Celebrating Worth Long’s Legacy
by Emilye Crosby
Worth Long is a civil and human rights activist, blues historian, cultural worker, folklorist, festival organizer, and friend to many. He chose an Ampex tape recorder rather than a wedding ring to celebrate his 1959 marriage and brought a longstanding interest in Black music to his work with the Smithsonian (which began in 1970). Worth’s extraordinary work spans an incredible range. Many of his projects have received external recognition, including a GRAMMY nomination (with Ralph Rinzler and Barry Lee Pearson) for Roots of Rhythm and Blues: The Robert Johnson Era (1993), a recording with Columbia Records that grew out of a Smithsonian project of the same name, and a Peabody Award for Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a radio history of the Civil Rights Movement in five Southern cities. Worth has been recognized by the National Black Arts Festival’s Living Legends Award and the Smithsonian’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1936, Worth was profoundly influenced by his parents and community, regularly traveling with his father, a “songbird” and Presiding Elder in the AME Zion Church. Here, he was exposed to sacred and secular side-by-side. Describing the men who would drink corn liquor outside the church during the service, he recalls, “They would tell magnificent stories, and they would be singing and doing toasts. Can you imagine? Church is going on. This is not saints and sinners. But this is a secular element in a sacred site.” Immersed in a world of music, Worth found one of his first role models in Alonzo Alston, a man who made records “for pleasure and as a service to the community.”
Worth spent two years as a medic in the Air Force in Korea and Japan, where he was introduced to and engaged by traditional Japanese festivals and became aware of “folklore.” In 1962, while a student at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, he led sit-ins that desegregated the city in just one week. He then joined SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), working as staff coordinator, becoming project director in Selma in 1963, and serving as one of the Southern coordinators for the historic March on Washington.
In the early 1970s, Ralph Rinzler asked Worth to work with photodocumentarian Roland Freeman to identify people to represent Mississippi at the 1974 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. This led to years of rich collaboration, including the Mississippi Folklife Project, which was consolidated in Folkroots: Images of Mississippi Black Folklife (1977). In a 2006 publication, Freeman explains, “Our work in Mississippi... is characterized by our commitments to build sturdy bridges across race and class, and by our always approaching people as participants in creating our work and not as ‘subjects.’ We are committed to supporting participants’ developing their own voices.”
Worth helped found the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival, worked on Land Where the Blues Began (with Alan Lomax), co-directed Mississippi Triangle (a film about Chinese-White-African American relations in the Delta, with Christine Choy), conducted interviews for Workers in the White House (with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the White House Historical Association), did interviews for the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Project, worked with the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival, the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, the 1984 Louisiana World’s Exposition, and so much more. When Bernice Johnson Reagon was organizing a national conference entitled Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, Worth recommended that she add a photography exhibition and a solo recording of Fannie Lou Hamer (in addition to the planned three-album box set on Civil Rights Movement songs). Worth served as guest curator of the exhibition, We’ll Never Turn Back, and Reagon produced Songs My Mother Taught Me, using Worth’s knowledge of earlier recordings he and Julius Lester had made with Hamer. Based on this experience, Reagon observed, “Worth is brilliant and wide ranging in what he imagines needs to happen with so much of our history.”
In 2005, Richard Kurin, former director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and current Smithsonian Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture, described one of Worth’s many Folklife Festival presentations as among the best he’s ever seen: “It was a lesson in the visceral nature of culture, about how meaning transforms the body and the person—sometimes making you want to dance, other times giving you the courage to speak your mind. This is not culture as costume, but rather something that runs deep.” Curator and collaborator Diana N’Diaye explains that Worth “has challenged us to go beyond merely documenting the expressive culture of our people to using the power of our culture to organize for social justice and human rights.”
Always concerned as much with human and creative rights as the “civil rights” that come with citizenship, Worth explained, “My role as an organizer—community and cultural—is basically to give people an option. Powerlessness is basically having no option.” Describing himself as doing a circuit, like his minister father before him, Worth preferred to do fieldwork by bus even before limited vision made driving impossible. For coworkers, Worth is particularly notable for his habit of “disappearing,” only to show up at the last possible minute with, according to Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, “that inimitable Worth Long smile” and a selection of extraordinary performers. In a collection of tributes, Worth’s friends and colleagues repeatedly refer to his calm demeanor, patience, and curiosity; they describe his generosity and infectious smile, his humor and insight; they celebrate his love of words, sharp intellect, and warmth. To SNCC Field Secretary Charlie Cobb, Worth is a “race man,... Black race or human race, take your pick, they both work when it comes to Worth.”
Emilye Crosby is professor of history and coordinator of Africana/Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo. She is author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2011).