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A Singing Army

A Singing Army
Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School

The first biography of activist and musician Zilphia Horton, a woman who inspired thousands of working people and left a legacy that changed the world.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment

March 2021
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320 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

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.

  • Introduction
  • 1. A Long Line of Strong Women
  • 2. Growth and Exploration
  • 3. A Rift
  • 4. Everything New
  • 5. New in Town
  • 6. Class and Privilege
  • 7. New York City
  • 8. Digging Roots
  • 9. Conflict and War
  • 10. No More Mourning
  • 11. We Will Overcome
  • 12. Getting Out of Town
  • 13. Changing Direction
  • 14. Trauma
  • 15. Lunging Toward Civil Rights
  • 16. Chicago
  • 17. Contempt and Johns Island
  • 18. Sustainability
  • 19. Rosa Parks and the End of the Line
  • 20. A Sudden, Shocking Accident
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Books Cited
  • Index

Kim Ruehl is a former editor in chief of roots music magazine No Depression. Her work has been published by Billboard, NPR Music, Columbia Journalism Review, CNN, and others.


“[A] vibrant new biography...A Singing Army vividly recreates the social and cultural history into which Zilphia Horton lived, and it brings to light her enduring achievements, her passionate vision for the arts and music and the ways they shape the human heart and effect social change, and her exceptional contribution to folk music and folk music scholarship.”
No Depression

“Throughout A Singing Armyy, Ruehl reasserts Horton’s belief that “'he 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

“Kim Ruehl deftly weaves archival research with modern-day investigations and interviews to give readers a long overdue examination of a remarkable woman and her role in transformative social movements that forever altered the American landscape. Alternately uplifting and heartbreaking, inspiring and tragic, A Singing Army is an enthralling history going back more than half a century, yet perfectly suited to this moment in time. Thanks to Ruehl’s dedication and tenacity, the story of Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School has been brought to illustrious, penetrating light.”
Denise Kiernan, New York Times best-selling author of We gather Together, The Last Castle and The Girls of Atomic City

“For anyone committed to building vibrant justice movements rooted in anti-racist, working class–based economic justice as well as feminist values, this book about the life, work, and leadership of Zilphia Horton is a crucially important blessing. Horton was central to creating the Highlander Folk School and weaving music and cultural organizing into building up multiracial labor and civil rights movements. This is a long-awaited and much-needed resource that deserves to be read and studied by all of us working for collective liberation.”
Chris Crass, author of Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy

“Kim Ruehl (one of my favorite music writers), has uncovered a superhero who was a driving force behind the music and activism of the Highlander Folk School: Zilphia Horton. No longer an unsung heroine, Horton is viscerally visible in this thoroughly researched story of her life and legacy. It is more important than ever for such women's histories to be remembered and archived. Ruehl tells Horton's story with thoughtfulness, integrity, and passion.”
Amy Ray, Indigo Girls


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3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca