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.
Zilphia Horton’s story is – as her countless students continuously make clear – hugely influential. Now, more than 60 years after her death, those who remember her do so with great affection and completeness. Hers is a rich and inspiring story, full of defiance and determination, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.