical activism. They nonetheless shared a sense of the political importance of the music of common people, seeing in it moving expressions of daily struggle and triumph. Horton and Crawford consequently became crucial transmitters of this musical legacy to future generations.
Adams, Frank. 1975. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.
Austin, Aleine. 1991. Zilphia. Social Policy 21.3:49–53.
Carter, Vicki. 1994. The Singing Heart of Highlander Folk School. New Horizons in Adult Education 8:4–24.
Cohen, Ronald. 2002. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Crawford Seeger, Ruth. 1948. American Folk Songs For Children in Home, School, and Nursery School. New York: Music Sales Corporation.
———. 1973. “Sacco, Vanzetti.” Pennsylvania: Merion Music.
Filene, Benjamin. 2000. Public Memory and American Roots. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Glen, John M. 1996. Highlander: No Ordinary School, 2nd ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Horton, Myles. 1998. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. New York: Teachers College Press.
Morris, Aldon. 1986. Origins of the Civil Rights Movements. New York: Free Press.
Pescatello, Ann M. 1992. Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Tick, Judith. 1997. Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
———. 2001. Historical Introduction. In Ruth Crawford Seeger, The Music of American Folk Song and Selected Other Writings on American Folk Music, xxi–xxix. Ed. Larry Polansky. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
This article, which was excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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