(This week’s post is a condensed version of an essay Marco Frucht wrote in 2009 for the University of Connecticut. You can read the full version at his blog: http://muffinbottoms.org/?p=395)
Committee for Nonviolent Action and the Highlander Center share so much in common throughout their distinct experiences in Connecticut and Tennessee respectively, that this essay will only attempt to survey the ideas and events around one important year in their common history; 1960.
CNVA was founded nationally in 1957 by A.J. Muste, a veteran labor agitator and Christian pacifist and David Dellinger who had been a conscientious objector since at least as early as World War II. Many chapters were started around the country in the next few years, including the New England CNVA which began in 1960. Today, the New England CNVA is known as the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Highlander Folk School was established in the 1930s by Myles Horton to train labor and Civil Rights activists. Nonviolence and music were always common themes there but didn’t come into primary focus until the late 50s and early 60s. Some of this was at the inspiration of Mohandas Gandhi because he had taught non-violent direct action as a tool the people in India could use in their struggle against British rule.
Horton says the following about music in the movement: “Song, music and food are integral parts of education at Highlander. Music is one way for people to express their traditions, longings and determination. Many people have made significant contributions to music at Highlander. In the early days, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger came to visit. Later on, Frank Hamilton and Jack Elliott spent time with us. More recently, the Freedom Singers, Bernice Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, as well as Highlander’s former codirector, Jane Sapp, have been regular contributors. There were also those who stayed at Highlander for longer periods, such as Lee Hays, one of the original Almanac Singers, and Waldemar Hille.”
One of the times Martin Luther King, Jr., was at Highlander, he was a keynote speaker at their seventh annual College Workshop, April 15, 1960. In this speech he called for a nationwide campaign of selective buying and said he wished for people to hold their money from places all over the south that were violent and racist. “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”
1960 was a very busy year for Folksinger Pete Seeger too, singing everywhere from the Nevada Test Site to protests of the Polaris submarine launchings in Groton, CT., not to mention making all the time necessary to coproduce television pilots with his wife Toshi that eventually became the weekly show Rainbow Quest on WNJU-TV in New York and New Jersey.
Marj Swann printed the following in Polaris Action Bulletin #4. 13jun60: “Four Canadian young people asked why Americans are so afraid to speak out against Government policies or to be different. At the festival, Pete Seeger, who had visited the New London office earlier, dedicated “The Hammer Song” to the Satyagraha, a sloop named after some of Gandhi’s famous nonviolent direct actions.”[...]
When Seeger wasn’t singing in Connecticut, home in Upstate New York on the Hudson river, or playing a gig somewhere else in the world he was at the Highlander Folk School. (Over the years, Highlander came to be called the Highlander Research and Education Center).
Highlander was where Guy Carawan spent years teaching countless people to sing many songs, but notably “We Shall Overcome.” Nashville Public Library has a Photograph of a meeting at Fisk University, where Guy Carawan leads song on his guitar, April 21, 1960. That song was fast becoming a staple for folksingers all over America. It’s still very popular today.
So who taught Carawan to play that song? Pete Seeger of course; but who taught it to Pete? Zilphia Horton showed him the tune as her all-time favorite song when she was Highlander’s music director. Where the song originally came from and how it changed over time would easily be a good topic for anyone’s PHD thesis, because it changed so much over the decades like a well worn shoe; but Pete Seeger is credited with changing “I” to “We” and helping spread the song all over the deep south. Many consider that song to be the earliest primary link between the following movements, Abolition, Labor, Civil Rights, Peace, No-Nukes, Anti-Globalization and all points in between. Some could even argue Pete Seeger himself was that link.
Nevertheless, that song was being taught at CNVA, Highlander, and anywhere else people were discussing American social justice in 1960[...]
What was happening in New London County, that would call for songs, and people like Carawan, Seeger and Joan Baez to drop in often? Polaris[...]
New London County is very close to New York and Boston but it’s also just a short drive from Newport. Of course that means the annual Jazz fests and Folk fests can be an easy visit for someone with a local gig; but oftentimes they would stay there at CNVA instead of booking a hotel room. And of course that made them an excellent guest teacher for a day or three.
While the members of Polaris Action were at the Newport Folk festival, they and Pete Seeger brought the project to the attention of Joan Baez, whom they had heard was a pacifist. That was the first time that Joan sang at the festival, and her extraordinarily clear, wide-ranged, powerful and moving soprano voice propelled her into the stature of perhaps the country’s premiere folk singer[...]
Nonviolence and music carry on year after year helping maintain memory within the various different aspects of the peace movement. Take a quick look what CNVA was up to in the late 1970s as well.
The call went out on February 16, 1977. Charlie King, Joanne McGloin, Joanne Sheehan, and Rick Gaumer, at the Community for Non-Violence in Voluntown, CT had evidence, from participating in the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice that others were also singing and collecting songs that gave voice to people’s struggles. The group wanted to do what came naturally — bring these folks out of the woodwork and see what happened.
Odetta should be mentioned as well. She may not have ever been to Connecticut or Tennessee but her songs sure have. She almost lived long enough to sing for Obama’s inauguration this year; but she died just last December not too long after saying how proud she was “that we now have a black man as president of the United States.”
Giving voice to people’s struggles is what so many people around the United States hope the current President will do for them, but people like Odetta, Seeger, Baez and Carawan have always known it’s something we will always have to do for ourselves and for each other[...]
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