Political Folk Music in America from Its Origins to Bob Dylan

by Lawrence J. Epstein

McFarland, 213 pp., $35

Reading Lawrence J. Epstein’s wonderful, lively, and politically incorrect survey of political folk music, a reader cannot help but think of the sarcastic old lyrics of Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army,” written in the heyday of the

sixties folk revival.

Remember the war against Franco?

That’s the kind where each of us belongs.

Though he may have won all the battles,

We had all the good songs.

So join in the Folk Song Army,

Guitars are the weapons we bring

To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice.

Ready! Aim! Sing!

Many others have attempted to write in mordant, respectful tones of the folkies’ desire to inspire left-wing activism through song, but Epstein presents a different take. The academic-sounding title of his book does not do justice to the lively, informative writing and the spirit he reflects of the singers he writes about and the music they wrote and performed. What Epstein says is that the effect the singers had was precisely the opposite of what they intended. Singers like Pete Seeger may have wanted to rally the working-class, but as Epstein writes, “the Left had simply very little support from the proletarians they sought to organize.” Instead, their audience was a new generation of middle-class radical students, those entering the university surroundings on their parents’ dollar, at a time of rising postwar prosperity.

As this new student generation moved to create a New Left, coming together in large auditoriums with like-minded friends gave them a feeling of solidarity and superiority to their parents’ generation, who, they believed, liked an older, bland, nonpolitical pop culture. But the truth was, as Epstein puts it, that they were producing music that “let teenagers rebel safely,” as the folk music they loved also became “pure entertainment or safe and contained rebellion.” It, too, had become “purely American, but not at all in the way that Alan Lomax or Pete Seeger had hoped it would be.”

Indeed, the alternative to rock ’n’ roll—which quickly became the real mass music of the age—was shadowed by scores of new folk pop groups, the biggest seller of which was the Kingston Trio, three college students with a clean-cut image who were privately all leftists but who carefully hid the message they believed in to achieve commercial success. “Their politics,” Epstein notes, “were carefully coded.”

It all began, not in the 1960s, but in the early ’30s, when the Communist cultural movement began to argue that, to reach the masses, they had to turn away from European classical forms to discover the authentic rural music of the poor in Appalachia and mining locales like Harlan County, Kentucky. The music from the mountains captivated people like Lomax, son of the folklorist John A. Lomax and a secret member of the Communist party. They saw themselves as all part of a cohesive musical and political tradition, and hoped that the link to the music of authentic America would become the byway through which they could advance the transformation of the United States to socialism.

Epstein begins with Woody Guthrie and ends with an appreciation and new assessment of Bob Dylan, who began as a folkie and ended up transcending the genre that gave him his start. Guthrie (actually a middle-class Oklahoman) grew up on the music of Jimmie Rodgers (the Singing Brakeman) and A. P. Carter and his family—who were not rebels but religious folks and patriots who suffered in “quiet dignity because of their optimism that each day would be better and their certainty of reaching Heaven as a final reward after their hardscrabble life.” God and family were enough; they did not need politics, especially of the leftist variety.

Their music was personal, familial, and communal. They sang of the woes of the heart, not of the economic and political system. But Guthrie, hit hard by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, found that the music of his mentors was not enough. He discovered the didactic yet influential music of the Wobblies—the Industrial Workers of the World—and their martyred songwriter, Joe Hill. The legend of Hill was made especially famous when Joan Baez sang the Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” at Woodstock—in retrospect, a highly retro note at America’s biggest rock festival. But as Epstein points out, legend it was: The truth was that Hill’s didactic antireligious themes did not resonate well with those he was trying to reach. Moreover, rather than an innocent martyr falsely executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915 because of his Wobbly politics, Hill was more than likely guilty of the murder of which he was convicted. While many like Joan Baez would invoke Hill’s myth and songs, years later Bob Dylan wrote his own takeoff—“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”—which, Epstein points out, “was a direct slap at Hill’s antireligious attitudes and the legacy of the song among leftists.”

Hill did succeed in creating the image of the songwriter as rebel hero, and Guthrie was ready to inherit the mantle. At a time when labor struggles got headlines, and the Depression seemed to presage the coming doom of American capitalism, it became easy to see America as two nations: one of the ruling class, the other of the oppressed people. The result was that Guthrie, Seeger, and others could sing “Which Side Are You On?” and find a response among industrial workers busy forging the new industrial union group, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). With Guthrie and Seeger teaming up with others to create the first labor folk group, the Almanac Singers, the path was set, and it all coincided with the central role in the folk revival being played by those who were members of, or close to, the Communist Party USA.

Their success can be attributed to the new policy adopted by the Comintern in 1935, the Popular Front, in which revolution was downplayed as something for the far future, and the emphasis was put on unity in the struggle of all against the new fascist threat. Folk music became the vehicle for attaining unity since it was seen as both authentic and noncommercial, avoiding the poison of capitalism. The antidote to Tin Pan Alley-manufactured music, folk music was seen by Seeger and others as a way in which art could be used as a weapon in alliance with liberals and social democrats against fascism.

The Communist ties, however, proved problematic at key junctions. Ever loyal to the party, the Almanacs recorded “Songs for John Doe” after Stalin and Hitler signed their nonaggression pact in August 1939. They dropped antifascism and now mocked Franklin Roosevelt as a warmonger, attacked the draft, and recorded a new album of union songs. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, putting support for the Soviet Union first, they began to write on behalf of intervention and foreign war. Guthrie, returning to New York from the West Coast, immediately told Seeger that they would no longer be singing about peace or singing union songs that might encourage strikes. Now it was songs like “Reuben James,” written to the tune of the Carters’ “Wildwood Flower,” which praised the crew of the first American ship torpedoed by the Nazis in the

north Atlantic.

The second time around took place during the blacklist years. World War II found folksingers welcome: Josh White was a frequent visitor to the Roosevelt White House, where he was asked to give a command performance; the Almanacs sang “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave” on national radio the day the war ended. But as the Cold War arrived, Seeger and his associates formed a new national group, People’s Songs, and contributed their efforts to the 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace for president—and on behalf of a pro-Soviet foreign policy. When the CIO pushed Communist-led unions out, folksingers lost one of the key audiences they had counted on.

The only path left was, ironically, the one they disdained at the start: making folk music commercial and joining the music business they once scorned as bourgeois. The Weavers—who became the first mega-selling folk group in the 1950s—had scores of number-one hits before the blacklist reached its height. They may have sung the right songs but, as Epstein notes, “in a perfectly awful political time for them.” What eventually saved them, and led to the sixties folk revival, was the emerging crop of college students. Seeger’s ample progeny—Peter, Paul and Mary, and others—would carry on the torch for a new set of admirers.

The good years came to an end with Bob Dylan, who singlehandedly changed the music industry and burst the boundaries established by the folkies, rejecting “finger-pointing songs,” as he called them, and writing introspective, poetic ballads in which he paid homage to his folk roots but went way past them into new, and sometimes strange, territories. It would be a long road from “Song to Woody” to “Queen Jane Approximately” and the power and beauty of his “Blonde on Blonde” album.

No longer a rebel or blacklisted, Pete Seeger enjoys honors galore and appears, instead, as an “adherent of an old ideology.” Bob Dylan sought answers in spirituality and individuality, not in political utopianism. None of the folkies created a new political vision, and no leftist successor ever emerged to replace Woody Guthrie. Indeed, the folksingers were (in Epstein’s words) “sad-eyed prophets” who proved unable to “foresee the future.” Their songs may live on, but the age of a political song movement is gone forever.

Ronald Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is coauthor of The Rosenberg File and blogs on PajamasMedia.com.

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