A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School (Hardcover)
Zilphia Horton was a pioneer of cultural organizing, an activist and musician who taught people how to use the arts as a tool for social change, and a catalyst for anthems of empowerment such as “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Her contributions to the Highlander Folk School, a pivotal center of the labor and civil rights movements in the mid-twentieth century, and her work creating the songbook of the labor movement influenced countless figures, from Woody Guthrie to Eleanor Roosevelt to Rosa Parks. Despite her outsized impact, Horton’s story is little known. A Singing Army introduces this overlooked figure to the world.
Drawing on extensive archival and oral history research, as well as numerous interviews with Horton's family and friends, Kim Ruehl chronicles her life from her childhood in Arkansas coal country, through her formative travels and friendship with radical Presbyterian minister Claude C. Williams, and into her instrumental work in desegregation and fostering the music of the civil rights era. Revealing these experiences—as well as her unconventional marriage and controversial death by poisoning—A Singing Army tells the story of an all-but-forgotten woman who inspired thousands of working-class people to stand up and sing for freedom and equality.
— No Depression
Throughout A Singing Army, Ruehl reasserts Horton’s belief that “'the arts are not dressing,' but rather an important aspect of political organization that allows people from different backgrounds to understand one another’s struggles and find common ground. Ruehl’s invocation of Horton’s beliefs plays like the catchy refrain to one of Horton’s labor songs, emphasizing the importance of her ideals and showing readers another way to organize and connect with others...Through her subject’s incredible life and through her straightforward, observational style, Ruehl illuminates a story bound to inspire 21st-century artists and activists.
— Nashville Scene
A Singing Army is thoroughly documented, drawing on archival research, letters, and interviews with Thorsten and Charis, Zilphia’s sister, and others. As portrayed by Ruehl, Zilphia is independent, resourceful, resilient, and original, and Myles clearly shares her collaborative spirit. Although 'social justice' and 'the South' are still often seen as oxymoronic, Ruehl illuminates a time and place when people were trying to make them synonyms.
— Chapter 16
This impactful book delivers Horton's story with care and compassion...We need people to tell such stories. People need to read such stories. Our world is better [when] we have access to such history. We can create an even better world when [we] give more attention than ever to the people who bring these stories to us. My hope is that people take the time to read this fantastic book about Zilphia Horton and follow her example.
— Bearded Gentlemen Music
Kim Ruehl has done the history of American social justice movements a great service in this first biography of Zilphia Horton...Ruehl’s thorough and thoughtful book testifies to her lasting influence.
— WNC Magazine
A Singing Army is a revelatory look into how Zilphia [Horton] contributed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for social change makers at the Highlander Folk School and how this was an integral part of enabling social change.
— Southern Review of Books
Beautifully written and endlessly fascinating, [A Singing Army is] one of the best biographies of the year.
— NPR, "2021 Books We Love"
In the first book devoted to [Zilphia] Horton, A Singing Army vividly recreates the social and cultural history of which Horton was part, and it brings to light her enduring achievements, her passionate vision for the arts and music and how they effect social change, and her exceptional contribution to folk music and folk music scholarship.
— No Depression, "Best Music Books of 2021"
An engaging and thought-provoking story of Zilphia Horton’s interesting life...The text presents a fascinating, detailed look at the complexities of Zilphia’s personal challenges, and a fresh look at Highlander’s history and activities...the high quality of the writing makes the book enjoyable and difficult to put down.