Carolyn Hester:
& the Fortress of Folk

When Carolyn Hester came to Greenwich Village to further her career as a folksinger, she had no idea that the Village was going to turn her into a world-traveling singing activist. As far as a career goes, she was pretty far along already. She already had an album out. She had been playing guitar and singing around Texas, where she grew up, when her mother heard that a man named Norman Petty owned and operated a recording studio in nearby Clovis, New Mexico. She called him cold and told him her daughter sang folk songs. Petty invited her come up and audition.

One of the artists Petty recorded was Buddy Holly. "My mother didn't know who Buddy Holly was, but I did. We went up there, I sang for him and he said, 'Why don't we make a record?' We recorded my first album and it came out on Coral Records. I was signed to Coral, Buddy was on Brunswick, and both labels were owned by Decca."

She and Holly became good friends. He taught her some of his songs and played guitar on four of her recordings, the tapes of which are long lost -- both the studio copies and her personal copies have disappeared. It has long been rumored that Holly played guitar on her first album, Scarlet Ribbons, but Hester says that isn't true. He played on other sessions that were lost before they could be released.

Greenwich Village Days

Her New York move came about because she wanted, at age 18, to live "in my own mind." She had a classmate who aspired to be a dancer, so when they graduated from high school, they and another girl drove to New York City. "That first night we were in Greenwich Village, I saw it was going to be amazing but I didn't know a whole lot of my life was going to be in Greenwich Village."

Hester's career was jumpstarted when a roommate who was an actress got a job at Circle in the Square theater in Washington, D.C. They were going to be doing Ibsen's play, The Purification, and they had a musician on stage: jazz and classical guitarist Charlie Byrd. "He said he'd developed an interest in folk music, and my friend said, 'I have a roommate who is a folk singer.' Byrd said, 'Have her come on down, maybe we'll have a folk night or something.'"

She took a Greyhound bus down to D.C. and auditioned with Gershwin's "Summertime." Byrd was impressed.

"What happened was, Charlie Byrd said 'I'm going to be going to Brazil with Stan Getz to do shows and record.'" Byrd had a club in Annapolis, Maryland, she explained, and had to cover the time he was going to be gone with other performers. "Mose Allison did two weeks. Shirley Horn did two weeks and I did two weeks."

Her career climbed from that appearance. "I played the Blue Dog Cellar in Baltimore and (folk music DJ) Dick Cerri came walking in. He said, 'I know you played for Charlie Byrd and I have your record and have already put it on the air. You'll have to come do my show.' So I became quite at home in the D.C. area."

After a second album was released on the Clancy Brothers' Tradition label, Hester was signed to Columbia Records by legendary producer John Hammond. As supporting musicians on the album, she asked for Bill Lee to play bass, Bruce Langhorne on guitar and a young harmonica player who had never recorded before named Bob Dylan.

"Bob heard I was recording a new album and asked if he could play guitar on it. I told him I already had a guitar player and asked if he wanted to play harmonica. My father had played harmonica on my first album and I loved that sound. We got in the studio with John Hammond who was producing and he heard Bob and signed him to Columbia. That's how that happened."

Her association with Dylan has been a long one. They have remained friends since they met, she said, and she has joined him in concert many times and has played any number of tribute shows for him. In fact, she says that when Dylan got his Nobel Prize, "I was asked to do an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, so I wrote about how we came from all over, gathered in the Village and built ourselves a fortress of folk. Right now, Dylan's music is is very much needed, so I was glad to hear he won that award."

Freedom Summer

From the time she was a little girl, Hester had the notion of equality on her mind. When she was very young, living in Washington, D.C., the Second World War broke out. "My brother and I were displaced children, like in London when the bombing started. My folks worked for the government in Washington so when the air raids started to come, my parents decided we should go down to Texas. Until then I was living in the inner city and my schoolmates were from all kinds of countries. It was a nicely regarded school and I was just an ordinary kid.

"When I got down to Texas, living with my grandparents, I found out that the lady who came to my grandmother's house once a week to clean house wasn't able to sit down and have lunch with my grandparents. And my grandparents were lovely people. I was so in love with them. I was shocked when the maid told me. I said, 'Listen, Grandma and Grandpa are going to have lunch too, so let's go in and join them,' and she said, 'Oh, no, I can't do that.'

"I said, 'What?'

"She said, 'Black people can't sit at the same table with white folks.'

"That never left me. That really hurt. I sorted that out. My grandparents never said anything bad about black people. My parents were for sure almost like a different culture. When my father was a teacher in Texas, he coached black debate teams, never said anything bad about black people. I knew my parents were different from my grandparents. They never spoke badly about any minority. Still, it was like there was this invisible law saying blacks and whites couldn't mix.

"I was like 9 years old and the inequity came through in my eyes and that never left me. Then there was Martin Luther King and I learned that 'it takes a village' thing."

Mississippi Bound

In her first days in Greenwich Village, Hester met Gil Turner, who in the folk revival days was a legend there. Turner, a folksinger who was the emcee at Gerde's Folk City, was nothing if not well-rounded. He was an editor at Broadside magazine, where he selected protest songs for publication in its pages. He was also a Shakespearean actor and a Baptist minister. He founded the folk group, the New World Singers, with Happy Traum and Civil Rights activist Bob Moses, which became the first group to record Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." In fact, Turner introduced "Blowin' in the Wind" to the public by being the first person to sing it on a stage. He was also the writer of one of the earliest protest classics, "Carry It On," which almost every folksinger of note -- including Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kate Wolf, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary and Carolyn Hester herself -- recorded.

Since Bob Moses played in the New World Singers with him, Turner was around when Moses began planning Freedom Summer. He joined in enthusiastically. When he was getting ready for the trip south, he invited Hester to come along. She went and "we met up with a lot of other folksingers and that's how we all got down to Freedom Summer."

In Mississippi, Hester experienced a culture shock bigger than the one she went through when she found out the maid could not eat lunch with her grandparents. "I remember that even in Mississippi, things seemed much more dire than in Austin or Dallas where I grew up. I'd be in the black community and just see hard working people, but when I was Hattiesburg and Jackson and all the other small places we went, you would see children wandering listlessly, aimlessly. It was like a third-world country. It broke my heart."

For Hester, going to Freedom Summer was not really a choice to be made; it was an imperative. She felt she had no choice. "What was driving me in those days was that I had to go to Mississippi. I didn't tell my parents I was going but it was so vital to me that I felt I don't want to be an American anymore if this is what's going on. I had to get up and do something and I think generations were thinking that. I was in my mid-20s, and there were people older than me and people younger than me."

She went down there at a dangerous time. "Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner had just been murdered at the time we started driving down through New York and about a week or so later, their bodies were discovered and it was a truly frightening experience. Still, it was something I had to do."

Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were two New York City college students who went to Mississippi to help register voters. In June 1964, they were traveling with Meridian, Mississippi, activist James Cheney when they were pulled over at a traffic stop by the police who did not easily accept black and white men sharing the same car, and took them to jail. They were released several hours later, but they were followed by the police and members of the KKK. They were pulled over again, taken prisoner by the police, driven to a different location and shot to death. Their bodies were hastily buried in a dam, where they were discovered a week later.

This event was never far from their minds as Hester and the other folksingers drove from town to town, singing wherever they could -- from the back of pickup trucks, to open fields, rickety home-made stages -- wherever they could spread the news and the music. As Hester said, "You almost didn't want to stand up and say you were an American if you didn't go. We sang in churches, we sang in people's houses. It was hard and it was scary and we were staying in their homes, on their side of town, and making their lives more difficult and more dangerous, but it was all necessary. I'm not sure if we did anything but say we see you, we love you, and we're with you. I don't know if we accomplished anything more than that. But we did do that."

Actually, they accomplished much more. Before Freedom Summer, fewer than 7 percent of African-Americans were registered and able to vote. There were no black office-holders. Today, most of the barriers to voting have been eliminated and Mississippi has over 1,000 black state and local officials -- more than any other state in the union. Hester and the other veterans of Freedom Summer can take a lot of the credit for that.

As her career flourished -- the Saturday Evening Post put her on the cover and called her the face of folk music, and she played concerts and did TV all over the world -- she often teamed up with other legends and is proud that folk music has always been integrated. She says, "I used to do shows with Mississippi John Hurt. I'd go on first and he'd be sitting in the audience listening and then he'd nod off -- he was already in his 70s then -- but he'd wake up when I did 'East Virginia' because he knew it was his turn to sing.

"And Odetta, she was such a buddy. My life was so much nicer because of her. We laughed and screamed together. Thank God, it could have been a thing where they wouldn't let blacks and whites make music together. That would have been horrible for me."

Freedom Summer didn't end Hester's activism. She made topical and protest songs the centerpiece of her album cut live at Carnegie Hall and marched against the Vietnam War.

"One march I remember was my mother had to fly from Texas to Baltimore, then she came up to New York where I was living. This was '62 or something, so I said, 'Mom, there's going to be a peace march. I was going to go. Would you want to go and march?' And she said 'I'd love to do that.'

"So we went out, my mom and I, and we did that, and on the way a man stood next to me and before I knew it, I felt something was wrong with my hand and I saw that he had put out his cigarette on my hand. He evidently didn't approve of what we were doing so he was just going around putting out cigarettes on people.

"I recovered from that when we got back to the apartment, my mom said, 'Thank you for that. It's so important. Thanks for letting me do that with my generation.'"

Why do it? Why put your life on the line in the deepest south and at peace marches? Why put up with the disrespect by and hatred from strangers?

The answer is simple, according to Hester. "There's that idea, you're not going to be surrounded by hate."

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

11 February 2017

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