In the summer of 1953, folk singers Guy Carawan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Frank Hamilton lit out from New York City to take a trip through the South. Over six weeks, they traveled from the North Carolina coast to New Orleans, spending much of their time in the Appalachian mountains, hearing a lot of music and making some themselves.
Carawan, at the time 26 years old and based in New York, wanted to visit a coastal farm in Mesic, N.C., where his father had grown up. From there he would explore the South, the source of so much of the music he loved and performed. He invited his 18-year-old friend Frank Hamilton along. While in a Harlem bar to hear Knoxville-born blues singer Brownie McGhee, they met Jack Elliott, who was also soon on board for the trip.
Stopping in Merry Point, N.C., they met union organizer Bill Levener, who convinced them to leave town immediately. A fish factory had been burned down recently and the three outsiders made good suspects, even though it was widely suspected that the owners, losing money because of a fishermen’s strike, had burned the factory themselves. This was not the last time they would be met with suspicion.
Low on funds, they tried busking in most towns they stopped in, but frequently police stopped them. At a revival, they were singled out by the preacher, threatened with damnation if they did not turn to Jesus. “We’ve been taken for everything from mountain hillbillies, Texas cowboys, country farmers, dust bowl refugees, to hoboes and sometimes city fellers,” Carawan wrote. They would often sleep on the ground or in their car, occasionally put up for the night by farmers or townspeople in barns or homes.
In Naces Springs, Va., they stayed with A.P. Carter in his “old torn down shack—full of old pictures, song sheets and books,” sleeping in a “bug-eaten bed.” It was a pitiful sight, but they had a splendid time making music with the “grand-daddy of all mountain and country folk singers.”
Then on to Asheville, where they met with singing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who had launched the Asheville Folk Festival in 1928. Lunsford was an influential figure for Carawan, but on meeting him, Carawan thought him a “reactionary aristocrat.”
Lunsford wanted to know if the three men were Communists; he was galled to see that vocal leftist Pete Seeger wrote the liner notes to his just released Folkways album. They did play music with him and seemed to enjoy the experience, Lunsford singing “like an old mountain reprobate, full of glee and friendliness.”