Summer Issue 2023

My Duty to Sing

By Sue Massek

I believe that I was born with a passion for music, a pension for empathy, and a strong connection with nature. Somehow these meandering paths crossed and converged, separated and rejoined from early childhood on, guiding me toward a life as an artist who believes activism is my motivation to make music.

My mother sang all the time when I was growing up; songs that were handed down through generations of my family such as “The Blind Girl” and “Pat Malone,” and songs she heard on the radio shows like The Grand Ole Opry and The Ozark Jubilee like “Lamp Lighting Time” and “The Fate of Floyd Collins.”

I grew up in the flat lands of Kansas and came by my activism through the backdrop of both parents surviving The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. My mother’s parents lost all they had and were forced to become tenant farmers, and my father’s father was disabled from an accident while working for the WPA. One day, as he labored in a rock quarry, he was hit in his thigh by shrapnel from a dynamite explosion. He was only able to work at the local pool hall occasionally, so Grandma Massek worked at a nearby poultry plant until it closed. After that, she worked whatever jobs she could find in order to keep food on the table and clothes on her six children.

During those times in a small Kansas farm town, just getting by required ingenuity and humor. While growing up, it was these stories about hardship and injustice that ignited my understanding of the responsibility I had to help enact social change.

Music was such a solace to me all through my childhood, especially after I began to play guitar. I started teaching myself when I was nine years old. My great uncle, Lloyd, loaned my mother his guitar and a whole cardboard box of lyrics. Some were sheet music while others could be found in music magazines that were popular at the time. All of them were fragile, and yellowed, and so dear to my mother. She cried over and over as she pored through them. “Mary Across the Wild Moor” and “Worried Man Blues” were among the songs in these precious pages. My mother knew some chords, although she didn’t know their proper names, so she got me started instead. The first song she taught me was “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” I kept playing, and music’s hold on me grew stronger with every new chord or song I learned.

Sue Massek performs at her home in Willisburg, Kentucky
Photograph courtesy of the Kentucky Arts Council

I was a child of the ’60s, so I tried my hand at a couple years of college, first at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas and then at Kansas State in Manhattan. My desire to sing overcame my fortitude to finish a degree, so I went off to “seek my fortune” as a folksinger. I had it in mind to follow in the footsteps of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Mary Travers. These were the role models I had when I was young. I loved their music and would listen to their albums on repeat, but it was their activism that impressed me the most.

At that time, I had no real idea of how to get started in doing social justice work. I was a little too young to join the Civil Rights Movement or protest against the Vietnam War, but I did understand workers’ rights. My dad was a union steward for the United Rubber Workers, and as a family, we endured several long and difficult strikes. I recall my father feeling so frustrated that he threw a hotdog at my mother over the meager repetitive meals we were forced to have. It wasn’t until I went to my first Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. where I heard performers like Ola Belle Reed, Jim Garland, Utah Phillips, Hazel Dickens, and Sarah Ogan Gunning that I discovered the path I could follow as an artist and activist.

Sarah Ogan Gunning quelled a riot on the National Mall that year. A protest rally for the legalization of marijuana was being held at the U.S. Capitol, and part of their action was dropping a several pounds of pot from a small plane onto the festival crowd below. People began scrambling to get the pot or to get away from it, which caused the mounted police to charge in. Not long after, some folks began lighting fireworks, and it became quite dangerous. Utah Phillips went backstage and grabbed Sarah. Gunning stood in front of the microphone and belted out “I Hate the Capitalist System,” stopping everyone everyone in their tracks. No one could ignore that voice — or those words — coming from the mouth of a Kentucky woman who looked as though she would only sing “for Jesus”. I witnessed the power of music to create change. It had certainly created change in me. Little did I know the role Sarah would eventually play in my life.

A week after the Smithsonian Festival, I ended up at the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. There, I was taken underwing and received an immersion class on Appalachian issues and analysis from its founder, Don West. West was a poet, preacher, teacher, organizer, and farmer. He had a camp for kids from Appalachia whose families were too poor to support them or those who had no families at all. His mission was to teach camp-goers the cultural skills and values of Appalachia. He enlisted an incredible array of legendary old time musicians, including Frank George, Oscar Wright, and Blanton Owen, to teach the kids. I taught guitar, and in exchange, I received clawhammer banjo lessons from these masters. I knew from that moment on that I would have to move to Appalachia and become a folklorist.

In 1976, I finally made it to Kentucky. Not in the mountains like I imagined, but in Lexington, and that changed my life profoundly. I’d been a wanderer for a decade, having lived in Casper, Wyoming and Kansas City, Missouri for a while, but I mostly hitchhiked wherever my whims took me. In less than a year, my scattered passions came together and moved me down a road towards feeling fulfilled musically and personally.

Reel World String Band circa 1980
Left to right:
Sharon Ruble (bass), Karen Jones (fiddle), Bev Futrell (mandolin), Bell Jackson (guitar), Sue Massek (banjo)
Photograph courtesy of Sue Massek

In May 1977, the University of Kentucky hosted a music celebration at the International Women’s Year Conference in Lexington. A couple friends rounded up a musically-diverse group of women, including myself, to perform for an event at the university. We all enjoyed ourselves so well that we continued to gather as often as we could. Out of the ten or so that were a part of the original group group, five of us, Karen Jones (fiddle), Bev Futrell (guitar), Sharon Ruble (bass), and Belle Jackson (guitar) became the Reel World String Band, Kentucky’s feminist hillbilly band. As far as I know, we were Kentucky’s only lesbian string band and one of only a handful in the nation. 

I came out after the band got started, first to myself and my bandmates, and then to friends and family. It was a time of celebration for me. I finally understood a significant part of myself that had been shut off so tightly, I didn’t even remember it was there. This revelation put so many pieces of my puzzled life together and set me free in a way I’d never known. I am gifted with friends and family who embraced the change of consciousness in me. I know many who lost loved ones when they revealed the truth about themselves.

By this point, I belonged to a band that was playing regularly all over North America at venues I’d only dreamed of; The Lincoln Center in New York, The Carter Family Fold in Virginia, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and folk festivals across Canada. We traveled in an oversized Dodge van with an undersized engine that we called Beulah Van. We built a bed across the back of the van that was high enough to hide all of our suitcases and instruments. Beulah was also outfitted with three large chairs and a cooler between the main cabin and the bed. We could carry five people comfortably, six if someone sat on the cooler, and eight if two people didn’t mind lying down on the bed. Right after we fixed up the band, we were presented with a dream opportunity. We were asked to drive Lily May Ledford to the Urban Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati.

Every show we played was a huge thrill, but the gigs that counted the most were those that served more than entertainment purposes. When the band was just getting started, we were invited to take part in a performance benefiting the miners and their families during the Blue Diamond coal mine strike in Stearns, Kentucky. Guy and Candie Carawan, cultural organizers at the Highlander Folk School, arranged an event that featured artists John McCutcheon, Rich Kirby, Tommy Bledsoe, Sparky Rucker, Phyllis Boyens, and Nimrod Workman.

The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly Highlander Folk School, is located outside of Knoxville, Tennessee but has existed in several different iterations across the state. All of these spaces have been burned, or otherwise vandalized, by intimidators who objected to the Center’s work on social justice and environmental issues. Founded by Miles Horton, Don West, Jim Dombrowski, and others in the early 1930s, Highlander “focused first on organizing unemployed and working people” and then served as the “de-facto CIO education center for the region, training union organizers and leaders in 11 southern states.” Rosa Parks was a Highlander family member. So was Sarah Ogan Gunning, Florence Reese, Hazel Dickens, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ann Romaine, and several of the Freedom Singers from the Civil Rights Movement.

Guy and Candie often organized gatherings that brought us all to the mountaintop to learn. We listened to stories told by folks who were actively struggling to survive. Their stories were told through song and dance, through poetry and prose. Some simply described their troubles as clearly and honestly as they could. These stories are embedded deeply in my soul. The connections we made at Highlander would last lifetimes.

Ephemera relating to the Stearns Coal Mine strike (1976-1979)
Pamphlet courtesy of the Stearns Miners Support Committee (San Francisco, CA)

Reel World was very connected to the feminist movement, of course, and we performed at conferences, benefits, rallies and festivals put on by — and geared towards — women. We played on picket lines for the United Mine Workers of America and Garment Workers in Olive Hill. We sang songs on the Capitol steps about strip mining, mountaintop removal, and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment.

One difficulty we had, especially when our band was still new, was addressing the lyrics to the old tunes we enjoyed playing. The terms used were often racist and misogynist, particularly with the fiddle-tunes. If we couldn’t flip some words to make them “right,” we just wouldn’t play them. One example is “Sail Away Ladies.” The last verse reads, “I chew my tobacco, and I spit my juice / I have an old woman but she ain’t no use.” Instead, we would sing, “I have an old dog, but he ain’t no use.” If someone requested a tune like “Fox on the Run” or “Deliverance,” it gave us a chance to do some “educating”.

We were blacklisted by some bluegrass festivals because their sponsors objected to our opposition to strip mining and mountaintop removal. When the World Equestrian Games came to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in 2010, we were excited to be scheduled to play on the Kentucky Music Stage. When we discovered it was sponsored by the big coal companies, we organized a counter concert and refused to play on their stage. We were joined by several other Kentucky artists, including writer and philosopher Wendell Berry.

We became connected with the Kentucky Arts Council soon after we got started as a band. We worked in the school systems around Ashland and Morehead where we taught both folk music and folk dance. After that point, I became an Artist in Residence for nearly 25 years. I worked in every elementary school in Clay County and Jackson County, and through these residencies, my dream of living in Appalachia was realized. More importantly, I was able to reach thousands of students through a message of inclusion, diversity, and love of their homeplace and its culture.

Around the same time, the Kentucky Folklife Program was offering folklore residencies but didn’t have enough academically trained folklorists to meet its needs. The folks at KFP trained me personally, and I ended up completing four or five of these 3-month residencies. I also conducted a handful of folklife surveys, including research for More Than Music: A Heritage Driving Tour of Kentucky’s Route 23. The training I received during these residencies would ultimately serve as the foundation for the well-respected Community Scholars Program.

I have also been extremely fortunate to have been mentored by so many musicians throughout my life. The first was Lily May Ledford. Lily May and I became friends at the end of her life and were fortunate enough to play music together. However, the most memorable part of our friendship was listening to her stories about growing up in the Red River Gorge, her days of performing with the Coon Creek Girls, and her life after she parted with her band. She was honored with the National Heritage Fellowship Award shortly before she passed in 1985.

I was also privileged to spend a summer playing music with Clyde Davenport, who received the National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1992. I learned dozens of fiddle tunes from Clyde, and if I couldn’t catch a particular tune on the banjo, he’d show me how to play it. He was the smoothest old time fiddler I ever knew. He didn’t talk much; we just sat knee-to-knee for hours playing one tune after the other. I was in Heaven whenever I performed with Clyde.

Another memorable mentor was Blanche Coldiron. Blanche’s story starts out similarly to Lily May’s. Both musicians had to sneak around in order to learn how to play music. At that time, women and girls were discouraged — or even prevented — from playing string band music. Still, she learned banjo so well that she filled in for David Akeman, nicknamed “Stringbean,” in Asa Martin’s band when they toured southeastern Kentucky. That was as far as her parents would allow her music career to go. Blanche received a recording offer from Nashville, but her parents kept the contract hidden until after she was married to a husband who didn’t want her to perform.

In conjunction with the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Folklife Program began offering “folklife apprenticeships.” I was fortunate enough to receive one and apprenticed alongside Blanche. She was skilled at every string instrument she laid hands on. Clawhammer, two-finger picking, or bluegrass — Blanche’s playing style was unparalleled. She played with Reel World several times, but mostly I just sat on her living room couch and listened to her stories, occasionally playing a tune here or there. She certainly pushed my banjo skills up a level or two, and I became comfortable with two-finger picking. I am a Master Artist now and have taught several young musicians through the same apprenticeship program.

In the late 1980s, I traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua with an Episcopal group from Virginia. When we arrived, we examined the similarities between developing countries and Appalachia. Each place was being exploited for its resources, and citizens’ lives were completely devalued. Populations had been displaced from their homelands, and it was dangerous to organize resistance. In Central America and in Appalachia music and dance were, and continue to be, an important tool of the resistance. Survivors of despotic government regimes shared stories, both horrific and harrowing, of the oppression they faced on a daily basis. Their hope was made manifest through song and dance.

I returned from that trip more determined than ever to find ways to fight for human rights and justice. I stood on more picket lines, sang for more rallies, and led the singing for more marches. Not surprisingly, the issues seemed to multiply. We went to war with Iraq, LGBTQ rights were within reach, and of course, climate change remained a dire threat to humankind.

As I aged, it became clear that I needed a job that would provide health insurance. For a while, I worked for the Kentucky Arts Council as a “Circuit Rider”. This position existed as a means to connect artists, arts agencies, and cultural organizations at the local level. After that, I was offered a job as an Arts and Cultural Organizer for the Appalachian Women’s Alliance. I served in this position for close to three years and received further training as an organizer. The travel became daunting, and I was offered a job with the Kentucky Foundation for Women. It still involved travel, but at least I would be home at night. I worked with KFW for seven years. Unfortunately, as a result of the Great Recession in 2008, my position was terminated. By that time, I had turned 62 and was able to begin drawing Social Security benefits.

A year later, I was asked to find a gig for Si Kahn, a prolific singer-songwriter, playwright, and activist. Kahn was completing a residency at the University of Kentucky, and I booked his performance at The Rudyard Kipling in Louisville. Kahn has also written several folk musicals, and at the time, offered to write one for me about Sarah Ogan Gunning. I couldn’t resist, even though I had no theatre experience. The musical, “Precious Memories,” was a one-woman, 90-minute production, and one for which I am extremely proud to have performed for several years. The show made Sarah come alive for me again. Her granddaughter even came to North Carolina to see the play and calls me “Grandma” now.

Promotional material for Kahn's play, "Precious Memories"
Image courtesy of Ten Pound Fiddle

In 2016, Reel World performed its final concert right after the presidential election. We played together for close to 40 years, and this concert was a coming-together for a community in fearful mourning about our country’s direction. We all needed it, needed each other, and needed to sing.

In 2021, two very opposing things happened. First, I received the Governor’s Folk Heritage Award, another life goal come to fruition. Second, COVID crawled across the globe and chewed up all my gigs. At 72 years old, I questioned whether I wanted to try to rebuild my career or just become a full-time pet-sitter. I do love performing, and look forward to every chance I have. Now, I have wonderful experiences with my own apprentices who teach me as much as I teach them. There are also young musicians who seem to be taking me under their wings, which boosts my ego a hundredfold.

Still, I have been given the gift of having a way to make my voice heard. I believe I am duty bound to sing out when I see injustices being enacted. I believe we are living in a time when great injustices are being done to the earth, its people, and to the very fabric of our democracy.

I continue writing songs. They clarify my feelings about whatever brings me joy and sorrow. My legacy will be my songs and my recording projects, both ways to proclaim my feelings publicly.

My journey has followed paths that have climbed, curved, and fallen. And there have been a few times when it has allowed me to fly.

I look forward to the next aerial experience.

Additional work by Sue Massek and Reel World String Band may be found here and here.