Guy Carawan

Guy Carawan

Guy Carawan, ca. 1990; photograph by Heather Carawan
Background information
Birth name Guy Hughes Carawan, Jr.
Born July 27, 1927
Los Angeles
Died May 2, 2015 (age 87)
New Market, Tennessee
Genres Folk music
Occupation(s) Folk musician, musicologist
Instruments Guitar, hammer dulcimer
Years active 1950–2015

Guy Hughes Carawan, Jr. (July 27, 1927 – May 2, 2015) was an American folk musician and musicologist. He served as music director and song leader for the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.

Carawan is famous for introducing the protest song "We Shall Overcome" to the American Civil Rights Movement, by teaching it to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. A union organizing song based on a black spiritual, it had been a favorite of Zilphia Horton (d. 1956) wife of the founder of the Highlander Folk School. Carawan reintroduced it at the school when he became its new music director in 1959. The song is copyrighted in the name of Horton, Frank Hamilton, Carawan and Pete Seeger.[1]

Carawan sang and played banjo, guitar, and hammered dulcimer. He frequently performed and recorded with his wife, singer Candie Carawan Occasionally he was accompanied by their son Evan Carawan, who plays mandolin and hammered dulcimer. Carawan and his wife lived in New Market, near the Highlander Center.[1]

Early life

Carawan was born in California in 1927, to Southern parents. His mother, from Charleston, South Carolina, was the resident poet at Winthrop College (now Winthrop University) in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and his father, a veteran of World War I from North Carolina, worked as an asbestos contractor. He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Occidental College in 1949 and a master's degree in sociology from UCLA. Through his friend Frank Hamilton, Carawan was introduced to musicians in the People's Songs network, including Pete Seeger and The Weavers. Moving to New York City, he became involved with the American folk music revival in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. He also traveled abroad, visiting England, attending a World Festival of Youth and Students in the Soviet Union in 1957, and continuing on to the People's Republic of China.[1]

Career at Highlander Center

Carawan first visited the Highlander Folk School in 1953, with singers Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Frank Hamilton. At the recommendation of Pete Seeger, he returned in 1959 as a volunteer, taking charge of the music program pioneered by Zilphia Horton, who had died in an accident in 1956. When college students in Greensboro, NC, began the lunch-counter sit-in movement on Feb 1, 1960, Highlander's youth program took on a new urgency. Highlander's seventh annual college workshop took place on the first weekend in April, with 83 students from twenty colleges attending. As part of a talent show and dance, Carawan taught the students the song "We Shall Overcome." Two weeks later, on April 15, two hundred students assembled in Raleigh, NC, for a three-day conference at Shaw University. Called by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to develop a youth wing, the students instead organized the independent Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They invited Carawan to lead the singing, and he closed the first evening with "We Shall Overcome." The audience stood, linked hands and sang—and went away inspired, carrying the song to meetings and demonstrations across the South.[2]

According to his wife Candie, one of Guy's most important roles during the Civil Rights Movement—more so than introducing "We Shall Overcome" as a Freedom Song—was his desire to record and archive the evolution of the movement through song. Both Guy and Candie believe that the political usage of religious and folk music could shape movements and influence people to take action in social change, and Guy's initiative to record and preserve the already established Freedom Songs within the movement are used to inspire and to educate future leaders and activists.[3] Movement leader Rev. C. T. Vivian, a lieutenant of Martin Luther King reminisced:

I don’t think we had ever thought of spirituals as movement material. When the movement came up, we couldn’t apply them. The concept has to be there. It wasn’t just to have the music but to take the music out of our past and apply it to the new situation, to change it so it really fit.... The first time I remember any change in our songs was when Guy came down from Highlander. Here he was with this guitar and tall thin frame, leaning forward and patting that foot. I remember James Bevel and I looked across at each other and smiled. Guy had taken this song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd" – I didn't know the song, but he gave some background on it and boom – that began to make sense. And, little by little, spiritual after spiritual began to appear with new words and changes: “"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize", "Hold On" or "I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table". Once we had seen it done, we could begin to do it.[4]

At Highlander's April workshop, Carawan had met Candie Anderson, an exchange student at Fisk University in Nashville, from Pomona College in California, who was one of the first white students involved in the sit-in movement. They were married in March 1961.[1]

Hammer dulcimer

Carawan first heard the hammer dulcimer played by Chet Parker. In turn, Carawan introduced both John McCutcheon and Malcolm Dalglish to the instrument.



Documentary Recording Projects

Personal Recordings

Included on Albums with Others


  1. 1 2 3 4 Neely, Jack (2005). Lifelong Students, Eternal Activists. Metro Pulse (Internet Archive).
  2. Adams, Frank (1975). Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. pp. 152–155.
  4. Interview, 1983, quoted in Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, 1990, p. 4.
  5. "Jubilee Community Arts Unveils 1961 Recordings by May Justus", Metro Pulse, Knoxville, Tennessee, December 7, 2011
  6. "May Justus, The Carawan Recordings". Knoxville, Tennessee: Jubilee Community Arts. Retrieved July 15, 2012.

Video References

External links

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