Smithsonian Folkways Remembers Guy Carawan (1927-2015)
Guy Carawan, accomplished musician, musicologist, and civil rights activist, passed away on May 2, 2015, in New Market, Tennessee. As a major participant in the folksong revival of the civil rights era, Carawan is perhaps best known for introducing the powerful song “We Shall Overcome” into the repertoire of contemporary protest songs.
Carawan was an active musician for Folkways Records from as early as 1958, over the years releasing a total of 17 albums, both solo and collaborative, as well as producing live recordings and compilations focusing on human rights issues. In the early sixties, Guy Carawan worked with Folkways to produce titles such as We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-Ins, Been in the Storm So Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children's Games from Johns Island, SC, and Lest We Forget, Vol. 3: Sing For Freedom, among many other important collections of folksongs and protest anthems.
In 1959, Carawan became the musical coordinator at the Highlander Folk School (known later as the Highlander Research and Education Center), an organization formed in 1932, dedicated to “empowering people to better themselves and society through individual and collective action”(culturalequity.org). During this time, Guy was an active music leader of social movements large and small, adapting and popularizing songs like “Eyes on the Prize” and famously teaching “We Shall Overcome” to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at their founding convention in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960.
Guy Carawan’s work within the United States and internationally marked him as a champion of human rights issues throughout the decades. Alongside iconic figures such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pete Seeger, and many others, Carawan was successful in raising his musical voice to create social change. In his own words, he used music to “convey some of the spirit of friendship and human beings’ mutual concern for each other” (liner notes of Songs with Guy Carawan).