Guy Carawan to Perform Oct. 13
Guy Carawan, the ukulele-strumming Occidental College fraternity brother whose arrangement of “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the American civil rights movement, will return to his alma mater Thursday, Oct. 13 for the Southern California premiere of “The Telling Takes Me Home,” a documentary on Carawan and wife Candie by daughter Heather Carawan.
The half-hour screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Occidental’s Johnson Hall Room 200, after which Guy and Candie will perform some of the songs that made them icons for social change.
The event, which is being sponsored by the Remsen Bird Fund, is free and open to the public. Occidental College is located at 1600 Campus Road in Eagle Rock.
In “The Telling Takes Me Home,” Heather Carawan – who received a master’s degree of fine arts from San Francisco State – uses music and memory to tell her parents’ story. She integrates her own reflections on growing up in a rich musical and political landscape.
Guy Carawan earned a math degree from Occidental in 1949 and is best known for his historic role in helping to define modern folk music and for his four decades of work as a performer, recording artist, songwriter, teacher, activist, and folklorist based at the Highlander Research and Education Center outside Knoxville, Tenn. He was presented an honorary degree from Occidental in 2003.
Carawan was drawn to folk music after taking a folklore course at Occidental. His interest grew when his mother gave him copies of Carl Sandburg’s “The New American Songbag,” and musicologist Alan Lomax’s “Folksongs: USA.” By the time Carawan arrived at UCLA – where he earned a master’s degree in sociology – his curiosity about society and culture had grown considerably.
In 1953, Carawan joined folk singers Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Frank Hamilton and struck out on the road, performing as the Dusty Road Boys. Stopping for a few weeks at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., Carawan got his first exposure to the burgeoning civil rights movement and the importance of songs to the struggle. Highlander was a training and education center for union activists, and in the 1950s was shifting its focus from labor education to civil rights.
For the next few years, Carawan lived in California and questioned social and cultural mores as he toured the national folk circuit of colleges and nightclubs. In 1959, after learning of the death of Highlander co-founder Zilphia Horton, Carawan asked if he could take a volunteer post at the school. He did, and as music director Carawan soon was exposed to the school’s theme song – “We Shall Overcome” – an old composition brought to Highlander by striking workers of the Negro Food and Tobacco Union in Charleston, S.C.
Carawan added a new chord progression to the song and debuted it in April 1960 at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, N.C. It was an immediate hit. Seeger even copyrighted the new arrangement and donated proceeds to the civil rights movement. Carawan soon added “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” to his repertoire. “The idea really caught on as people were already loaded with old church and gospel songs that could be adapted, the meaning changed, the battle joined,” he says.
After Carawan met Candie at Highlander – she was a Pomona College student on an exchange program to Nashville’s Fisk University – the couple spent a few years on the South Carolina Sea Islands, where they helped civil rights icon Septima Clark teach songs to the islands’ rich Gullah culture. Carawan, meanwhile, began recording and documenting the local culture. He even persuaded Folkways Records founder Moses Asch to release a couple of albums highlighting Gullah shouts and spirituals.
In 1972, the Carawans settled permanently at the newly relocated and renamed Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn. By then, the center’s focus was shifting to the issues and culture of Appalachia and the South. Guy and Candie have since led workshops and immersed themselves in the Black Lung movement, the anti-strip-mine movement, and other regional issues.
A banjo and guitar player, Carawan has released a dozen albums, including “We Shall Overcome: Southern Freedom Songs,” and “Been in the Storm So Long,” and several books, including “Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs,” and “Voices From the Mountains: The History and Life of Appalachia Told Through Personal Stories, Songs, and Photographs.”