Dissent and the ability to speak uncensored is an important American right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The left-wing movements and voices of opposition during the era of the 1930s-1950s were, and continue to be, a necessary component of Americanism. Although dissenters were labeled un-American and blacklisted from commercial work due to conflicting ideologies, the idea of dissent is just the opposite of un-American. Dissent and the right to dissent is truly American. This concept, reflected in its folk music, is important to the foundation of America.
In the history of America, especially in the twentieth century, dissenting and reflective folk music has played an important role in culture and politics. Folk music in other nations, especially Europe, is usually associated with nationalist ideologies. In America, before a group of liberal activists, known as the Old Left adopted folk music in the 1930s as a voice for its political agenda, it was usually associated with conservative values and a nostalgia for a simpler time that was uncorrupted by the modern world. Industrialism and urbanism were spreading quickly in the early twentieth century and folk music spoke of a simpler time and way of life. The recordings made by the Carter Family in the late 1920s and early 1930s are a fine representation of this nostalgic sentiment found in early American folk music. Although not overtly political, folk music was, in the early decades of the twentieth century, associated with rural America and country people. It reflected the conservative values of a rural, multi-racial agrarian America. Early folk music recordings in the field by commercial record companies, or by folklorists like John Lomax and his son Alan, was the music of the American people. It was the voice of the country, the workers, the farmers, the sharecroppers, the railroad men, the miners and the drifters. It was political without meaning to be political. Alan Lomax gives an insightful analysis regarding the appeal of folk music. He states that,
First, in our longing for artistic forms that reflect our democratic and equalitarian political beliefs; and second, in our hankering after art that mirrors the unique life of this western continent—the life of the frontier, the great West, the big city. We are looking for a people’s culture, a culture of the common man (qtd. in Roy 3).
The Great Depression had a major impact on a variety of economic and social aspects of society. During the first years of the 1930s, ideologies began to change in the country, and the arts were just one of many aspects that were to undergo a radical transformation. Since the Depression, folk music in America has been associated with primarily leftist movements, and it was during this time that the music was transformed and took a more overtly political path. The political transformation of folk music was based on the take over and ownership of the art form by the Old Left. To the Old Left, folk music was an art form that was unspoiled by phonographs and radios. It was music from the people who retained the working-class spirit that made America great. It came from the heart and spoke to the heart, it was the music and voice of the common man. Folk music was a reflection of the real-life experiences of the people, singing about things that mattered to the everyday workingman. The ballads told the stories and tragedies of everyday lives. The work songs were set to the rhythms of labor and the spirituals spoke of hope, while the fiddle and banjo breakdowns offered relief from everyday struggles (Roy 3).
Music during this time became a tool used to spread ideologies and to unify people for a common political cause. Religion and the church have long known about the unifying nature of collective singing for a common ideology, and the Old Left began to adopt this practice for its own political purposes. Adding music to words to help argue a cause creates an atmosphere of solidarity that can rarely be duplicated with speechmaking. Other types of performance used by the Old Left for propaganda, like theater and dance, were not as easy to master and perform as songs were, and therefore were less widespread and effective as folk songs (Reuss 21).
The Great Depression caused many working-class people to question the economic legitimacy of capitalism. Poverty, unemployment, economic migration and labor strife were defining elements of the Depression years. Because the Depression occurred in a capitalist system, alternative systems such as socialism and communism became attractive alternatives and presented a possible solution to the crisis. With the rise of the Communist Party in America (CPUSA), and with industrial labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), Marxist ideology among the proletariat began to gain traction during the 1930s. Artists and intellectuals yearned to connect with the American people and to make their art socially relevant. To do this, many artists turned to the left, and to the Communist Party. Communism appealed to many people as an alternative that arose due to the failure of capitalism, and it united people in a common cause for the common good (Donaldson 39).
During the 1930s, many artists, writers, intellectuals, actors and musicians joined up with different working class causes. They believed that by aligning with the left, they could transform the nation to one that displayed a sense of rugged individualism and bring it into a strong, unified national community (Donaldson 39). Musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, along with the group The Almanac Singers and the organization known as People’s Songs, played an important role in the left-wing movements of the 1930s. It took the debacle of the Depression to expose on a mass scale the economic and social disparities endemic to America. This opened the door for the CPUSA to present their programs as a solution to the problems. Bess Lomax Hawes, Alan Lomax’s sister, directly attributes her political awakening and activism to the leftist journalists and writers who were documenting the social injustices occurring in the country. Lynchings in the south and worker strife, as well as violence against striking coal miners were brought to public attention during this time. Left-wing journalists made these types of events headline news and advocated for oppressed citizens, thus making the CPUSA attractive to many Americans. The Old Left had a solution for targeting the populace on a local level and at the same time bringing the issues to the mainstream. This solution was folk music (Donaldson 39-42).
This left-wing movement also created a conservative, capitalist backlash against the various voices of dissent in America. That backlash came in the anti-communist sentiments and fear of communists that was to last for several decades during the Cold War. This paper will examine the relationship between folk music and the politics of the Old Left, specifically examining the role that this ideology had on left wing folk singers and on the formation of a voice of political dissent in America. According to the American Legion, Americanism is defined as an ideology or belief in devotion, loyalty, or allegiance to the United States of America or to its flag, traditions, customs, culture, symbols, institutions, or form of government, with little allowance for dissent. However, speaking out against what is viewed as wrong, or speaking out against policies or actions that one’s country is undertaking is not necessarily done out of hatred towards the country. Quite the opposite, it is done out of devotion or loyalty towards one’s country.
The Old Left and the Almanac Singers
When undertaking a discussion regarding the role of folk song in the twentieth century it is important to understand the role politics, and in particular, the politics of the Old Left, played in the ideology of the movement. In the early part of the twentieth century, radicals like Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, and Big Bill Haywood payed little attention to traditional folksongs and the role and function they could play in American ideology. When searching the writings and song literature of early radical movements like the IWW, the socialists, anarchists and early communists, there are hardly a half dozen references to folk songs (Reuss 32). Folklore and folk songs were not a significant part of the American intellectual consciousness during the early part of the twentieth century until the 1920s. Because of the efforts of folklorists like Zora Neale Hurston and John Lomax, by the time the American communist movement was established in the 1920s, studies of folk practices and traditions were beginning to enter into the public and political consciousness. American society was transitioning from a rural to urban culture and there was a nostalgia developing for an agrarian American past. As an example, folklore regarding the legendary lives of John Henry and Tom Dooley were circulated in the media and became part of the twentieth century American consciousness (Reuss 34).
The Communist Party of America played a significant role in the development of urban folk singing during the 1930s and 1940s. Ideological followers of Marxism argue that there exists a class struggle in all societies. Art in society becomes a weapon, and every artist is therefore a soldier in this struggle. The belief is that the artistic taste of each social class needs to reflect its own interests and Marxists of that time believed that music must be used to fight the “false consciousness” of the ruling class (Denisoff “Great Day Coming” 14).
Musicologist Charles Seeger suggested that the proletariat had not produced any music of its own; therefore it was necessary for the left to produce a “people’s music”(Denisoff, “Folk Music and the American Left” 429). Seeger notes that “music is one of the cultural forms through which the work of humanizing and preparation operates. Thus it becomes a weapon in the class struggle” (qtd. in Denisoff “Great Day 14). Classical music was viewed by Marxists as being able to only be appreciated by the ruling class and not by the masses. The ideological stance of Marxism claims that popular and classical music were tools of the ruling class and unworthy of representing the cultural orientations of the proletariat. Social movements aligned with Marxism viewed the music of American mainstream society as a tool for eliciting profits from the masses in order to obscure the class struggle. The role of music for the left was not just one of artistic creation, but also served the purpose of radicalizing its audience (Denisoff “Great Day” 16-17). American Marxist Sidney Finkelstein states that folk song is,
A voice of its own time. It is distinguished by its combination of simplicity and artistic truth or immediate relation to life (and it represents) in its simplest form, social consciousness, the experiences and thought held in common by people who labor, suffer, and triumph together (qtd. in Denisoff “Great Day” 17).
At the beginning of the 1930s, the small community of folk music enthusiasts that did exist came together and began using folk music as way to try and bring about their conceptualization of the nation. The country was experiencing the Depression and was trying to cope with the economic disaster that challenged the preconceived notions of America as a land of opportunity, where anybody could find success for themselves and their family. In this setting, intellectuals and artists began examining and questioning the traits that formed the American character. Out of this came an interpretation of nationalism that was based on ideologies of cultural and political democracy. They incorporated left-wing politics of the era to create a version of Americanism that combined ethnic, racial and religious pluralism with a recognition of the economically marginalized segment of society that was being especially affected by the Depression.
This pluralized view of society was advanced by the Old Left with the folk song movement. Many intellectual and political leaders looked to “the people” to try and find the traits that made up the national identity that was challenged by the Depression. During the 1930s images and ideas that represented the national identity became commonplace in intellectual and artistic endeavors. Folklorists and scholars conducted oral histories, painters depicted down home scenes of everyday life, writers focused their energy on realist forms of literature and photographers became fascinated with capturing photos of everyday life and the working class. Cultural, intellectual and civic leaders encouraged the collecting and cataloging of America’s folk traditions during the economic crisis to try to understand the American cultural heritage, as well as to create a collective identity during this crisis. Folklorist Alan Lomax claimed that there was a deep need for art, literature and music that reflected the U.S. democratic and equalitarian political ideals (Donaldson 21- 23).
During this time there was also an anthropological movement that involved theories of cultural pluralism. This theory, known as functionalism, was used by folklorists of the time like Alan Lomax, to support the utilitarian function of folk music. Developed by British anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown, functionalism claims that all cultural practices serve important purposes in communities in which they exist. Folk traditions provide important insight into societies as well as historical events, and Alan Lomax believed that due to folk music’s function in culture, it provided great insight into how society operated. Because of this, there are powerful social and political utilitarian aspects in folk songs (Donaldson 32). Soon, more artists, particularly those on the left, adopted and used folk music to represent their vision of Americanism. The folklorists and musicians of the 1930s had turned folk music from a general interest in American culture and music into a social and political movement (Donaldson 50). By the end of the decade folk music had been fully adopted by The Old Left to advance their political ideology into the next few decades.
Although leftist folksingers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were active during the 1930s in various ways, the formation of the Almanac Singers in 1940 was the first organized, deliberate attempt to advance the ideologies of left-wing folk music. Their songs particularly stressed labor solidarity and class consciousness. The Almanacs were favorites in New York left wing circles and seemingly epitomized proletarian culture. A musical group, yes, but also a very well thought out and constructed group with a very specific political agenda. A writer from the Daily Worker described the Almanacs singing as possessing,
a spontaneity of feeling that is so often lacking in concert artists. They attended no music school to learn their songs. They did not sit down in New York and memorize the words and music they sing. Rather they went to the four corners of the country, talking and working with the people that sing these songs (qtd. in Denisoff Great Day 77).
This idea was more of a romanticized idea of what the Almanacs actually were. Stylistically they were perhaps folk musicians, but in no sense were they the country people or the proletariat class for they were singing. The Almanacs are considered the first folk group that was formally organized to sing songs for the American Communist party even though not all of the members were affiliated with the CPUSA (Denisoff “Take it Easy” 22). The group was a rotating cast of musicians whose core was made up of Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax, Allen Sloane, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham and Lee Hays. Woody Guthrie was an occasional member who sang with them off and on for the duration of the group, and was the only one who actually fit the mold of a country, working class “folk”. Pete Seeger was the son of one of the most prominent ethnomusicologists in the country, Charles Seeger, and his mother was a trained concert violinist. Bess Lomax was the sister of Alan Lomax and daughter of well-known folklorist John Lomax. Most of the other Almanacs had a university education or were trained writers. They were a group of young, northern, urban leftists with a political cause that embodied the folk consciousness of the era (Denisoff Great Day 78). Most of the songs were written by members of the group in New York City; the other songs they sang came from left-wing workers’ song books, or were by Marxist radicals like Joe Hill and Aunt Molly Jackson, or were contributed by Woody Guthrie. The Almanacs were created with a specific political agenda in mind and were projecting proletarian culture rather than the actual music of the working people (Denisoff “Take It Easy” 21).
In rural America, apart from an encyclopedia, the Daily Almanac was an important source of information. The name the Almanacs was taken from a letter written to Pete Seeger from Woody Guthrie in California. At the time, Guthrie was writing prolifically and sending volumes of advice to the group. Almanac lyricist, Millard Lampell, points out that the name Almanacs was chosen because many people during the time had formed their attitudes and opinions based on materials found in the Daily Almanac. Since the primary function of the group was one of propaganda, they sung in order to communicate a specific political ideology in order to bring about change (Denisoff “Take It Easy” 23).
Unlike other groups, the Almanacs did not always appear as one unit. They often spread themselves out around different parts of the country in order to more effectively spread their message. In August of 1941, the Daily Worker reported that “at one time in New York, three different Almanac groups sang at different meetings on the same night” (qtd. in Denisoff “Take It Easy” 23). The Almanacs were not one specific unit. They were a folk song collective that kept personal accolades of individual members to a bare minimum, focusing instead on the collective ideology.
Many left-wing organizations and activists of the time focused much of their energy towards the labor movement. In 1940, the group undertook a cross country tour singing for union members and other radical organizations. On this tour they appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York City for a transport workers union rally. They also appeared before the Longshoreman’s Union in San Francisco, as well as a variety of other union gatherings and radical groups. The tour was designed to increase labor militancy among the unions and to raise class consciousness. One of the problems that the Almanacs would face on the tour, and for the rest of the duration of the group, was the fact that they were propagandists and not trade unionists. Although unionists were in agreement with the message they were spreading, fighting for the rights of the proletarian class, they were viewed as outsiders, and some union organizers and unionists resented their hyper-proletarian dress and mannerisms. The Almanac’s effectiveness with most of the unions that they championed for was, in fact, limited (Denisoff Great Day 85).
During the 1930s and 40s left-wing political groups and the Almanacs had more of an effect on the general society than on the actual unionists that they were trying to empower with their songs. The power of song in organized social and political movements can be pronounced, but in regard to the Almanacs and their relationship with the unions at rallies, there was a sense that they were trying to convince the already convinced. Reaching the mainstream consciousness was problematic. The defined purpose of the group was to communicate a specific, leftist ideology, which was counter to the paradigmatic thinking of the time. That, combined with a general lack of interest in their ideology outside of left-wing circles, played a role in the Almanacs’ inability to be effective on the national, mainstream level. Pete Seeger, from an interview in 1965 for the publication Sing Out! reflects,
except for a few unions, there never was as much singing as some people now suppose. From listening to the “Talking Union” record and reading a couple of novels about the labor struggles of the 30’s, one might jump to the conclusion that the United States was full of class- conscious harmonizing in those days. ‘Taint true (qtd. in Denisoff “Great Day” 86).
The primary contributions of the Almanacs to the left-wing movement are twofold. First, although possibly not extremely effective in the overall broad view of American mainstream culture, the Almanacs were nevertheless raising awareness in the mainstream public to the plight of the working class that had been ravaged by the Depression. Prior to the beginning of World War II, major issues regarding labor and class consciousness continued to be carried over from the 1930s. Part time Almanac performer Woody Guthrie and other leftists wrote columns and appeared on radio. Guthrie also composed and recorded albums such as “The Dust Bowl Ballads” and “Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hit People”. In the literary world, John Steinbeck’s novels, The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle were similarly as effective as the Almanac Singers. This emerging left-wing voice, of which Americans gradually becoming conscious, was making the plight of the working class visible to a previously unaware segment of society.
Secondly, the Almanacs provided a structure for a new genre of folk music and ideologies, one that has lasted for decades. They popularized the idea of singing propaganda songs in an urban environment, which in turn became a training ground for folk musicians who would perform during the 1950s and 60s.
The ideologies that were formed during this era carried over in various ways into the 1950s and the reactionary McCarthy era. They laid the foundation for radical thought and alternative voices from the left during the 1950s, which carried into the radicalism and ideological shift to the New Left and social liberalism of the 1960s and 70s (Denisoff “ Great Day” 105). Musically and ideologically, the voice of the Old Left reverberates in American culture through the early punk rock movement of the late 70s and beyond.
The Right-Wing Reaction
During the next several decades, there was a strong reaction to the ideologies of the Old Left that were prevalent during the 1930s and 40s. With World War II over and the economy of the United States flourishing, the radical thinkers and artists of the previous decades began to be persecuted and accused of being un-American.
The left-wing ideologies of the Depression increased the awareness of communism in the United States which, in the era of new prosperity, created an anti-Communist backlash. Those who warned of a growing “red menace” during the 1930s were fearful of the Soviet influence in the United States. Right-wing reactionaries hoped to use the anti-communist rhetoric to discredit labor and social activism and New Deal policies. The era witnessed spying by the FBI, the creation of loyalty oaths for teachers, questioning of federal employees, as well as the creation of the McCarran Act in 1950, the first peacetime sedition law since 1798. In 1938, anti-Communists in Congress created the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which ultimately would become a key institution during the postwar anti-Communist witch hunts (Wall).
Political tolerance is one of the core principles of a democracy. Samuel Stouffer’s 1955 publication, Communism, Conformity and Civil Liberties, conducted the first truly systematic analysis of political tolerance in the United States (Peffley and Sigelman 93). The study was an attempt to determine the willingness of the general population to tolerate nonconformists such as those whose loyalty to the United States had been criticized. The specially commissioned, national surveys asked a variety of questions regarding communists, socialists and atheists. Intolerance for alternative ideologies proved to be widespread. Two thirds of those surveyed said that a communist should not be permitted to speak publicly and that any books espousing left wing or alternative ideologies should be removed from public libraries. Nine out of ten surveyed felt that any professor in a university or college should be fired for having similar alternative ideologies (Peffley and Sigelman 93). The irony here, is that the very ideology upon which the United States was founded is one of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The freedom to express a dissenting viewpoint without fear of retaliation or prosecution is an essential right of freedom and should not be regarded as being “un-American”, rather it is most American to be able to question the status quo.
With the end of World War II and the emergence of The Cold War, a new enemy, founded or unfounded, was created by the hegemonic power structure in the United States. Republicans and some conservative Democrats saw in anti-communism a powerful campaign issue, and a weapon that could be used to curb union and civil rights activism, as well as New Deal policies (Wall). Noted American intellectual, Noam Chomsky, argues that the Cold War was necessary for the US government in that in order to maintain political hegemony and economic control over interests beneficial to the United States, thus the creation of a common enemy, the communists was necessary. He argues that the Soviet Union was to be the first threat to the post-war, global economy that the United States was constructing. The creation of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union’s consolidation of Eastern European countries into its own empire, caused the loss of a large labor and raw materials market upon which the Western industrial powers hoped to capitalize. According to Chomsky, US military leaders understood that the Soviet Union did not pose any real physical threat to America or Western Europe. In fact, it was not the military threat of the Soviet Union that brought the US into the Cold War, but rather the closing of these markets to Western, capitalist ventures. Indigenous, revolutionary movements in the rest of the world were viewed as the real threat to the US. The US needed to maintain a climate of low taxes, cheap labor, unrestricted trade and lax labor laws. Chomsky argues then that the Cold War was not directly aimed at the Soviet Union, but rather that it was a smoke screen used to justify the oppression of Third World countries (in the name of anti-communism) where our economic interests resided. The spread of communism, backed by the Soviet Union, Chomsky argues, was used as an excuse for the US to use military action in Third World nations (Greco 54-56). Meanwhile, at home it was necessary to create an enemy, foreign and domestic, to make sure the public was supportive of the US government. This creation of an enemy had the greatest effect on many aspects of society, as many in the United States were persecuted for their ideological beliefs.
In March of 1947, president Truman issued an executive action that created a Federal Loyalty-Security Program. The program created loyalty review boards that had the power to terminate federal employees if “reasonable grounds” existed that caused suspicion of them being disloyal. Disloyalty included treasonous activities, but also “sympathetic associations” with organizations that the Attorney General decided were “Communist, fascist, or totalitarian” (Wall). People could lose their jobs and their livelihood for owning books and phonograph records, or for associating with friends and relatives who were politically suspect. School systems, universities, movie studios, radio programs, record companies, companies with defense contracts, and many other employers used loyalty oaths, background checks and various other means to get rid of people that were deemed politically undesirable. The year 1947 also saw the resurrection and rise of HUAC, brought back into the headlines after years of obscurity when it launched an investigation of communist influences in the film industry (Wall).
A young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, took full advantage of the hysteria of the time. Caring little about the accuracy of his accusations, he made use of intimidation and innuendo, and his complete disregard for the truth made him powerful and frightening (Wall). With this came the creation of government-created “blacklists” that were compiled and used to eliminate and keep out of the public eye left-wing sympathizers. Many of those on the blacklist were in the entertainment industry and, those with current or previous ties to the folksong movement of the thirties and forties were struck harder than others.
Ideology on Trial: Pete Seeger and HUAC
Of all the folk singers aligned with the Old Left, Pete Seeger was perhaps hit the hardest by the anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War. Following the Almanacs and World War II, Seeger was involved in several organizations and groups that brought him into the public eye and even mainstream pop culture. This also brought more accusations of communism and more intense investigations into his life. His involvement with the left wing folk song organization People’s Songs as well as his alignment and very public support of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election made Seeger an even bigger target for the anti-communist forces in America at that time. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused him of treason and “un-Americanism.”
Pete Seeger had been a member of the Communist Party until 1949. At the age of 17 in 1936 he joined the Young Communist League, and later in 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA. He left the party for good in 1949 after recognizing the brutal realities of Stalinist Russia. He states that,
Innocently I became a member of the Communist Party, and when they said fight for peace, I did, and when they said fight Hitler, I did. I got out in '49, though.... I should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to. My father had got out in '38. I didn't examine closely enough what was going on, I had no idea how cruel a leader he was (qtd. in Wilkinson 116).
By 1955, Seeger had been dealing with the FBI and accusations of being a communist for at least a decade. Because of their current and past political affiliations and topical song subjects, the FBI had successfully blacklisted and increasingly popular folk song group, The Weavers, of which Seeger was a member. After years of pressure and investigations, the final blow for The Weavers was the popularity of their song “If I Had A Hammer” in 1952. The left-wing inspired song had a specific radical message. When Seeger insisted they perform it at public engagements, the rest of the group refused, citing the “controversial” nature of the song (Dunaway 157). The song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949, and published by People’s Songs, their organization created to publish songs for political actions, and has since been sung by countless acts of varying genres. The song deals with the act of hammering out injustices and ringing bells of freedom all over the land and creating love between metaphorical brothers and sisters. A few sample lines taken from the song claim that,
If I had a hammer,
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening,
All over this land
I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
It's the hammer of Justice,
It's the bell of Freedom,
It's the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land (Pete Seeger “If I Had A Hammer”).
Pete Seeger reflects,
Why was it controversial? In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. The message was that we have got tools and we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer. The last verse says I have a hammer, I have a bell, I have a song. Here it is. It’s the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, the song of love. No one could take these away (qtd. in Dunaway 157).
With the Weavers broken up by the blacklists, Seeger was on his own to perform, but did not have an easy time during this era. He was the most popular, unemployable singer in the country. He had to create his own events, and he and his wife Toshi travelled around the country playing in any colleges, churches, children’s camps and local auditoriums that would have him. Fortunately during this time, there was a well-established folk music underground that could support, albeit meagerly, someone like Seeger, and he made good use of this (Dunaway 158-159).
Meanwhile, Seeger disappeared from radio and television. However, this devastating blacklisting of a once very popular performer had made him an underground hero to the left. He fit into a type of character that represented the underdog in search of justice, a conscious objector to a system that was prosecuting ideology. Biographer David Dunaway states that, including progressive social clubs, summer communities and unions, roughly 75,000 children grew up listening to Pete Seeger. In a country of, at the time, 160 million, this was not a particularly large number. Pop stars of the time had many more fans than Seeger. Seeger’s fans however, were more than record buyers, and viewed him as more than an entertainer. Through his folk songs and his leftist ideology that argued for peace, freedom, racial equality and workers’ rights, he became an influential music educator and ideological beacon for the left.
The year 1955 was in particularly difficult year for Pete Seeger. He moved his family from the urban surroundings of New York City to a rural log cabin along the Hudson River. It was here during the summer of 1955 that he was subpoenaed by HUAC, and was ordered to testify in two weeks. Seeger, from the beginning, was not planning on cooperating with the investigation. The most common choice used by people who were called to testify was to plead the Fifth Amendment. His other choice was to exercise his First Amendment right to free speech. As the trial date approached, it was more and more difficult for Seeger to control his outrage. Men he considered a national disgrace would be questioning his patriotism. He felt strongly that HUAC was the real un-American organization (Dunaway 164-168).
During the testimony he refused to discuss his political associations and activities, talking back and chastising the committee for the entire investigation. Seeger’s argument before HUAC supports the thesis that freedom of speech and dissent are important aspects of being an American, and are the diametrical opposite of HUAC’s accusations of un-Americanism.
Seeger stated during the testimony,
I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them (qtd. In Lithwick).
Another exchange that gives insight into the attitude of the investigative committee follows,
MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way, because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?
MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it (qtd. in Lithwick).
The transcript of the 1955 HUAC investigation reveals Seeger’s unwillingness to answer any questions regarding places or people he has sung for in the past. Over and over he refused to answer, pleading First Amendment free speech rights. Eventually he was indicted by a federal jury on ten counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year prison terms, which he never served. In 1962, the convictions were overturned (Lithwick). He continued to remain on entertainment blacklists until 1969 when the Smothers Brothers television program invited him to perform his anti-Vietnam war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” before a national television audience.
The focus of this paper has been on the politics of the Old Left and its relationship to folk music in America from the 1930s through the 1950s, specifically the relationship between the left-wing politics of folk music and the anti-communist ideologies that put on trial the political beliefs of many artists, writers and public intellectuals. A clear example of this was the trial of Pete Seeger before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.
That committee, ironically, persecuted individual American citizens for their personal ideologies in the very same country that espouses freedom of speech as one of the core tenants of being an American. During the post-World War II era in this country, which had defeated one of the greatest fascist organizations in the history of the world, Nazi Germany, the US government conducted an attack on freedom of expression, speech and ideology. This was done in the name of preserving a particular brand of a narrowly defined Americanism, one which disallows dissent. It is, in fact, a harmful brand of Americanism, a brand of Americanism that disallows and discourages people of different ethnicities and colors from living in peace, a brand of Americanism where the working class are underpaid, second class citizens, and where a brand of capitalism ensures that the workers will be underpaid and overworked.
It was that same brand of Americanism in which the excesses of capitalism and greed turned the country upside down in 1929, destroying people’s economic and social livelihoods, some never to recover. It was a peculiar brand of Americanism, where war and military conflict was encouraged by the political power structure in order to benefit the wealthy corporations who finance political campaigns. The folk song movement aligned with the Old Left loudly questioned the hegemonic power structure, and acted as a critical voice, straining to set people’s minds about the American system. The Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, these were among the many voices that questioned the power structure and ideologies of America. As a result they were labeled un-American, and their means to make a livelihood were, along with their public and personal reputations, destroyed by the very country that they loved. The ability and right to have a voice of dissent, to be able to question what is seen as wrong with a system is part of the very foundation of being an American. It is one of the most American things that one can do.
One of the perhaps greatest, most well known and loved songs in the history of this country was written by a left-wing folk singer from this very era, Woody Guthrie. “This Land is Your Land”, written in 1940, was originally titled “God Blessed America”, with each verse ending with “God blessed America for me.” He did not record the song until he recorded it for Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, in 1944. It was then that he changed the title to “This Land Is Your Land” and the refrain was changed to “This land was made for you and me” (Jackson 249). The song was written as a critical, sarcastic response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” He felt that God had not blessed all Americans; his original writing of the song contains verses that are not well known and not as large a part of the American canon as the other verses (Jackson 250).
Most Americans are familiar with the chorus, if not the verses of the song. It reinforces the thesis of this paper: that a voice of dissent from the left, captured in folk music, is a critical part of being an American. Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” came from that voice on the left, and has become a cultural anthemic nod to exactly what makes America great: freedom. This land was made for you and me.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me...
As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me? (Guthrie)
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