Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Coal Operator's Daughter: Zilphia Horton, Folk Music, and Labor Activism

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Coal Operator's Daughter: Zilphia Horton, Folk Music, and Labor Activism

Article excerpt

"ZILPHIA GAVE THE MELODY TO THE CROWD, [and the] whole crowd of people would sing."1 Pete Seeger's recollection, coming more than half a century after Zilphia Horton's death, encapsulates who she was as a musician, labor activist, and person. Armed with a small accordion and a distinctive alto voice, Horton travelled the upland South giving voice to the struggles of textile workers and farmers through song. A native of Arkansas coal country, Horton might seem an unlikely activist in every way-white, college-educated, and the daughter not of a miner but of a mine owner. Yet Horton is a vital link in the legacy of musical protest, connecting labor and civil rights, black and white, religious and secular. She is perhaps best known for teaching Pete Seeger an early version of "We Shall Overcome," which would become the most important civil rights anthem of the twentieth century. But Horton's work bears examination, too, because it challenges some scholars' perception of a stark divide between folk music collected and preserved as an artifact and folk music's use as a tool of political mobilization, such as by the Communist Party during the Great Depression.2

Zilphia Horton combined folk music collection with the dissemination of songs intended to inspire labor activism. She adopted the song collecting methods of better-known contemporaries such as John and .Alan Lomax. But, whereas the Lomaxes and their kind were interested in preserving regional identities by capturing the "authentic" and distinctive music of a particular place, Horton gave music back to the people who created it, hoping they would find new uses for it.3 Based at the interracial Highlander Folk School, Horton encouraged ordinary workers to freely adapt folk songs to fit their circumstances, believing that shared music could serve as a catalyst of change. By employing familiar tunes, Horton hoped that this music could be adapted for labor work in disparate places, creating a sense of solidarity across space and time.

Despite a historiography that almost entirely excludes her, Horton did in fact advance the cause of racial and economic justice in the South through the songs she collected, notated, arranged, and published.4 Not only "We Shall Overcome," but "We Shall Not Be Moved," and "This Little Light of Kline" inspired generations of activists. Though these songs passed through many hands as they became anthems of protest in the mid-twentieth century, Horton played a central role in disseminating them.

Zilphia Mae Johnson was born on April 14, 1910, in Spadra, .Arkansas, a coal mining boom town in the .Arkansas River valley.5 Between her birth and high school years, her family moved nineteen times, mostly within Arkansas but twice to Idaho.

Zilphia Johnson was an inquisitive child surrounded by strong, outspoken women. Her mother, Ora Howard Johnson, four aunts, grandmother, and sisters were all strong presences in her life. Her father, Robert Guy Johnson, was a seemingly quiet yet stalwart man who would eventually banish her from his home for her activism.6 He had a more lasting impact, however. Horton later credited him for teaching her to be a "doubter." As a child, Zilphia often challenged what people said, asking, "How do you know it's true and can you prove it?"7 She learned to approach any new experience with a challenging but open mind.

For two years, Robert Johnson prospected in Idaho, about fifteen miles south of the Canadian border. He would regale his family nightly with stories of the Finns, Swedes, Italians, and Poles with whom he worked. These stories fascinated Zilphia Johnson, who saw these rough miners as romantic representatives of a world she had never known. She was especially struck by the story of one particular Swede and by her father's reaction to her questions about him. After supper one night, her father began that evening's story with a straight back, puffed out cheeks, and fist banging on the table. He shouted, in an imitation of the Swede's accent, "Man is yoost an animalk. …

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