Ain’t you gotta write?

Songwriting from deep in the heart of the civil rights movement

Author Steve Metzger (center, without guitar), John McCutcheon (cigar) and the other songwriters around the campfire in the Smoky Mountains.

Author Steve Metzger (center, without guitar), John McCutcheon (cigar) and the other songwriters around the campfire in the Smoky Mountains.

Photo by Cathryn Fairlee

What was I thinking? A songwriting camp? In Tennessee?

It seemed like a good idea the night before. We'd been with our regular gang at the Big Room at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. for John McCutcheon's annual January show—funny, intimate, inspiring. McCutcheon on guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano and hammered dulcimer.

Traditional songs, covers and originals, including “Christmas in the Trenches,” his heart-wrenching song about the spontaneous World War I truce in France on Christmas Eve 1914. On the way out I grabbed a flier announcing a songwriting camp he’d be hosting—then looked at his website when I got home:

Join Grammy-nominated folk musician and songwriter John McCutcheon for an intense, intimate songwriting Master Class at the historic Highlander Center in east Tennessee. [E]njoy breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains, healthy, delicious homemade food, camaraderie, and visits to the Highlander library and archives.

• Four days of theoretical and hands-on practice.

• One-on-one critiques with John.

• Open-mic/sing-arounds each evening.

• Dorm-style lodging, $700.

Add to cart.

Maybe I shouldn’t have had that last Celebration Ale.

Sure, I’d been strumming three chords on guitars most of my life, knew dozens of folk and country songs, and had even written several silly little songs of my own—but a songwriting camp? At the “historic Highlander Center”? Never even heard of it.

You read in all the history books the same old story told
How us poor miners all got rich, digging that old black gold
But you know the company got the gold, you know the miners’ lungs got black

—Si Kahn (“Black Gold”)

The Highlander Folk Center was founded in 1932 in Monteagle, Tenn., to train and educate labor organizers—particularly in support of coal miners, textile workers and woodcutters—and to promote social justice and racial equality. (Repeat: The South. 1932.)

Campfire strumming.

Photo by Linda Erday

The center’s mission, in part:

We work with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability … Through popular education, participatory research, and cultural work, we … help create and support strong, democratic organizations … to build broad movements for social, economic and restorative environmental change.

In 1944, United Auto Workers leaders attended Highlander’s first integrated workshop, and the following year, as the center became more involved in union causes, Zilphia Horton, the center’s music director, adapted “We Shall Overcome” from a gospel hymn to support striking tobacco workers. In 1960, Guy Carawan, Horton’s successor, taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the group’s first meeting at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. Since 1966, the center has administered the We Shall Overcome Fund, generated from royalties, which supports black communities fighting injustice with art and activism. Carawan is also the author of Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?, about the Gullah people—descendants of slaves and living in isolated areas of the coastal South—and their encounter with the civil rights movement.

“The degree to which you resist other people taking away your rights is the degree to which you are free.”

—John McCutcheon

An early afternoon in May on the first day of camp, and I’m back at Sierra Nevada, but the new one, outside Asheville, N.C., 85 miles from Highlander. Stalling? Maybe. But we’ve been instructed not to arrive before 4, and these duck-fat fries and smoked-trout sandwich are delicious, especially washed down with a Nooner (I’d decided not to go with the pig cheeks, free-range or not).

I-40 west from Asheville ribbons through the lush Pigeon River Gorge, hugging cliffsides and bridging the river, the Smoky Mountains ridging off in every direction. Just past Douglas Lake I left the freeway, chased a state route through hills of rolling pine and slanting fields stippled with tractors and rickety red barns, then followed the signs to Highlander along a narrow country road and up a steep gravel driveway.

Four o’clock on the button. No one else there. I wandered over to what looked like the main building, a large circular central room on the second floor built out of the hillside. Two circles of rocking and folding chairs with a piano off to the side, the far wall’s sliding-glass doors opening to a wrap-around deck and a wide-angle view of mountain ridges, hazy in the distance.

Soon others began to arrive, and McCutcheon wandered down from the Horton House, where he and a few others would be staying in private rooms. Six of us would be in the men’s dorms—eight pairs of bunk beds with mattresses about as thick as my wallet.

We settled in, then headed downstairs to the buffet—veggie and turkey sausages, mashed potatoes, corn bread and a fresh-greens salad with goat cheese.

After dinner, we convened in the rocking-chairs room, McCutcheon circling us around him. “Closer,” he said. “This room is sacred. Pete Seeger, the Soweto Gospel Choir and many more have sung this song right here.” Then he led us through Carawan’s iconic civil rights anthem “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?” Our voices filled the room as we stood shoulder to shoulder, feeling the power of song and decades of freedom-fighting.

Then we returned to our chairs. “Tell us where you’re from and who you are, especially as a musician and songwriter,” McCutcheon instructed. “You have three minutes.” Perfect, I thought—I can sell my unneeded two minutes to the highest bidder!

Unfortunately, I went last and didn’t get the chance.

Turns out four others were from California, a few from the Midwest, and several had driven in from Southern states. Nineteen, plus McCutcheon. A teacher, a mother and her mid-20s daughter, a retired orthopedic surgeon, a wine maker. A couple of IT guys. A pastor, a veterinarian. A 14-year-old kid. Some had been writing and performing professionally for decades; some, including a professional storyteller, didn’t play instruments at all. One woman had bought a ukulele on the way and was learning a few chords.

Maybe it would be OK.

“See you in the morning,” McCutcheon said. “Breakfast downstairs at 8, first workshop at 9, right here.”

“Never edit a first draft. Just get something out there that you can work with. Polish it later.” —JM

Camper Lucas sings a tune in the rocking-chairs room with fellow camper Jim looking on.

Photo by Patti Robinson

John McCutcheon is a songwriter, storyteller and activist with a profound appreciation of traditional American folk music and its ability to bring about social change. In 1971, he hitchhiked to Highlander from his Wisconsin home, and he’s never looked back—becoming involved in many of the center’s causes and fights and attending and offering workshops. On his 2006 CD Mightier Than the Sword, he set to music the work of several contemporary American writers, including Wendell Berry, Rita Dove and Barbara Kingsolver, as well as poetry by Pablo Neruda and an unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyric.

Pete Seeger called McCutcheon “one of our country’s best songwriters.”

“You could argue about the definition of folk music forever,” McCutcheon said the first morning, “but remember that it belongs to us. No one owns it. You have permission to use it.”

Then he sang the traditional English ballad “Barbara Allen” and talked about how with folk music, “the story, not the personality, moves the song, worn smooth on a thousand tongues before ours.”

He talked about “zipper songs,” in which just one word or phrase is changed with each verse, so they’re easy to learn and to sing in groups: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

He also talked about the power and the value of bridges, which traditionally link the chorus of a song to its final verse, making the song whole.

Then it got scary: “OK, let’s try it,” he said. “Pair up with someone and write a song about what it was like to get here yesterday, and then come back and perform them. You’ve got half an hour.”


“I gained [at Highlander] strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but for all oppressed people.” —Rosa Parks

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Highlander was targeted by Southern newspapers and politicians for hosting integrated workshops and training sessions, including one at which NAACP secretary Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. strategized the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, the Georgia Commission on Education accused the center of being a “Communist Training School,” and the FBI identified Highlander co-founder Donald West as the director of North Carolina’s Communist Party—most likely in connection with a photo of West and King together, taken at Highlander’s 25th anniversary. In early 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked the center’s charter and seized its property—it reopened months later in Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center.

With a new charter and property, Highlander resumed its dedication to social causes and educating organizers—and, of course, continued taking flak from its conservative and fearful neighbors. It moved to its current location, New Market, Tenn., in 1971, expanding to national and international issues, from environmental to gender equality. Fast forward to 2015, and the center is also involved in LGBT issues and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

It wasn’t so bad. My partner and I worked up a couple of decent if not particularly original verses, and in fact, all the songs were surprisingly good, given their half-hour gestations. That evening after dinner we reconvened in the rocking-chairs room for the first song circle, a hard rain falling outside, taking turns singing original songs or simply telling stories (subsequent nights the song circles met on the hillside across the field, around a fire under clear, starry skies).

The second day’s afternoon workshop focused on creating characters to tell stories in the first person, McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” an example:

Oh, my name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool

Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school

To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here

I fought for King and country I held dear …

John McCutcheon (right) laughs it up with Highlander campers.

Photo by Steve Metzger

This led to a lively discussion about how accurately we can inhabit characters unlike ourselves. “I’d feel like an imposter writing a song from the point of view of a 15-year-old African-American girl,” said Mike, a white 50-something family physician. McCutcheon nodded. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you need to know where he or she is coming from. If you were to sing it to them, you’d want it to be like a mirror, so they could see themselves in your song.”

Then he told the story of SuAnne Big Crow, a star player on the 1989 Pine Ridge High School basketball team in South Dakota who confronted pregame racist war whoops by dropping the basketball she was holding and silencing the crowd by doing a shawl dance on the gym floor. Then he picked up his guitar:

I am SuAnne Big Crow, I am fourteen years old

Here on the Pine Ridge Reservation

I play for the Lady Thorpes, but that night on the court

I was the Oglala Nation …

“OK, your turn. First, take 15 minutes to identify and describe your character.”

We all set to scribbling in our notebooks.

“Ready? You’ve got 30 minutes.”

We filed out of the room. Some sat under trees on the hillside, some on benches on the deck. I sat on a cinderblock retaining wall just outside the main building. McCutcheon circulated among us, asking if we needed help.

After 20 minutes, I had this (Repeat: “Never edit a first draft.”), and played it for the group, apologizing and calling it a “ferry song” (no bridge).

My name is Annie Adams, and my whole life’s a mess

My boyfriend’s back to drinkin’, and I just bought this dress

Don’t judge me by my ink, don’t judge me by my teeth

Don’t judge me for the way I live, you don’t know what I seen

I’ve owned four bars and 20 cars, a Harley softtail, too

But it’s time that I turned things around, I’m going back to school

Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander in September 1957.

Photo courtesy of highlander folk center

It’s hard to get to classes, though, I got this DUI

And it’s a five-mile ride ’cross town on this old yellow bike

Rose says I should I leave him, “Look what he’s done to you”

I remind her of my promise, that’s not something I could do

Last night he went too far, though, and pushed me down the stairs

Threw my bike outside behind me, said, “Fuck you, I don’t care.”

So I got an ad on Craigslist, I’m looking for a place

A little studio sounds nice, can’t wait to have my space

My name is Annie Adams, and my whole life’s a mess

My boyfriend’s back to drinkin’, but I just bought this dress

The most interesting workshop—and the most apropos, given the setting—focused on protest/political songs. Among the things McCutcheon emphasized: 1) You can do more with songs than with lectures. “Name three speeches from the civil rights movement,” he said (after some hemming and hawing, the group came up with three). “Now name three songs from the civil rights movement” (we rattled off a dozen in 10 seconds). 2) Don’t tell people what to do or think. “Let your stories shine little slivers of light where people can see action needs to be taken.” 3) You need to know and respect your audience—they’re not the enemy. Your job is to get them to join you. 4) You do that with emotion. “You can take people further with what they feel than what they think.”

Then he talked about melody. “Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie wrote songs based on familiar melodies,” he said. “Striking Irish railroad workers learned songs more quickly if they knew the tune.” His example: Hill’s “We Won’t Build No More Railroads for Overalls and Snuff,” sung to the tune of “The Wearing of the Green.”

“Now,” McCutcheon said on the third day, “it’s time to put to practice what we’ve been talking about. Break up into groups of three and write songs to perform for the kitchen staff to thank them for the wonderful meals.”

I found myself tripled up with Mike the doctor and Cathryn the storyteller. We repaired to the deck outside and agreed on a concept: We’d signed up for the camp without giving much thought to the food but had been hugely impressed with it. We ended light-heartedly:

Who cares about the music? Who cares about the mood?

Let’s get to the end of the stories, all we want’s your food.

Back inside, McCutcheon told us to listen carefully to each song and to come up with a sensible set list. He suggested considering key, pace, meter and “emotional content,” then added, “Oh, and your group will need a name.”

Highlander music director Guy Carawan (left) singing with activists Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel. Carawan helped establish “We Shall Overcome” as a civil rights anthem.

Photo courtesy of highlander folk center

We agreed on an order and headed downstairs where the four cooks were waiting at a table. “And We Thank You,” by Here We Gather, and “Take Me Back Again,” by Pair Up in Threes, bookended the other five songs, including “All We Want,” by the Hip Replacements.

Apparently, it went well—the staff seemed moved. I was just about to bite into my veggie stir fry when head chef Thomas, a large 30-something man with a tight beard and magenta bandana tied around his head, stepped back out of the kitchen. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I need to disrupt this white tranquility.” We looked up, startled. “I went to Ferguson after Michael Brown was murdered,” he continued, “and came back feeling totally hopeless. I wanted to do something.” He gave us stats on the numbers of black men in prison, talked about what it was like as a white man to come to understand white privilege, then thanked us, scribbled #blacklivesmatter on the menu board, and returned to the kitchen.

“I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning—organize.” —Joe Hill

John McCutcheon is currently on tour performing Joe Hill’s Last Will, a one-man song-and-monologue show written by his good friend Si Kahn. It’s the story of Hill’s last 90 minutes before the famous union organizer, Industrial Workers of the World member, and self-proclaimed world’s greatest songwriter was executed in Salt Lake City in 1915. As Hill, McCutcheon tells his story to an imaginary reporter, including how he was arrested on what he claims—and what most historians agree—were trumped-up murder charges.

Finally, McCutcheon/Hill watches through his cell window as the sun rises and the firing squad prepares for the execution, reminding us that Hill let the commander yell, “Ready … aim,” but then interrupted: “Fire!”

On stage, McCutcheon’s strapped to his chair, the lights go out, and the sounds of shots fill the air. Moments later, McCutcheon returns to sing “Joe Hill’s Last Will,” the words of which Hill handed through his cell bars to a guard the night before the execution and which McCutcheon set to music. (McCutcheon will be performing the show in Salt Lake City on Sept. 19, the centenary of the execution.)

On the afternoon of the third day, McCutcheon and I sat on the deck outside going over a couple of my songs. He sang along, then picked up the lyrics. “Look,” he said. “What do you think about this?” He drew a big X over an entire verse of one song.


“If your audience is paying attention, they already know the baby’s mixed race. Don’t tell them what they know from the details earlier in the song.”

Of course he was right, and the song’s better now. So is the other one, in which he suggested conflating two verses.

“The only other thing I’d suggest,” he said, “is to work on your bridges. Good bridges make good songs.”

Throughout August, the Highlander Center will pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They are also working on a building to be named for Lillian Johnson, the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Cornell and who founded Memphis State College—and who donated the land the old Highlander Folk Center was located on. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Preservation Trust has purchased Highlander’s original “hallowed ground” and is re-establishing it as an educational center and tourist destination.

In June and July, Highlander hosted meetings and workshops and circulated petitions in response to the Charleston AME church shootings.

The last morning, after a brief Q-and-A wrap-up, we circled up for one last song: “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?” Then McCutcheon thanked us. “Thank you for being kind,” he said. “This is a huge risk. Maybe you’re the one who was scared. Maybe your family doesn’t even know what this means to you. Thank you.”

Hugs all around, and we trudged reluctantly out to our cars. I threw my guitar and bag on the back seat and headed down the gravel driveway, back to Asheville.

Two weeks later I’m back at the Big Room in Chico, McCutcheon on stage as Joe Hill. He sings “Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” “The Preacher and the Slave,” and “There Is Power in a Union,” then looks at his pocket watch and out the cell window. He tells the reporter that he will be dead before he can hear the shots—bullets travel faster than the speed of sound. “Ready … aim …”


Shots as the lights go out.

I take a deep breath and think about bridges.