The Highlander Folk School nurtured working people’s abilities to better themselves and Zilphia Horton nurtured the Highlander Folk School. Her contributions to the Highlander Folk School and the empowerment of poor workers, both white and black, are unearthed in A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School. Kudos to author Kim Ruehl for telling the story of this little-known activist, as Zilphia’s contributions are noteworthy and her story is compelling.
Ruehl skillfully meshed previously recorded notes about Zilphia and the Highlander Folk School with new testimony from surviving family and friends. The personal details about Zilphia’s experiences included in this book help the reader truly picture who this labor and civil rights influencer was.
Zilphia Mae Johnson was born into privilege, was college educated, and became an award-winning pianist. She was both an intellectual and a lover of nature, and she carried with her a strong moral compass, one stronger than social convention, or her father’s influence.
A twenty-four year old Zilphia’s desire to make the world a better place landed her at the Highlander Folk School in 1935. The school assisted working class people in addressing inequity and was founded by Myles Horton on remote land in Monteagle, TN in 1932. (Zilphia and Myles had an immediate connection, and married a month after meeting.) The Highlander Folk School practiced popular education, asking people to dive deeply into the problems of their own lives in order to develop their own solutions. Zilphia soon became an integral component to the school and was later named Cultural Director.
Zilphia herself had a calm, caring presence about her. She understood that the arts were not “trimmings,” but powerful uniting forces that amplify a cause. Every meeting ended in song, and often meals did too. Music connects people and Zilphia and the Highlander Folk School understood that.
Zilphia’s most recognized contributions are those tied to music. She created a songbook in 1939 with songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” hymns transformed into protest songs that are utilized to this day. A Singing Army reveals how music icons in the social justice movement were touched by Zilphia and the school — Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie are two noteworthy examples.
The Highlander Folk School worked closely with the local community, where residents organized cooperatives around their daily activities with farming, canning, furniture making, etc. Additionally, Highlander worked with most Southern unions in the 1930s and 1940s, educating others about labor organizing. The school also had close ties with the American Federation of Labor, though they ended up breaking those ties over fundamental beliefs. In later years the school focused on civil rights issues, desegregation being a central focus. Rosa Parks spent time at the integrated Highlander Folk School and was struck by the “peace and harmony” found there. Folks were inspired by the equal footing each person found at the school, regardless of life experiences, and the safe haven that was created in the remote Tennessee woods was in large part due to Zilphia. She enabled those that stayed there to feel comfortable enough to dive deep into heavy social problems. Many of those people created deep and long lasting impacts of social change.
A Singing Army is a revelatory look into how Zilphia contributed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for social change makers at the Highlander Folk School and how this was an integral part of enabling social change. Even more so, this book reveals how empathy, compassion, and connection itself enables the world to heal. It may start from a familiar tune, a nourishing meal made from vegetables from the garden, or an easy smile from a matronly woman. All were given with love by Zilphia Horton at the Highlander Folk School.
A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School
By Kim Ruehl
University of Texas Press
Published March 23, 2021