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Was Folk Music a Commie Plot?

Pete Seeger at the opening of a canteen for the United Federal Workers of America, a trade union representing federal employees, in then-segregated Washington, DC

Pete Seeger entertaining Eleanor Roosevelt, honored guest at a racially integrated Valentine's Day party marking the opening of a canteen for the United Federal Workers of America, a trade union representing federal employees, in then-segregated Washington, D.C. Photographed by Joseph Horne for the Office of War Information, 1944. Credit: Wikimedia.

Mat Callahan is a musician and author originally from San Francisco. Recent projects include the republication of Songs of Freedom by Irish revolutionary James Connolly, the recording and publication of Working Class Heroes, and the launch of Songs of Slavery and Emancipation. He is the author of five books including The Explosion of Deferred Dreams (PM, 2017) and A Critical Guide to Intellectual Property (Zed, 2017). Callahan can be reached at info [at]
Aaron Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA—1939–1956 (London: Repeater Books, 2020), 323 pages, $16.95, paperback.

To fully appreciate Aaron Leonard’s book, The Folk Singers and the Bureau, it is necessary to consider its broader historical and musical context. The years between 1939 and 1956 were, by any measure, of epochal importance. War and revolution marked the period as both a culmination and a harbinger—the end of one world order and the beginning of another. In particular, the fascist axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan was defeated by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. The United States signaled its arrival as the new imperial hegemon by dropping the atomic bomb and effectively replacing the former European colonial powers. Yet, U.S. dominance was not complete, as it faced two major challenges. First, the Soviet Union enjoyed enormous prestige and influence among countries fighting for independence from colonial masters. Second, these independence movements resisted U.S. domination. Countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America looked to the Soviet Union for material aid and strategic guidance.

On the home front, the suffering inflicted by the Great Depression and the oppression of Black people made the image projected by the Soviet Union attractive to millions of Americans. Furthermore, the renowned photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill at Yalta reminded the public that the U.S. leader had implemented the New Deal, recognized and then allied with the Soviet Union, laid the foundations for the United Nations, and generally presented the hope of liberal goodwill toward the world and its people. The notion that another world was possible was very present. But then, coincident with the death of Roosevelt, the United States actively sought to counter radical conceptions and any support for socialism. It worked to present the Soviet Union as a despised enemy. These actions were central to U.S. imperial designs, as the labor and combat-readiness of the U.S. people were essential to these undertakings. The development of the hydrogen bomb, the launching of the Korean War, the conflict over Berlin, and the rapid expansion of the military-industrial complex all began in earnest under the fog of the mass hysteria associated with McCarthyism. But it was in reality a far more sympathetic and coordinated effort to forge a Cold War on behalf of the entire U.S. establishment.

Something else also happened during this period: social and technological developments forever changed the making and dissemination of music. The great migration of hundreds of thousands of workers from the South to the North and West coupled with new means of amplification, recording, and broadcasting gave birth to urban musical forms such as rhythm and blues, country and western, and rock ‘n’ roll, merging them with already established Broadway show tunes, jazz, blues, hillbilly, and folk to appeal to a rapidly expanding market of city-dwelling music lovers. These developments are all the more important considering that the Great Depression almost destroyed the music industry. From the beginning of the twentieth century until 1929, purveyors of record players, radios, sheet music, and musical instruments had made large fortunes and proved useful in forging a culture with which people in the United States could identify. In many ways, the music industry was a nation-building force, which the country’s rulers needed to legitimize and propagate their claims. Now, after almost total collapse during the depression, the industry reestablished itself with new instruments, new sounds, and, above all, a new public attuned to bright lights and the big city.

In this context, the revival of folk music—that is, music derived from rural southern sources, unamplified, and, to a large extent, comprised of old songs of anonymous origin—was more than just another fad. Folk music encapsulated longings for an idyllic past, for a time before crass commercialism turned music into a commodity, and for relationships between musicians and audiences that were egalitarian and holistic. Folk music continues to have an appeal for these reasons today. While a century separates contemporary folk musicians from the sources of their inspiration, in the era under discussion here, a young folky could still meet and play with one of the “authentic” representatives of the tradition. For example, Pete Seeger met and played with Bascom Lunsford, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Leadbelly.

The sinews connecting folk music to historical events could (and still can) be embarrassing and uncomfortable to the powers that be, including those who ran the burgeoning music industry. Lyrics told of battles against bosses, of heroes who fought for the people. They made appeals for justice and spoke of biblical warnings as to the dire fate awaiting the rich. Such unpleasantness could be tolerated within the norms of academic folklore, but became dangerous when the songs were popularized by union organizers and civil rights activists who, following the Second World War, were advancing their demands more boldly than ever before. This is how U.S. Folk music (note the capital F) came into existence and why it was perceived as a threat by the very forces that needed music to create the nation of their dreams. Folksingers became the target of federal investigations, and folk music, as such, was indicted as the vehicle of communist propaganda. After all, singing “The Midnight Special” might mean you were a dupe, if not a conscious agent, of Moscow!

This is where The Folk Singers and the Bureau makes a vital contribution. Due to the complicity of historians, folklorists, and music industry flacks, important facts and necessary conclusions have been obscured or erased, undermining an understanding of this period and its major protagonists. Central to Leonard’s account are of course musicians and federal agents, but also the Communist Party USA and its many campaigns to organize workers, fight for civil rights, and support the Soviet Union. Each has been the subject of numerous books, articles, and documentaries, but few make the necessary connections between all three. Leonard is, moreover, virtually unique in having pored over thousands of pages of informant reports, as well as FBI field summaries and assessments, to show how the Bureau viewed its mission and the means it employed to accomplish its goals.

This approach has advantages, but it also contains hazards. Perhaps the most significant and controversial is to what degree the reports of agents or informants can be trusted or verified as factual, let alone truthful. Leonard forthrightly addresses this question at the outset. Yes, the FBI was determined to destroy or incapacitate any individual or organization it perceived as a threat. Yes, J. Edgar Hoover was notoriously vindictive and punitive in his campaigns of vilification, harassment, and assassination. Yes, the Bureau knowingly spread lies and slander for nefarious purposes. Nevertheless, internally, the FBI had to have reliable information. It needed verifiable data on the motives and activities of its targets, as well as those in government or business whose support might be needed or whose neutralization might be required if they presented obstacles. On this basis, Leonard devised a method for sorting through the records, which included comparing and contrasting them to testimony given under oath as well as participant interviews and supplementary written records. This additional material could then be used to corroborate or disprove the information provided to Bureau chiefs by agents in the field. Throughout, Leonard adheres to the dictum: objective and partisan. While no doubt appalled and angered by the Bureau’s depredations, he nonetheless takes seriously the reports filed, using them to provide a more complete account of this period and certain key players within it than what has previously been available.

Beginning with brief sketches of Woody Guthrie, the FBI, and the Communist Party, Leonard then presents a much broader history that entails musicians as diverse as Hans Eisler and Burl Ives, as well as music industry figures as famous as John Hammond and obscure as Boris Morros. Noteworthy is the fact that many musicians are included who could not by any stretch of the definition be considered “folk.” Furthermore, the folksingers referred to in the book’s title are themselves quite diverse, including as many Black as white musicians, and as many from the North as from the South. The defining characteristic, in any case, is less musicological than it is sociological and political. The fascinating account of New York’s Café Society and Billie Holiday’s performance of Abe Meeropol’s (aka, Lewis Allen) “Strange Fruit” is a prime example. These legendary names connect a meeting place, a musical style, and a song that have little to do with coal miners or sharecroppers but convey the sensibilities of a milieu. This milieu was by no means solely the creation of the Communist Party, but it owed a great deal to its organizing and broad influence in New York and other major cities. Of course, this milieu did include musicians originating in the rural South, such as Aunt Molly Jackson and John Handcox.

Its most famous exponents, Guthrie and Seeger, did extol the virtues of folk music as a form best suited to expressing and uniting the voices of the common people. Yet the great controversies that swirled around these figures, erupting with even greater force during the folk music revival of the 1960s, cannot be understood without grasping the role of the Communist Party and government efforts to suppress it. The Bureau’s main objective, indeed their primary reason for being, was to “hunt Reds” and to subvert every attempt to organize workers or oppressed people—such as African Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese, and other populations—who were at one time or another successful in building large movements, especially union organizing drives, in opposition to corporate and government policy.

These movements help explain an apparent paradox: U.S. music was shaped to a considerable extent by people the government sought to destroy. Even as it mounted an effective attack on the Communist Party, the government was unable to erase the influence of musicians with which it was associated. It is more than ironic that musicians who were once mercilessly hounded today appear on postage stamps (such as Guthrie and Paul Robeson) or at presidential inaugurals (Seeger). No doubt, Guthrie’s talent for lyrically capturing the spirit of the times was a factor in his extraordinary popularity. But the spirit of those times was largely an expression of a massive workers movement, which not only inspired Guthrie’s songs but also made up his audience. For example, the first major performance by the Almanac Singers, which included Guthrie, was at a rally at Madison Square Garden in support of striking transit workers. The Almanacs were well received by the twenty thousand people in attendance.

The founding of the Almanacs was a result of an earlier concert held in support of John Steinbeck’s California committee for relief of dustbowl refugees, which featured musicians such as Leadbelly, Ives, and Richard Dyer Bennett. Guthrie also appeared along with Alan Lomax and Seeger, which led to the formation of the Almanacs and the creation of the songbook Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, which remains a landmark document of U.S. music and labor history. The fact that this book took twenty-five years to find a publisher—it was compiled in 1941 and published in 1967—is one indication that support for these artists came from popular movements and not from the music business. While Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman did top the charts with Leadbelly’s song “Goodnight Irene,” and were, in one sense, a conventional “pop” group, the Weavers were nonetheless a product of earlier associations, including personal ties with Leadbelly, himself, and Seeger’s and Hays’s experiences in the Almanacs.

Indeed, the relationship between artists, audiences, and political movements is exemplified not only by audience numbers or the talents of people involved but also by the pathbreaking nature of events such as the “Spirituals to Swing” concerts that twice filled Carnegie Hall in the late 1930s. Defying the segregation that prevailed even in “liberal” New York, Hammond brought together diverse musical styles, multiracial musicians, and an integrated audience. This was a bold move at the time and the conventional music industry would not sponsor the event. Thus, in the face of threats to his reputation and the concerts themselves, Hammond obtained the sponsorship of The New Masses, a widely read Communist Party-oriented journal. The first concert in 1938 was such a success it was repeated in 1939, this time with the sponsorship of another Communist Party-oriented institution, the Theater Arts Committee. It is difficult to overstate the impact these concerts had at the time and have had since. Famous musicians, from Count Basie to Benny Goodman, were involved. The performance before an integrated audience of a range of music, including jazz, swing, blues, Dixieland, Gospel, and folk music, broke the mold of segregating music into genres, which was the stock in trade of the music industry.

Not surprisingly, the Bureau sought to ruin Hammond’s reputation. However, they were unsuccessful, partly due to his privileged background, as he was a relative of the Vanderbilts, but more so because he had support among the public in the growing opposition to Jim Crow, lynching, and the oppression of Black people in general. Needless to say, Hammond remained a crucial force, launching the careers of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

Leonard’s excavations include other important figures such as Lomax and Robeson, who can certainly be connected to folk music in a broad sense, but were sophisticated intellectuals widely known in their respective fields when they came under attack by the postwar Red Scare. Lomax had long established himself as a leading song collector and ethnomusicologist and worked for the Library of Congress, all the while being a member of the Communist Party. The latter fact was secret as it was in many cases; the fate befalling leading communists as well as fellow travelers prove it was not mere paranoia.

Robeson was perhaps the most extreme, yet exemplary, case of the entire period. He was an individual of extraordinary and versatile talent, world renowned for his magnificent bass voice, but, above all, he was the champion of workers and oppressed peoples everywhere. What the U.S. government did to Robeson is not only a crime against a person, but an offence against music and, indeed, humanity as a whole. Leonard shows, however, that this was part and parcel of a general strategy applied wherever and whenever the Bureau got wind of a person’s association, however tenuous, with the Communist Party. The unfortunate stories of Josh White, Ives, and others who were pressured to testify, indeed to prostrate themselves, before congressional committees, compare unfavorably with the heroic stands taken by people like Millard Lampell, Robeson, and Seeger. Robeson was prevented from foreign travel, his career was stymied, and he was subjected to intense psychological and physical intimidation throughout his life. He never bowed or kneeled, however, ending his days still speaking out on behalf of socialism and liberation. Seeger was more fortunate, although he faced several years under threat of imprisonment. He remained true to his communist convictions and dedication to human emancipation up to his death in 2014.

What then does Leonard say about the twists and turns of the Communist Party and its policies over the years? To what extent were the party’s difficulties its own doing as opposed to government repression? Space does not permit a thorough discussion of this subject, but suffice it to say that the party’s positions were fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. On the one hand, the party enjoyed wide support or it would not have been considered a threat by the government. On the other hand, the party frequently took positions that alienated it from its own base, which often arose from it simply following the dictates of the Comintern or the Cominform (which replaced the Comintern after its dissolution by Joseph Stalin, at the request of the Allies, in 1943). These issues played out in several key historical moments, such as the policy of dual unionism that eventually gave way to organizing within the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Black Belt theory regarding the national question and the concomitant internal party campaign against white chauvinism, and, most significantly, the change of position, from opposition to U.S. entry into the Second World War to a resumption of the Popular Front strategy of the 1930s of uniting to fight fascism. In each case, there were contradictory results. Certain gains that were made might appear to justify changes in line, but a price was exacted for what amounted to opportunism. The popular front, for example, led to perhaps the most dramatic rise in Communist Party membership and influence in its history. In fact, the party went from being an enemy to an ally of the state, from being a loathsome outcast to being a welcome participant in a common U.S. effort. It also created the conditions that, following the Second World War, made destruction of the party a government imperative.

That imperative included the Taft-Hartley Act and the purging of unions of communist leadership. It also involved the infamous blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the destruction of the careers of Robeson, the Weavers, and numerous others. In all of this, Leonard’s research shows that, to a great extent, anti-communism was used not simply to attack the Communist Party, but to cover up systematic violations of the U.S. Constitution and other outright criminal acts. Even as the Communist Party retreated, jettisoning any semblance of a revolutionary political line, the government relentlessly persisted, going on to make the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. its target.

Leonard’s inquiry eventually arrives at a number of important conclusions. First, the FBI records indicate that to a large extent the threat to the powers that be posed by the Communist Party was real. In spite of many shortcomings, including some that were ultimately incapacitating, the party was a leading influence within vital sections of the U.S. populace, especially in key industries and among oppressed nationalities. Denial of this fact and disavowal of association with the party were a defensive posture flowing from a flawed analysis that proved to be both ineffective and self-defeating. Instead of proudly proclaiming the revolutionary aim of liberating humanity from capitalism, the party declared “Communism Is Twentieth-Century Americanism” on the dubious assumption that such a slogan would win over the people and deflect government attack.

Second, the party had, almost accidentally, “discovered” the importance of folk music. There was, in fact, no coordinated direction or even much tangible support given by the party to groups like the Weavers or related efforts such as People’s Songs. Indeed, party member and publisher Irwin Silber wrote an unhelpful denunciation of the Weavers, condemning them, a white group, for singing Black music, at the very moment they were under attack by the federal government. Such posturing is precisely what alienated many musicians and artists from the party more generally. Not coincidentally, it was Silber who wrote the notorious Sing Out! attack on Dylan, accusing the singer of abandoning his calling—a position Silber would eventually retract. But that came later and was overshadowed by the rise of the New Left and the musical renaissance of the 1960s.

What finally emerges, however, is perhaps more significant in contemporary terms. The U.S. government did effectively suppress the Communist Party. Ignoring the role of the FBI in this is as big a mistake as denying the damage the Communist Party inflicted on itself. In a subsequent period, the FBI was effective in undermining the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. The role of the U.S. secret police should not be underestimated, even when criticizing errors made by revolutionary organizations themselves. In an era marked by increased government surveillance and the persecution of whistleblowers and journalists such as Julian Assange, it is vital that all freedom-loving people disabuse themselves of the notion that the U.S. government is bound by its Constitution or that its police forces, domestic and international, can be expected to protect citizen’s rights. Leonard, however, does not end his account this way. There is a cautionary tale here, to be sure, and all who fight for a better world should duly take note. But the immortal question posed by organizer Florence Reese aptly draws Leonard’s story to a close and into the present day: “Which side are you on?”

2021, Commentary, Volume 72, Issue 11 (April 2021)
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