Monday, January 4, 2010

Music as politics

I graduated from high school in 1964. The music I bought and played obsessively was "folk music" by groups like the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary and the New Christie Minstrels. I was offended when older people I worked with at the local museum rather contemptuously, I thought, dismissed my enthusiasm. What I thought was folk music was not what they thought it was. They were pretty much right. It didn't even occur to me that the music I liked might have any political implications. I had never heard of Pete Seeger or even of Bob Dylan. At First Things, Lauren Weiner writes about what led up to that brief period when folk music was popular music.
.... The folk revival—a fad sandwiched between the beatniks and the hippies—may have been brief, but it was also the baby boomers’ coming of age, and its echoes have been lasting. Bruce Springsteen made a splash in 2006 with his Seeger Sessions. Ry Cooder paid homage to Woody Guthrie in the 2007 release My Name Is Buddy. Sheryl Crow told Billboard magazine that her song, “Shine Over Babylon,” is “very environmentally conscious, in the tradition of Bob Dylan.”

It’s curious how much the postwar children of prosperity enjoyed hearkening back to hard times. Dylan’s early compositions were full of Dust Bowl references. Odetta was on television rendering the sounds of the chain gang while bathed in a glamorous cabaret spotlight. The Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain” (1964) complained that “you can’t jump a jet plane” as easily as you hopped a freight train back in the good old, bad old days. “Green, Green,” Barry McGuire’s 1963 top ten hit, had the perky coeds of the New Christy Minstrels belting out the plea of the Great Depression: “Buddy, can you spare me a dime?” ....

Superficiality did not hinder the music. It sold like hotcakes (at least until the Beatles arrived and made rock ’n’ roll king), and the secondhand quality escaped those of us working up third-hand versions, strumming along with our phonograph records. ....
For me, folk music was just what people my age were listening to — and we were about to move on. But the fad had a background. The article is about the political purposes of those who promoted folk music from the '30s to the '60s. A musical style isn't guilty even if it is favored by adherents of a particularly hideous ideology. Wagner's operas can be [and are] enjoyed by people who hate what Wagner believed. The Nazis admired Beethoven. It wasn't his fault. Stalinists promoted folk music. That doesn't discredit it. But "folk music" was also written as propaganda and many folk musicians functioned, self-consciously, as propagandists:
.... “However loathsome and psychotic” J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was, according to Dave Van Ronk, they “got one thing right: The CP[USA] was the American arm of Soviet foreign policy, no more, no less.” Alan Lomax, broadcasting down-home American music over the radio, did his bit to promote Moscow’s interests, at least in small ways. A Lomax-produced radio show out of CBS in New York called Back Where I Come From, for example....

Premiering in August 1940, Back Where I Come From featured, according to historian Robbie Lieberman, “socially conscious songs and stories, even though not explicitly ‘left’ stuff. For example, someone would sing ‘John Brown’s Body,’ and Lomax would comment, ‘There was a war that was worth fighting’”—implying, the American Civil War was good, but England’s fight against Stalin’s 1940 ally Hitler was bad. One could trace in Lomax’s comments “the CP line during the period of the Nazi–Soviet pact,” writes Lieberman. Lomax’s comrades were even louder on the point: While the pact was in force, Seeger and Guthrie wrote vitriolic anti-Roosevelt songs for the Almanacs to sing about the pointless sacrifice that lay ahead should the president send American boys against the Nazi war machine.

The party line changed when panzer divisions rolled across Russia’s western border in June 1941. This had musical ramifications. Guthrie quickly began inserting anti-Hitler lyrics into his old songs. (He also joined the Merchant Marine, and Seeger was conscripted into the Army.) .... [more]
This was, of course, months before Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war. This reversal—from vehement isolationism to equally vehement interventionism—was a marker that distinguished Moscow-lining American Communists from others on the Left who continued to argue that the US should stay out of the war as well as those who had previously been interventionist.

This is, at least to me, a very interesting article—dealing with largely forgotten politics. I recently had a conversation with a young adult who had never heard of the Berlin Wall and didn't know that there had even been an "East" Germany — much less Americans willing to sacrifice their integrity at the behest of Communist directives. I grew up in a period when Communism was the most serious threat to human rights in the world [the Fascists having already been vanquished], and when domestic Communists were regaining a certain respectability [Joe McCarthy having thoroughly discredited naming one - even accurately]. Where you stood on Communism mattered a lot, and I find it impossible to admire Americans who were its acolytes.

I still enjoy folk music, although more authentic varieties, and I'm grateful that, whatever their motives, people like Lomax did a lot to preserve it. I also enjoy some songs by ideologically driven "folk singers." For instance, "This Land is Your Land," even knowing it was written as an answer to "God Bless America," which I also like. And many folk songs have little to do with politics at all. Everything isn't political — something Bob Dylan realized long ago—even before he went electric—to the chagrin of the true believers.

Where Have All the Lefties Gone? | First Things