This is a story that starts with a long and freewheeling road trip —it’s the summer of 1953 and a young folksinger is making a pilgrimage to his father’s home in a little coastal village in Pamlico County, N.C.
At its beginning, the tale has all the makings of a Broadway musical: it’s fun and lighthearted and has a cast of larger-than-life characters that include some of the most legendary folk, country, blues and bluegrass musicians in American history.
Yet it ends with our folksinger in the midst of a bitter fishermen’s strike in Beaufort, N.C., a fish factory going up in flames and he and his buddies fleeing for fear of their lives.
Then the story becomes about the McCarthy Era, a hard-fought campaign to organize Southern workers, and a forgotten struggle by North Carolina’s commercial fishermen to get a fair deal.
Over the next week or so, I’ll tell this story in 4 parts. Today, part 1—Journey to Mesic.
* * *
Guy Carawan was only 24 years old when he left his home in California and traveled to the North Carolina coast.
Later in life, he would become a legendary folksinger, musicologist and social activist. He played the guitar, the banjo and the hammer dulcimer, and he did path-breaking work collecting folk songs especially in the African American communities on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Above all, he is remembered for his role in making the old hymn “We Shall Overcome” into the anthem of the civil rights movement in America.
In the summer of 1953, though, he was just a restless young folksinger, uncertain of his future and in search of his roots.
Carawan had grown up in Los Angeles, but his father was from Mesic, a little farming and fishing community on a tidal creek on the Bay River, in Pamlico County, N.C.
I have not been to Mesic in some time, but it’s not far from where I grew up. I remember it from when I was younger: broad salt marshes, shrimp trawlers, some big potato farms and a little country store.
Southern Life and Music
As a boy, Carawan had heard a lot about Mesic. After finishing his schooling, he decided that he wanted to visit his father’s homeplace for the first time.
He knew the Carawans had a reputation for being musical (they still do), and he was especially interested in learning more about the community’s musical traditions.
“I went south to learn about Southern life and music,” he told a folklorist named David Potorti nearly 20 years ago.
I found Potorti’s interview with Carawan at the Southern Folklife Collection, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the great treasure houses of American culture and history.
Among other things, the Southern Folklife Collection preserves thousands of audio and video recordings—songs, stories and oral histories reaching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Louisiana bayous.
As I listened to the Carawan’s interview, I got the sense that he wanted to do more than just explore “Southern life and music.” He also wanted to get to know his father better, as so many of us do.
Ramblin’ Jack Comes on Board
As he headed to Mesic, Guy traveled with Frank Hamilton, a friend from California. Hamilton was a talented guitar and 5-string banjo player who later became an influential folk music teacher. Among other things, he founded the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.
He was also a member of the popular folk group, the Weavers, for a short time in the early 1960s.
On their way to Mesic, the two detoured to New York City, where another budding folk music legend, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, joined up with them. Ramblin’ Jack was a gifted singer, a flat-pick guitar player and a bit of a wild man.
Raised in a comfortably middle-class family in New York City, Ramblin’ Jack had run away from home when he was 15 years old and joined a rodeo.
Later, he spent a lot of time with Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma folksinger whose songs chronicled the Dust Bowl and who penned “This Land is Your Land.”
Decades later, Ramblin’ Jack was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He’s been nominated for a half-dozen Grammy Awards, won two, and he’s still touring today.
But Ramblin’ Jack was a long way from that kind of acclaim in 1953. He was making his living mostly by busking when he ran into Guy and Frank at a Harlem nightclub where the great bluesman Brownie McGhee was playing.
When they told Ramblin’ Jack about their plans to go south, he asked if he could come along.
Visiting the Seeger Family
As they drove south from New York City, Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack decided to make a few more detours and visit some of their folk music heroes and heroines.
They started by visiting Pete Seeger’s family in Washington, DC. Seeger was a pioneering 5-string banjo and guitar player, singer and social activist.
You might have seen him and Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. On national TV, they stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Seeger, who was 89 at the time, led the crowd in singing the song.
Seeger was a founding member of two of the most important folk groups of the 1940s and ‘50s, the Almanac Singers and the Weavers.
He also composed some of the century’s great American folk standards, including “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” (with Joe Hickerson) and “Turn! Turn! Turn,” which he adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Straight from the King James Bible, my favorite verse and the refrain from Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” are—
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
From Carawan’s interview, I can’t tell for sure if Pete was at the family’s home when our folksingers showed up, but it is clear that they had recently visited with him somewhere.
There was never a shortage of folk music in the Seeger home, though, whether Pete was there or not. All four of his half-siblings were folk musicians, so there’s not much chance that they didn’t play a lot of music that night.
Meeting Elizabeth Cotten…
At the Seeger family’s home, Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack also met Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Born in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 1895, she was the Seegers’ housekeeper at the time.
A self-taught guitarist and singer, Cotten had played and written music when she was young, but had not done much with her music in many years. That soon changed. Spurred by the folk revival of the 1960s, she became a renowned performer and composer of folk music and the Carolina piedmont blues.
Cotten eventually won a Grammy Award and performed at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife.
… And Earl Scruggs
Later in their trip, the boys also visited the great 3-string banjo picker Earl Scruggs. That was probably when they passed through his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Scruggs was born and raised in a little place called Flint Hills, 10 miles out of Shelby, N.C. He first made his name as a musician with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the band that virtually created the sound that came to be called “bluegrass music.”
At the time our folksingers visited him, Scruggs and Lester Flatts led a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys and had a popular morning radio show in Nashville.
I guess I don’t need to tell you: if Hollywood ever made a movie about this road trip, it would have a heck of a soundtrack.
“Are You Communists?”
Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack also veered back through the Appalachians and visited Bascom Lamar Lunsford in Turkey Creek, N.C., near Asheville.
Lunsford was a lawyer, folklorist, teacher and traditional mountain musician who had been one of the most important promoters of Appalachian music in the early part of the 20th century.
Among other things, he had founded the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1928. That festival still celebrates Appalachian music every first weekend in August.
In his interview, Carawan said that Lunsford’s first question to him and his pals was: “Are you Communists?”
Communism was much on Lunsford’s mind. He knew they were acquainted with Pete Seeger, and Seeger had been deeply influenced by the traditional mountain music that he had heard at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival some years earlier.
Lunsford and Seeger apparently got on well at the time, but Lunsford later began to look warily at Seeger’s politics.
“Pete Seeger was a nice young boy until he got in with the wrong crowd,” he told the travelers.
This was the age of the Red Scare, black lists and political censorship. Congressman Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee had recently blacklisted Seeger’s current band, the Weavers.
Famous for re-introducing folk songs like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “On Top of Old Smokey” to a new generation in the U.S., the Weavers were at the forefront of a folk music revival that swept the country in the late 1940s and 1950s.
After being blacklisted for being Communists (based on testimony by an informant that later recanted), the Weavers were not allowed to appear on TV or radio and usually couldn’t get gigs. That’s the kind of moment it was in America in 1953.
Playing and Passing the Hat
When our trio of folksingers ran low on gas, money or food, they took to busking. Ramblin’ Jack led the way.
“He wasn’t bashful about getting out on the street and playing and passing the hat,” Guy recalled.
Guy admired Ramblin’ Jack’s picking and singing. “He had a good ear, a good feel for picking up something and recreating it his way.”
When they finally arrived in Mesic, they seem to have spent several weeks with Guy’s Uncle Claude and Aunt Nancy and their children. (Exactly how long is a little unclear from the interview.) Claude was his father’s oldest brother and was the only one of the Carawan brothers that had stayed on the family farm.
Like so many farmers in the 1930s and ‘40s, the other brothers had left eastern North Carolina. One brother settled in New Orleans, while Guy’s father and another brother had moved to Los Angeles.
“My father was a North Carolina farm boy who fought in World War I and came back to the farm and couldn’t make a go of it,” Guy said.
His uncle and aunt were glad to see him. Carawan’s interview doesn’t say a lot about how they spent their time together, but it does sound as if they played plenty of music.
After awhile, though, Uncle Claude’s family got weary of Guy’s friends. Evidently, Guy’s Mesic relatives found Ramblin’ Jack Elliot especially hard to get used to. He insisted people call him “Ramblin’ Jack,” not just “Jack,” which I suppose was a little unusual in Mesic.
(Ramblin’ Jack, by the way, didn’t earn his nickname from his hobo ways, but from the rather indirect manner that he responded to questions. When somebody asked him a question, he apparently had a tendency to tell one story and then another, and often another, before he got to the point.)
Apparently Uncle Claude also found it odd that Ramblin’ Jack always wore a cowboy hat, even though he was from New York City.
I gather that he didn’t always take if off when Uncle Claude thought it was respectful to do so, either, like maybe at dinner.
Some Kind of Rudeness
Reading between the lines, I wonder if Uncle Claude had more issues with Ramblin’ Jack than just his nickname and his hat.
In the interview, Guy says that the final straw for his uncle occurred at a cattle auction where Claude had taken them. Apparently Ramblin’ Jack started playing the guitar and busking.
“To my uncle’s way, that was some kind of rudeness,” Guy remembered. “And he said to me, well, you can stay, but these other guys have eaten enough stuff, you’ve been here long enough, these other two guys have to go.”
Guy doesn’t seem to have taken his uncle’s suggestion personally. He was still getting used to Ramblin’ Jack himself.
After Uncle Claude’s conversation with Guy, the three folksingers packed up, said their good byes, and headed off to other parts of the American South.
Guy didn’t know it when he left Mesic, but he would soon discover his life’s work. As they crossed the Appalachians, he and his two friends stopped at the Highlander Folk School, an education center for civil rights and labor activists in New Market, Tennessee.
Seven years later, Guy remembered that visit and returned to Highlander as the school’s music director. For the rest of his career, Highlander was the place where he and his wife Candie combined their love of folk music and their commitment to social activism.
But before Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack left the North Carolina coast, they also visited Beaufort, N.C., a little ways south of Guy’s uncle and aunt’s home in Mesic. There their journey took a more serious turn.
In Beaufort, they found themselves in the midst of a contentious fishermen’s strike, watched a fish factory go up in a blaze of fire and smoke, and ended up fleeing out of fear for their lives.
To be continued: next up—part 2—The Night the Fish Factory Burned