Generations of musicians and activists around the country knew Guy Carawan as a man who connected people, songs, and causes. Musician Rich Kirby remembers Guy’s role as a link between music and activism.
I first met Guy Carawan in the parking lot of Gabe’s Motor Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was 1967; the state and the coal industry were holding a meeting to congratulate themselves on how well Kentucky’s new strip mine law was working.
Around 250 mountain people had made the 300-mile trip from eastern Kentucky to say that strip mining was destroying their land and their homes, but they hadn’t been let into the meeting. Guy was sitting in the middle of the crowd playing his banjo and singing. As I recall, the song was “Stripping on the mountain, flooding in the valley,” and everyone was singing along.
That was pretty typical for Guy. A superlative musician, he could and did give concerts and make records, generally with his wife Candie. But he was more at home singing on a picket line or in a civil rights rally or in someone’s living room, usually someone who lived in a community that was being exploited and was fighting back. Guy had a way of finding such people and of connecting them with others.
If you know one thing about Guy Carawan, it is probably that he was the person who brought “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement and to the world. He didn’t write the song, but he was a critical link in the chain—learning the song, making a few important changes, and teaching it to people.
He lived his life being a critical link in a lot of chains, connecting people to songs, songs to people, people to people, across the Deep South in the Civil Rights Movement and later in the Appalachian coalfields.
He not only sang with people, he recorded them on a bulky Ampex reel-to-reel machine which he lugged to a lot of improbable places. The recordings you may have heard of hundreds of people singing at civil rights rallies were probably Guy’s, as are our recordings of ballad singer May Justus, storytelling moonshiner Hamper McBee, coal miner George Tucker, and the folks at Moving Star Hall in John’s Island, South Carolina, who inspired Guy’s iconic song “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life.”
So Guy’s trip to Owensboro was part of a life’s work. Much of that work involved meeting people and connecting them to each other. He invited me to stay with him and Candie where they lived on Marrowbone Creek in Pike County, and a few days later I was sharing a bed with baby Evan and meeting Edith and Jake Easterling, Jink Ray and others who were fighting for justice in their coalfield home.
Guy brought a lot of “outsiders” like me into communities where we could listen and learn. He also brought a lot of people from small, usually rural, communities into a wider circle where they could act as teachers. I have a prized memory of Head Start teachers in the little mountain town of Dungannon, Virginia, delightedly learning Georgia Sea Island children’s games from Bessie Jones. It was part of a tour Guy had set up, another link in a chain. As Sparky Rucker put it, “Guy was a mentor, the sort of mentor who would lead you to other mentors.”
Most of this work he did as part of the Highlander Center, where he led music and cultural work for many years. He led a number of workshops there where people from different communities and different generations could meet and share. I can testify that some of these were profoundly influential. For young folks trying to figure out what to do with their music and their lives, spending a weekend with Sarah Ogan Gunning, Hazel Dickens, Nimrod Workman, Phyllis Boyens, Lois Short and the like was simply life-changing.
This week a group of people who had been in those workshops met at Highlander to look back on 40 years of cultural work and to look forward to what we hope will be many more on the part of people younger than ourselves. We had known that due to his illness Guy wouldn’t be taking part. But as it happened, our gathering was just after his passing.
His loss touched us keenly, as he had touched every life in the room. As John McCutcheon put it, “there’s a big empty chair in the circle.” Guy left us with some great songs and much more. We are proud to be links on his chain.
Rich Kirby is a musician, radio host, festival organizer and traditional music record producer. He retired from Appalshop and WMMT-FM in 2014. One of his current music projects includes Rich and the Po’ Folk, which he describes as “one of the best of Letcher County, Kentucky’s two old-time string bands.”