Sunday, February 25, 2007

Me & Folkmusic, Part Two

Why the music was available through a communist front bookstore and not through the usual channels is an interesting story.

During the thirties and forties nobody in particular was interested in folk music except scholars and communists.

There were a few scholars following in the tradition of Francis James Child [1825-1896]. He was a philologist, born in Boston. a professor at Harvard from 1851 to 1896 and an authority on the ballad. His best known books are:

English and Scottish Ballads (1857-58) and
English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1883-98).

His canon of (indexed) groups of related ballads ["The Child Ballads"] were regarded as the be-all-and-end-all of British Folk Art for many years.

Cecil James Sharp [1859-1924] is the other big name in British folksong scholarship. Born in London, he practiced law in Australia but returned to England in 1892 as a music teacher. He was music master at Ludgrove School and principal of Hampstead Conservatory . From 1903 he collected and published many native English folk songs and dances in:

Folk Songs from Somerset (1904-09),
The Morris Book (1907-13),
The Country Dance Book (1909-22), and
English Folk Songs (1932).

He founded the English Folk Dance Society (1911) and initiated the teaching of folk song and dance in English schools. He is particularly important in American folk music scholarship because during 1916-18 he collected folk songs and dances of English origin in the Appalachian Mountains; thus proving that british folk culture survived in the American backwoods.

Child saw the ballads as "literature" and was so disinterested in the tunes that his massive compilation has very few hints that the ballads were actually sung. Sharp was mainly interested in "preserving" the bare bones of the tunes so that they could be incorporated in schoolbooks and preserved by being sung in school classrooms with cleaned-up words. The bare tunes and the words, if they were clean enough, were enough for Sharp.

The communists felt much the same way. They had decided that the way to get to "the people" was to use "the people's art" as a vehicle for propaganda. In the Soviet Union the party encouraged the performance of folk music and dance by organizing large professional companies of dancers and singers to perform it in theaters. The Red Army Chorus made international tours when other functionaries were forbidden a sight of the outside world.

The American Communist Party felt that they should encourage the tradition made famous by "Joe Hill" of the Wobblies.

"Joe Hill" was a labor agitator and songwriter born Joel Hoegglund in Sweden in 1879. He was also known as "Joseph Hillstrom" and "Joe Hill". He came to the US around 1901 and became active in the Industrial Workers of the World (The IWW or Wobblies) around 1910. He worked in strike organization and contributed to the IWW journals "Industrial Worker" and "Solidarity". Some of his songs such as "The Preacher and the Slave", "There is Power in a Union", and "The Rebel Girl" became widely popular. In 1914 he was arrested, convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence, and after numerous appeals, was executed for murder. This made him a hero (and saint) of the radical labor movement.

The Industrial Workers of the World advocated the Marxist theory of class struggle between workers and capitalists. Its early policy was one of direct action [propaganda, strikes, boycotts, and sabotage] rather than more indirect political means such as arbitration and collective bargaining. The aim of the IWW was to include in its membership the entire industrial population of the U.S. The IWW was at the peak of its strength in 1912, with a membership of about 10,000. [See Jack London's The Iron Heel for attitudes of the time.]

Between 1906 and 1917 the IWW carried out a number of strikes that were violent on both sides. Among these strikes were the miners' strike at Goldfield, Nev. (1906-07), TRIG the textile workers' strike at Lawrence, Mass. (1912), and the silk workers' strike at Paterson, N.J. (1913).

The union opposed the entrance of the U.S. into World War I. The losses sustained by wartime prosecution, by the subsequent action of several states in prohibiting "criminal syndicalism," and by the action of many IWW members in joining the American Communist party after its formation (1919-21), caused a decline in union membership. Thereafter, the IWW ceased to play a prominent part in the labor movement, and was dispersed. In recent years it existed as an office in Chicago where one could order copies of its "Little Red Songbook" containing the Joe Hill "Top Hits".

The political aspect of the post-World-War-II left-radical support of folkmusic peaked with the campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948. Wallace represented the far left wing of the Democratic Party, opposed to Harry Truman's centrist position. Strom Thurmond represented the far right (southern) wing and, with the Democratic Party split three ways, the Republican Thomas Dewey (a former DA and Governor of New York) figured on a shoo-in; leading to the famous picture of a victorious Truman holding a Chicago Tribune with the headline "Dewey Wins".

I had been sympathetic with the Wallace campaign because of its use of folksingers and folkmusic in the campaign, but Wallace was unrealistically far left for an american politician and lost. It made for a fascinatingly close election, which obscured the complete rout of the left wing.

The loss caused Wallace's party to break up into a far left wing that took over an older party called the American Labor Party (with no strength except in New York) which subsequently followed the Soviet line a bit too obviously, and a moderate left-wing group that kept the Progressive Party name for a while and formed the far left wing of the Democratic Party.

After McCarthy's Unamerican Activities Committee began making leftist connections uncomfortable even a stalwart publication like "People's Songs" faded into a folkie fan magazine called "Sing Out"; and folkmusic dropped out of mainstream american politics in my lifetime.

In the early fourties, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, Burl Ives, John Hammond, Lee Hays, Alan Lomax, Irwin Silber and others had been looking for a new way to carry on the folk tradition. According to Joe Klein, Seeger suggested a loose-knit union of songwriters who would stage occasional performances and provide songs for unions and other progressive groups. It would be ecumenical enough to include some less radical sorts like Oscar Brand, Tom Glazer, and Josh White. In 1946, they began to publish "The People's Songs Bulletin". People's Songs was forced to close in 1949 by the prevailing uncomfortable atmosphere.

It was revived in 1950, as Sing Out! with a not so obvious left radical orientation. It remains as a folkmusic journal but it never had any political significance.

Curiously, the influence of the radical left on American Folkmusic was quite strong but, in a characteristically American way, it was through the actions of individuals rather than organizations. Two people, the charismatic Pete Seeger and the poet Woody Guthrie, came out of this "progressive" movement to make themselves saints and heros of the American Folkmusic revival.

However, like the earlier scholars and educators, Seeger and Guthrie were less interested in the tunes and musical styles than the literary content. Guthrie would use any handy folk or country tune that fit the poetic thought; and Seeger molded all the music to fit his banjo technique and his ability to get people singing. It was Seeger's younger half-brother who was to set the folkmusic revival moving in a different direction.

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