‘A Singing Army’

photo courtesy Highlander Research and Education Center library and archive

is out now from Univ. of Texas Press.

You can buy it from your local bookseller or purchase from my favorite local indie, Malaprop’s.


**One of NPR’s Best Books of 2021**

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.” – Southern Review of Books

“Although ‘social justice’ and ‘the South’ are still often seen as oxymoronic, Ruehl illuminates a time and place when people were trying to make them synonyms.” – Chapter 16

“Ruehl’s invocation of Horton’s beliefs plays like the catchy refrain to one of Horton’s labor songs, emphasizing the importance of her ideals and showing readers another way to organize and connect with others. … Through her subject’s incredible life and through her straightforward, observational style, Ruehl illuminates a story bound to inspire 21st-century artists and activists.” – Nashville Scene

“Asheville writer Kim Ruehl has done the history of American social justice movements a great service in this first biography of Zilphia Horton. … Ruehl’s thorough and thoughtful book testifies to her lasting influence.” – WNC Magazine

A Singing Army vividly recreates the social and cultural history into which Zilphia Horton lived, and it brings to light her enduring achievements, her passionate vision for the arts and music, and the ways they shape the human heart and effect social change.” – No Depression

“This impactful book delivers Horton’s story with care and compassion.” – Bearded Gentleman Music

Other media

  • Watch the launch event for “A Singing Army” live/virtual via Malaprop’s, with No Depression managing editor Hilary Saunders
  • Watch Kim Ruehl in conversation with best-selling author Denise Kiernan on CRAFT
  • Listen to Kim Ruehl talk about A Singing Army on WUOT Knoxville, TN.
  • Listen to Kim Ruehl talk about A Singing Army on WNCW, Spindale, NC.
  • A Singing Army is one of The Bluegrass Situations summer reading recommendations.

Who is Zilphia Horton?

You’ve probably never heard the name Zilphia Horton, but you certainly have been touched by her work.

It’s because of her that we sing songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Overcome,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and hundreds of others. She was a friend to Eleanor Roosevelt, an influence on Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Rosa Parks, and a teacher to the thousands of people who worked together to ensure justice was achieved during the height of the labor and civil rights movements. She was also decades ahead of her time in terms of feminism, environmentalism, and her passionate dedication to the role culture – specifically art – plays in society.

The oldest of four sisters, Zilphia grew up in rural Arkansas fishing and hunting with her father, and passionately throwing herself into any project which struck her fancy. So beloved by all those who knew her, she was elected Queen of the Paving Jubilee (a coveted title, to be sure). But, it was music which most captured her attention. She studied classical piano from a very young age, then majored in music at the College of the Ozarks. After college, she taught music lessons, played piano for the silent movies, and earned statewide awards for her musical prowess. Given her remarkable talent – both as pianist and singer – and her entertaining, enveloping, warm personality, Zilphia could have easily made her living on the stage.

Instead, she turned her interests toward the role music could play in a society wrought with injustice and unfairness. She became involved with the labor movement and, in a moment of familial defiance (her father had kicked her out for smoking), she attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School which had just opened up three years earlier in rural Monteagle, Tennessee.

Her intention was to learn about labor organizing, then return to Arkansas to work at a labor school for women. Instead, she fell in love with Highlander founder Myles Horton, married him, moved in, and became the school’s first Culture Director. At age 25, she forged a path for her new position which would eventually earn Highlander the designation of “the singing labor school.” She compiled a songbook for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) which taught striking workers how to use singing for empowerment and the boosting of morale. She taught thousands in the south and around the country about what it means to sing together – not only the joy of music, but  what music does to those making it. She impressed upon her students the lasting understanding that culture – the arts in particular – is not only an expression of who we are; it is what we do to solidify and define our civilization.

In the fall of 2010, I moved from Seattle to North Carolina to start researching the life and work of Zilphia Horton for a book-length biography. I knew almost nothing about her – she didn’t keep a journal and next to nothing has been written to clearly chronicle her life. But, what I’ve learned in the time of my research has proven to be an important and illuminating window on some of the most vital moments in contemporary American history.

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