Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-53 
edited by Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson.
Bear Family Records, DM 390, June 1996
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The Ephemera of 20th-century popular music have never been more monumental. CDs transform collectors into completists and completists into archivists. Why be content with the Beach Boys’ greatest hits when you can invest in a boxed set, complete with alternate takes, unreleased masters, demo tapes, and radio air checks? Long defunct record labels are catalogued and repackaged as the CD ‘revolution’ churns up all manner of forgotten material. Issued in time for Christmas a few years back, The Beatles: Live at the BBC proved to be their fastest-selling release ever; the Rolling Stones’ BBC tapes are set to follow. Nor is radio the only source. The six-disc Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which first appeared in 1952 as a repackaged collection of rare 78s in the new LP format, and is now reissued on CD, received twice the number of votes of its nearest rival as best release in the Village Voice annual poll of pop music critics.

The Folkways Anthology, edited by the polymath collector, underground film-maker, and beatnik shaman Harry Smith, is arcane, but the critical world has been primed for its reappearance. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good and Greil Marcus’s The Invisible Republic – recent accounts of the curious development of American folk music – both devote considerable space to the Smith collection, making impressive claims on its behalf. Cantwell’s assertion that it was the ‘musical constitution’ and ‘enabling document’ of the Sixties folk revival is echoed and elaborated on by Marcus, who provides the reissued set with a lengthy Introduction: the Anthology was, he writes, the ‘declaration of a weird but clearly recognisable America’.

Bear Family Records’ even more extravagant boxed set, Songs for Political Action – ten CDs nestled like Fabergé eggs in a luxurious royal blue container, complete with a 200-pagc catalogue – is, like the Smith collection, a compilation of rare 78s. Many of the 298 selections were originally released on small, short-lived labels; as the title suggests, most of the material was not recorded primarily for commercial reasons.

With the fanaticism of true collectors, the team responsible for Political Action tracked down elderly performers and retired activists, and excavated the records of the various political campaigns of the Forties, in particular Henry Wallace’s third-party challenge to Truman. That the culture of the Popular Front – the 1936-39 and 1941-47 anti-Fascist, pro-union alliance of liberals, New Dealers and American Stalinists – has been so neglected is thanks not just to Cold War Anti-Communism and the postwar economic boom, but to the triumph of the Trotskyist Partisan Review Modernists, now known as the ‘New York intellectuals’. (In his New Conservative baedeker, The Rise of a Counter-Establishment, the pundit-turned-Clinton-consultant Sidney Blumenthal describes Ronald Reagan as the ultimate expression of Popular Front corniness.)

Yet however bogus or middlebrow the results may have been, the Popular Front generated a popular culture – which was an alternative to Hollywood’s universalising dream factory. The problem was that this culture had also to be politically reliable. Its dreams were regulated. The New Left which emerged in the early Sixties was scornful of its narrow, manufactured mythology even as it built itself on the ruins of the Communist counter-culture.

Michael Denning, in his long interpretative history The Cultural Front, has questioned this disdain. His notion of the culture of the Popular Front embraces sturdy proletarian sagas like Mike Gold’s Jews without Money and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath alongside Modernist novels, such as Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and Dos Passos’s ‘USA’ trilogy, as well as British anti-Fascist thrillers. Popular Front cinema is not restricted to worthy agitprop like The Spanish Earth but includes much film noir, while finding its ultimate expression in Citizen Kane. Paul Robeson isn’t the only headline performer: he is supported by Billie Holliday and even Duke Ellington.

Indeed, Denning argues that because ‘Pop Frontism’ was less a particular worldview than a set of emotional responses, Elia Kazan can be seen as making ‘Popular Front’ movies such as On the Waterfront or the TVA celebration, Wild River, long after he became persona non grata for the Front’s remaining adherents by providing the House Un-American Activities Committee with the names of his one-time Communist associates.

Songs for Political Action has a sharper focus. It illustrates the story, first told by Serge Denisoff in Great Day Coming (1971), and, most recently, by Cantwell, of the American Left’s romance with folk music, and anthologises material best seen as belonging to a strenuously synthesised tradition. As American folk culture began to disappear in the early part of the century, phonographic recording introduced the possibility of creating a folk canon. As Cantwell notes, the music that Harry Smith collected was ‘conspicuously revivalist even when it was originally recorded’, during the phonograph boom of the Twenties. While the pioneer folklorist John Lomax remained suspicious of the new technology which made such preservation possible, his younger colleague, the composer-musicologist, Charles Seeger, took a less purist – and more activist – view of what folk music might be.

Radicalised by the Depression, Seeger became a member of the Composers’ Collective – a New York-based Communist cell which included among its associates Mark Blitzstein, Earl Robinson and Aaron Copland. The Collective took its cue from the militant anthems of Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler, composing American versions of 12-tone protest songs: ‘The Strange Funeral at Braddock’ gives the full Modernist treatment to Mike Gold’s meditation on the accidental death of a Czech immigrant worker in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Gold hated it.

Seeger, too, anticipated the 1935 Popular Front shift from proletarian vanguard to people’s culture, with his argument that music should be traditional in form and revolutionary in content. Unlike the essentially nostalgic Lomax, Seeger saw folk music as potentially progressive – a romantic attitude that would profoundly influence Lomax’s son Alan. Robinson’s dissonant ‘Abe Lincoln’ draws on Party Secretary Earl Browder’s notorious statement that Communism was 20th-century Americanism, but it was Robinson’s hymn-like music for ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ – a celebration of the martyred Wobbly leader composed at a CP recreational camp during the summer of 1936 – that provided the Popular Front with its first folk hit.

It was the year of Roosevelt’s greatest landslide and Carl Sandburg’s loquacious and maudlin composition, ‘The People, Yes’. The great CIO sit-down victories at automobile plants in Akron and Flint were imminent; and as the CIO president John L. Lewis soon put it, ‘a singing army is a winning army and a singing labour movement cannot be defeated.’ By 1938, Robinson had organised a chorus for the CP-affiliated International Workers Order, presenting what the Daily Worker called ‘real people’s music’ to left-wing and union audiences. Rooted though it was in the Communist counter-culture, ‘real people’s music’ moved into the mainstream with astonishing rapidity. In November 1939, Robinson’s art-folk cantata ‘Ballad for Americans’ was broadcast over the CBS radio network, sung by Robeson. It was performed at the following summer’s Republican Convention. ‘Everybody in Washington was interested in folk music,’ Alan Lomax recalled; he was not only organising concerts and making archival recordings for the Library of Congress but, by then, producing several CBS folk music shows as well.

The younger Lomax helped mould the performing careers of three artists who feature extensively in Songs for Political Action – the Dust Bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie, the cabaret bluesman Josh White and the self-invented folk bard Pete Seeger. The Oklahoma-born Guthrie, the most enduring of the three, was the culmination of those country protest singers – the Jim Garlands and Aunt Molly Jacksons – recruited into the Popular Front during the union struggles of the Thirties. But he was scarcely a primitive. Having assimilated the hillbilly sound of his native South-West, Guthrie reinvented himself first as a red Will Rogers, writing a regular column of humorous observation for California’s Communist daily, the People’s World, and then as the human embodiment of The Grapes of Wrath. (Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, released to capitalise on the popularity of the 1940 movie, was packaged, unlike race or hillbilly records, as a deluxe double album with a booklet of his writings.)

Josh White, who, according to Denning, was ‘the quintessential vernacular musician of the Popular Front’, combined Carolina Piedmont blues and Harlem Renaissance poetry. His distinctive, insinuating sound – urgent vocals, accompanied by an elegant slide guitar – was cool, sardonic and polished. Scarcely designed for audience singalongs, his 1940 Chain Gang and 1941 Southern Exposure albums were daring attacks on segregation. These art-song albums made White the best known folksinger in America and, for a time, established him in the Roosevelt household as the voice of black America.

Guthrie and White (who was not a Communist and later grudgingly co-operated with HUAC, to the lasting detriment of his reputation) established themselves as interpreters of economic and racial injustice during the most schizoid period in the whole confused history of American Communism – the 22 months of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Party members were asked to put aside their hostility to Fascism and attack Roosevelt’s ‘war-like’ policies. In response, the Almanac Singers – America’s first urban folk ensemble, who lived communally in a Greenwich Village loft and modelled their collective identity on the Group Theatre – invented an attitude some might describe as Pop Front punk. They included the Harvard-educated Pete Seeger and Bryn Mawr graduate Bess Lomax, the children of America’s most distinguished folk-music scholars. Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays had regional middle-class roots; the songwriter Millard Lampell was the child of immigrant Jewish garment workers. Providing themselves with invented proletarian pedigrees or Southern backgrounds, the group performed in work clothes – dungarees, boots, shirtsleeves.

Neither pop nor folk, the Almanac sound was an infectious, at times incendiary, amalgam of blues, hillbilly, Methodist hymns and Appalachian string-band music, Aaron Copland and cabaret cleverness. The group’s brash anti-war material thrilled partisan audiences. In his biography of Guthrie, Joe Klein – the future author of Primary Colors – talks about the Almanacs’ ‘puerile, insolent tone’ as they revised familiar hoe-downs and cowboy ballads to attack Wall Street and the President: ‘Franklin D, listen to me, you ain’t a-gonna send me’cross the sea.’

Released in the spring of 1941, the first Almanacs album, Songs for John Doe, was an immediate success, at least in the Party bookstores from which it would be quickly withdrawn after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. (‘Well, I guess we’re not going to be singing any more of them peace songs,’ Guthrie told Seeger.) In their second album, Talking Union, the group drew on its repertoire of organising songs. ‘Union Maid’, ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ and ‘Talking Union’ are among the most successful examples of invented American folk music. The Almanacs had to change direction again once the US entered the war and all the unions adopted a no-strike pledge. Suddenly in the vanguard of pro-war entertainment, the group was included by Alan Lomax in an early 1942 national radio broadcast, singing the giddy reel ‘Round and Round Hitler’s Grave’.

They were on their way to becoming regular radio personalities when their political affiliations were exposed in the press. Red-baited off the airwaves, the group criss-crossed the country, playing union halls, benefits, and ‘cause’ parties to tremendous effect. One FBI report describes its members as ‘extremely untidy, ragged, and dirty’, yet uncanny masters of ‘mass psychology’ in persuading audiences to join the chorus. Presenting the war as a struggle against Fascism, their third and final album was devoted almost entirely to wartime exhortation – propaganda that seemed to Billboard ‘almost too primitive to appeal even to primitives’.

In their idealistic allegiance to an imaginary America, their moral crusading, and blatant, unselfconscious self-invention, the Almanacs anticipated the Sixties counterculture. It was in this context that the banjoplaying Pete Seeger developed a vocal style at once folksy and pedantic. Any number of photographs in the catalogue of Songs for Political Action attest to his iconic stance – singing out against injustice, his neck arched, his eyes focused somewhere above the audience, his banjo brandished aloft.

The prime mover of the postwar folk revival, Seeger founded the People’s Songs label in December 1945 to institutionalise the folk consciousness of the Almanacs. Songs for Political Action includes a number of amateur home-recordings, among them a capella attacks on a 1947 Congressional Bill to enforce the registration of all CP members and a heartfelt tribute to the Party press. ‘A paper with a message, a paper with the science, a paper with a love for all humanity. Well, it’s the Daily Worker ... the people’s paper, that’s the paper for me,’ warbles the unidentified zealot. People’s Songs was a clearing house for pro-union, anti-Jim Crow popular music, and later became heavily involved in the 1948 anti-Cold War third party headed by Wallace, Roosevelt’s former Vice-President. No campaign had ever been more steeped in the sound of fretted instruments. Seeger (who declared that ‘all folklore music by its very nature is anti-Fascist’) sang at the Progressive Party Convention; Robeson toured with the candidate; Alan Lomax was the campaign’s musical director.

Songs for Political Action is full of attempts to politicise the hit parade, including the accordionist Sis Cunningham’s down-home denunciation of the HUAC and an anonymous boogie-woogie blast at the anti-labour Taft-Hartley Bill. The female trio known as the Berries apply their Andrews Sisters’ harmonies to a parody version of ‘Swingin’ on a Star’, entitled ‘Swingin’ on a Scab’; the calypsonian Lord Invader celebrates the baseball star Jackie Robinson; the team of Morry Goodson and Sonny Vale knock out syncopated patter songs with titles like ‘Red Boogie’ and ‘Unity Rumba’.

Seeger, who is introduced in Marcus’s Invisible Republic at his Stalinist worst, attempting with Alan Lomax to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, should nonetheless be recognised as a successful commercial entertainer. The Weavers, a folk music quartet which he helped create, was for a brief moment astonishingly popular. Formed after People’s Songs, which folded in 1949, the Weavers were a more professional and less political ensemble than the Almanacs. (Seeger and Hays were joined by Fred Hellerman and the remarkable alto Ronnie Gilbert.) Militants grumbled about the lack of political content but the quartet was endorsed by Carl Sandburg (‘When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there’) and two hit singles – ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Tzena, Tzena’ – released early in 1950 made the Weavers for six months the most popular new vocal group in America. After they were offered a weekly TV show, Seeger was listed in the McCarthyite tipsheet Red Channels and, two years later, was denounced before the HUAC by the professional informer Harvey Matusow (a former People’s Songs employee).

By 1952, it was over. As if to reinforce the point. Bill Friedland and Joe Glazer recorded the album Ballads for Sectarians, a collection of hot-to-Trot anti-Stalinist parodies. It was at this time that Folkways, the label for which Seeger would ultimately sell a million records, bought Harry Smith’s trove of Twenties commercial recordings.

Critically speaking, the Folkways Anthology and the Popular Front folk songs which preceded it are further manifestations of the tension between Surrealism and Socialist Realism that characterised much political art in the Thirties and Forties. A stereotypical teenage enthusiast only a few years younger than the Almanacs, Harry Smith began collecting old 78s around 1940, after coming across a record by the Mississippi Delta bluesman Tommy McClennan that had made its way to Smith’s hometown in Oregon. Smith invented his own notion of American folk music – based, not on field recordings, but outlandish commercial discs. The music he anthologised was old when it was recorded in the Twenties and selected by him for its oddness.

The Anthology comprises quirky, inexplicable ballads and incongrously cheerful outlaw songs. In Greil Marcus’s analogy, it is a small town whose citizens are not distinguished by race and are neither masters nor slaves. But this is no guarantee of peace: violent crime is rampant, murders are frequent (suicides too), the prison population is large, and hangings are public occasions. Irony is not altogether absent: ‘When you swing your lariat, you’re part of the proletariat,’ sings Saul Aarons with a slightly fey Brooklyn twang in a 1941 recording of his cabaret hit, ‘Old Paint (The Horse with the Union Label)’. The presiding spirit is Roosevelt; Satan is manifest as Hitler, abetted by an unholy cabal of Fascist landlords and Southern Congressmen.

This old Pop Front world will never be renewed. Its death rattle can be heard in The Peekskill Story, a documentary recording released in September 1949 of an outdoor concert featuring Paul Robeson, which was organised to benefit the Communistaffiliated Civil Rights Congress and held in a field outside a Hudson River town, just north of New York City. The concert was violently disrupted by three hundred Anti-Communist vigilantes. A second concert was scheduled for the following weekend. This time, several thousand members of the Fur and Leather Workers and other Communist unions provided a human security barrier around the audience. Afterwards, however, the concert-goers were ambushed on the narrow lane leading from the picnic grounds; local police and state troopers stood by grinning. Released only weeks afterwards, The Peekskill Story is narrated by the novelist Howard Fast – then the brightest star of the CP’s literary firmament. His account is mixed with field recordings of abuse and barracking: ‘White niggers go back to Russia!’ The tale is given ballad form by the Weavers (their first recording), who perform an original composition in a tone of improbable optimism:

We shed our blood at Peekskill and suffered many a pain,
But we beat back the Fascists and we’ll beat them back again!
Hold the line, hold the line
We will hold the line for ever ’til there’s freedom everywhere.

Send Letters To:

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Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998

In an otherwise fine review of the Anthology of American Folk Music and Songs for Political Action (LRB, 17 September) I was struck by J. Hoberman’s cavalier use of the adjective ‘Stalinist’. Pete Seeger’s attempt to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival may have been narrow-minded and it may have been boorish – but was it Stalinist?

Chase Madar
Brooklyn, New York

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