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Book Excerpt: Zilphia Horton, Protest Song Pioneer

By Kim Ruehl, Contributing Writer

Prefatory Note

You’d be forgiven if you are unfamiliar with the name Zilphia Horton. She was the all-but-forgotten folk song collector and cultural organizer whose work at Monteagle, Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School was an important link in the chain for 20th century movement hymns like “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” She was a friend to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly, and an inspiration and peer to Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and thousands of others whose names we will never know. 

She was also born and raised in rural Arkansas and came of age in the late 1920s and early 1930s with an adventurous spirit and a blazing intellectual curiosity. In the wake of a widening rift with her family, she landed at Highlander, a school for adults best known on this side of history as the epicenter of the civil rights movement. But in 1935 it was newly opened and its founder, Myles Horton, was in need of both students and funding. 

Despite the fact that neither was desperate for a mate, Myles and Zilphia found their match in one another. They married three weeks after they met, and over the next two decades until her too-soon death, Zilphia Horton made an indelible mark at the school by strategically employing music, theater, and other arts as tools for social movements. In the decade I spent studying her life and work for my book A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School (the first-ever biography about her, out now from University of Texas Press), I frequently stumbled upon anecdotes that challenged my understanding of history. For example, the excerpt that follows shows a window of queer visibility and culture during the Great Depression, and this important folk music figure’s reaction to it, that I found completely unexpected. Then again, Zilphia and Myles were both full of surprises.

Once again, in November 1935, Zilphia boarded a train that would take her away from home. This time from middle-of-nowhere Monteagle, through Baltimore, to the other universe that was Manhattan.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

    On the first leg of the trip the train was full of “smelly children,” but Zilphia’s spirits lifted in the Baltimore bus station, where she became fascinated with what appeared to be a large crowd of openly gay men. We can picture her with a large purse in her hand, and her hair rolled up on top of her head, as was the style of the day for women who paid attention to the style. Her tall stature balanced on two large feet. The pause of reflection as she wonders if she’s really seeing what she thinks she’s seeing. 

    “The depot,” she wrote, “was crowded with ‘homosexuals,’ female impersonators making up a floor show – they were going to New York for the week end [sic]. One boy was nothing short of beautiful – had golden blonde hair, cupid lips, sky blue eyes and artistic eye-brows. … Street corners were covered with them – friends to tell them goodbye.”

    Zilphia had likely never knowingly encountered a few open “homosexuals” at any time in her life, much less a crowd of them in a public space. She enjoyed their flamboyance and chatter, their affection for one another, their style. Taking a seat on a bench, she couldn’t help but stare out of the corners of her eyes, the edges of her mouth upturned. She was certainly far from Paris, Arkansas.

    After the twenty-minute break was over, Zilphia boarded the bus yet again and found that one of the men was also boarding. However, he was sent away when the driver saw he was traveling with a small dog – as Zilphia described it, “a lovely little snow white ‘fluff.’” She continued: 

As it so happened through no forethought of mine, I drew a ticket on the front seat just behind the driver and you will be pleased to know that he had taken my welfare in hand, seeing after my comfort in general and seeing that I always got back on the bus. Ha! Thinking that I was in the average opinion concerning the homosexuals he turned and told me that about one month ago, while he was driving, a small boy of about fourteen, came rushing up to the front of the bus, frightened to death, and told him about a “funny” boy in the back seat, who wouldn’t keep his hands off him. Whereupon, the bus driver manfully stopped the bus and threw the “funny” man with one hundred and fifty pounds of baggage out into the highway, miles away from any town. I asked him what he expected him to do. “Hell I told him he could take his 150 lbs. and walk right down the highway.” Enough of this morose story.

As the bus wended its way toward Manhattan, Zilphia watched the world go by, stewing over what she could have said or done differently to prevent any of these discriminatory episodes and worried for the young man who had been humiliated and put out. Certainly, she knew that homosexuality wasn’t widely acknowledged in 1935, and surely she had absorbed the cultural norms around its unacceptable status, but her forward-thinking mind couldn’t grasp why, exactly, this meant someone should be so rude to a stranger.

Aboard that bus, Zilphia was traveling farther afield from her family’s home than had most young women of her generation, but there was a wide chasm between her life experiences and the kind of experiential knowledge required for her new role. She had a certain instinct about the utility of music and the arts in society, but no broader context for labor activism or how to build “a new social order” – the vision into which she had married.…

    Regardless, in fall 1935, Zilphia enrolled in a dramatics program at the New Theatre School in midtown Manhattan, and off she went.

Out the window, she watched the world go by. Then came the rising skyline of lower Manhattan, more and more visible as the bus rolled over the bridge from New Jersey. The buildings jutted into the sky like typewriter keys at the ready to rewrite the stories of immigrants, businessmen, and young women traveling alone from far away. Until now, the only glimpse she had had of New York City was in the pages of her mother’s subscriptions to Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, both of which had seemed out of place in her hometown and would prove even more so when she started having those magazines delivered to Highlander.

    The subway had been in use since 1904, but a more recent building boom had added bridges and towers, including the Empire State Building, which opened in spring 1931. It was all beeping horns and bustle where Zilphia was set to take up residence, two blocks northeast of Union Square.

    Though President Herbert Hoover’s administration had struggled to get ahead of a plummeting economy, it was his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt who had slowed its descent. Unemployment, still staggeringly high, had dropped from its peak of 25 percent in 1933. It would be years before most people would experience any recovery but, as has always been true in the city of New York, there was reason to feel optimistic if one was twenty-something, creative, and fresh off the bus.

    After landing at the home of accordion-wielding folksinger and friend of Highlander, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and her roommate Dorothy, Zilphia moved into a boarding house at 151 E. Eighteenth St., run by the Women’s Friendly Service League, a religious organization meant to cater to young women as they tried to find their way in the city. Though such homes frequently offered a new way forward for troubled women, Zilphia’s cohorts were mostly students and hard-working immigrants.…

    Zilphia fetched her bags from Cunningham’s apartment one taxi ride at a time, unpacking her belongings – clothing, art supplies, a framed photograph of her new husband – and settling into [her room]. To pitch in, she earned her keep by mopping the floor.

Kim Ruehl is a former editor in chief of roots music magazine No Depression. Her work has been published by Billboard, NPR Music, Columbia Journalism Review, CNN, and others.