Of Musicology and Labor Unions

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I might offer a teaser for one of my current projects. It happens to be about Labor unions, at least in part, so it’s relevant to today’s holiday. I’m presenting papers about this project in November (at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting) and March (at the Society for American Music’s annual meeting), so the writing I am doing is still in early stages.* (I had so much archival material to dig through! It was awesome!) But here’s the working title: 

Sing out, Brother!
Zilphia Horton’s “Unfinished” CIO Songbook

In 1938, the national headquarters of the recently formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) commissioned Zilphia Horton (1910-1956) to compile a songbook appropriate for the use of CIO members in demonstrations and rallies. Horton, the director of music at the Highlander Folk School (then located in Monteagle, TN) from 1935 until 1956, had already produced several such collections for local labor movement use, and in her position at Highlander—a folk school responsible for the political training of generations of labor and civil rights activists—she had easy access to labor songs from around the country. Horton gladly accepted the task, sent out national pleas for songs, and put together the collection of contrafact texts set to familiar tunes over the next decade. After many delays, the collection was finally set to go to press in spring of 1948, but Horton received eleventh-hour permissions denials that severely compromised the collection. Also detrimental to her project was the souring relationship between Highlander and the CIO, prompted by the CIO’s decreasing tolerance of Communist affiliations among its members.  

Horton’s CIO collection was never published, but many of the songs she collected for the songbook found their way into songbooks she bound for use at Highlander. One such collection, Sing Out, Brother!, likely compiled in 1947, contains nearly all of the songs intended for the CIO collection, with a few additional songs relevant to 1946 politics. Sing Out, Brother! seems to be Horton’s attempt to salvage the CIO project as her faith in its publication diminished. Drawing extensively from her letters and songbook collection, my project details Horton’s collection process; her attempts to secure publication permissions for songs not in the Public Domain; her correspondence with songwriters and political leaders regarding the provenance of individual songs; and her increasing frustration with incessant publication delays.


This project is nearly entirely built from archival resources located in the Zilphia Horton collection in the manuscript division of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. (And since I started my archival work last fall while I was enjoying a sabbatical, here’s a huge shout out to Middle Tennessee State University for giving me the time to start this project!) One of my favorite parts of this project has been reading the correspondence between Horton and individual labor workers from around the country. The workers sent her songs and encouragement, greeted her as their “comrade,” and asked after her health and her family. Horton was a beloved member of the labor community; her work was revered and she was honored for her tireless efforts. She–like so many parents–struggled with work / life balance, and wished for more time to pursue her own writing projects. She was creative, crazy smart, and supremely dedicated to finishing the CIO project, despite the many barriers. I am really looking forward to telling this story in its entirety!


*Please do not quote from or otherwise use this material without contacting me first. I would be happy to share my discoveries as I go, but my ideas are not fully cooked yet!


3 thoughts on “Of Musicology and Labor Unions

  1. This project sounds absolutely fabulous. Can’t wait to hear more about it, and to read the work that comes out of it!!

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