The Magazine

Folk Wisdom

The acoustic sound of midcentury America.

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By RONALD RADOSH
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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.

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