musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lois Short


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“Once you heard her, you wouldn’t forget it…. She could tear you up with…the feeling she would put into the song.”            –-Guy Carawan

The video plays, a woman rocking back and forth in a rocking chair. The woman, to a crowd of people seated around her, says, “Now, I sing loud, I sing big. I sang in church, and I learned to sing big and loud, and I can’t break myself of it."

She begins to sing, big and loud, a version of Barbara Allen. Her voice is strong, deep, and it breaks as she pushes it high into her register. Her eyes, behind her big glasses, look far away into the distance.
This is Lois Short, a woman who lived most of her life in Harlan County, Kentucky, born just south of the Kentucky border in Virginia. In this video, she’s at a workshop at the Highlander Center, in New Market, Tennessee, one of many workshops held there celebrating music and voices from coal mining communities. It’s some time in the early 1980s, and she’s one of the guests of honor.

She’s singing the story of true love gone bad, and a story told compellingly. She wears a light blue jacket, a flowered dress to her knees. Her hair is short, grey fading to white around her face. The camera is close on her face as, faintly, someone else begins to sing. It’s Sarah Ogan Gunning, who has a smile on her face as the words go by, familiar, no doubt, to her. Around Lois, others sit in rocking chairs, some rocking, some still, their eyes closed or their faces down, listening, silent. As she finishes the ballad, the spell broken, everyone claps, and a grin creeps onto her face, bashful.

Lois’s story, as it is told here, is drawn from interviews with her two sons, Larry and Don, and with three friends who knew her towards the end of her life, Nancy Carden, and Guy and Candie Carawan, founders of the Highlander Center.