By Art Menius (September 27, 2015)
On Friday evening, September 25, 2015, I had the great good fortune and sense to attend the Remembering Guy Carawan event at Tennessee’s famed Highlander Center. Any reason is a good one to visit Highlander with its rare air free of oppression, racism, sexism, and homophobia. This evening to me was special, at least as much as the 75th anniversary homecoming in 2007.
Already in the area, as Creative Board members, for the SongFarmers Gathering of the new Woodsongs Front Porch Association, Michael Johnathan covered our responsibilities so that old friends Josh Dunson, Kari Estrin, and I could make the 50 minute drive to Highlander. I must have been excited to return to Highlander after five years for I left my car running in the parking area. My excuse is that a parked hybrid makes almost no noise, but I still had to hope a ride down the familiar hill to turn it off.
That would prove the only less than wonderful note. Although it had rained hard and steadily at the Museum of Appalachia where the Gathering took place 20 miles north of Knoxville, at Highlander the clouds broke for Guy and Candie. We even enjoyed a bit of sunshine and moonlight.
People, including many friends and acquaintances spilled out of the dining area as we consumed perhaps the best meal I’ve ever ingested there and took the time to speak to Candie. That she still remembered me and called me by name was a highlight on an evening full of them. The people kept flowing in Rich Kirby and Beth Bingman, John McCutcheon, George Brosi, Helen Lewis, Sue Massek, Judi Jennings, Cathy Fink and Marcie Marxer, and on and on.
Sated, especially on remarkable macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler, we made our way further up the hill to where a large tent covered chairs and a stage in front of Highlander co-Founder Miles Horton’s house. Perhaps 150 of us signed the guest book, greeted old friends, and chose seats. Highlander Executive Director Pam McMichael and Mary Thom Adams read commentary covering Guy’s long and extraordinary life. The evening
consisted of three segments of readings and three of singing songs associated with Carawan. Pam and Mary Thom reminded us of what we knew and added bits we didn’t. The myth-like 1953 journey through the South with Rambling Jack Elliot and Frank Hamilton, documenting Gullah culture on John’s Island
before it became the gateway to Kiawah Island’s many golf courses, teaching the Civil Rights Movement “We Shall Overcome” at the founding meeting of SNCC at Raleigh’s Shaw University, writing songs and recording albums, fighting for justice, and becoming with Candie such an essential part of Highlander.
Candie sat in front, with Chuck Neblett to one side and her children, their partners, and one grandchild to the other. She grew happier and happier with each minute of the celebration. As people like their son Evan,
Sparky and Rhonda, McCutcheon, Joan Boyd, Kirby, Neblett, Cathy and Marcie (called “Marc” in the program), and more took the stage we all sang. Some stood at the microphones and played instruments, but all of sang together, song after song, our spirits filled with the love of Guy and Candie and our appreciation of his lifelong use of music in the people’s struggle for freedom, justice, peace, and the environment. Many of these were mighty movement songs that gave people the strength to stand up and resist like “We
Shall Overcome” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” but we also laughed our way through “Moose Turd Pie.”
The whole event proved energizing, not draining. Sue and others picked, sang, and danced until midnight. Others of us had to drive back from whence we came. I bet not one of us regretted attending. We celebrated the life of a great man and his remarkable widow, but we also experienced Highlander’s way of affirming life and keeping
alive the spirit that drives progressive change in a time where that is needed more than ever, We each have a responsivity to do so on our own, singing these songs and fighting for causes to bring liberty and justice for all.