Politics and Popular Culture

Annette T. Rubinstein

“My Song is My Weapon”:
People’s Songs, American Communism and the Politics of Culture, 1939-50
By Robbie Lieberman
University of Illinois Press, 1989, $23.95 hardcover.

ONE OF THE most interesting developments in recent U.S. historiography is the large number of competent, imaginative, energetic younger scholars who are exploring the origins and effects of radical organizations during the thirties and early fort, a period when almost the entire left was deeply influenced by the CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States).

These historians are refuting conventional assumptions that had stood unquestioned since the “American Inquisition” of the fifties and, more important, are focusing attention in new directions and asking totally new questions. Their work has already given us books as disparate as Victor Navasky’s Naming Now on the days of the Hollywood blacklist, Mark Naison’s The Communist Party in Harlem, Ellen Schrecker’s study of witch-hunts in academia, No Ivory Tower, and many others.

There are also, of course, a growing number of amounts by men and women who were there—for example, Arthur Kinoy’s The Ming of a People’s Lawyer with its vivid description of the use of the Un-American Activities Committee in union-busting and the late Al Richmond’s A Long View from the Left.

The present volume, as different from all the others as they are from each ow, is a welcome addition to this library. Lieberman’s approach is an informal one, though her documentation is thorough, and there are so many personal interviews quoted that it sometimes reads like a collective oral history.

The book begins with a lengthy preface, which, among other things, purports to establish a theoretical framework for this historical study. It will, however, be better to defer consideration of that until we have seen what actually commands most of the author’s attention. Before plunging into her story she manages, in a remarkably succinct non-tendentious eleven-page introduction, to summarize the “revolutionary” stance of the CPUSA in the early years of the Depression; the development of a less class-oriented, united anti-fascist front after Hitler’s rise; the brief near catastrophic isolation during the two years of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact; the renewed popular alliances formed during the war and immediate postwar years; and the destructive persecution of all Progressives in the cold-war fifties.

A World of Communist Culture

The first chapter then briskly surveys “American Communist Movement Culture,” emphasizing the comparative breadth of the movement in contrast to the actual size of the party. It also traces the background of many who were to organize and join People’s Songs in the mid-forties, showing their roots in families belonging to radical workers’ clubs or housing cooperatives.

A second, much longer chapter, “Communist Musical Culture in the 1930s,” barely mentions the demise of the highly sophisticated, deeply theoretical Composers’ Collective in 1936 but indicates the part played by some of its former members, such as Charles Seeger and Earl Robinson, in fostering anew interest in American folk music with special emphasis on the songs of Black people.

There is some concrete description of the encouragement offered new people’s choruses and young composer-singers by radical summer camps like Wo-Chi-Ca and such centers as Highlander Folk School and Commonwealth College.

Surprisingly, there is no mention hereof the contribution made by the new left theater movement Both the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the WPA Federal Theater pioneered in creating new socially conscious musical comedies such as “Pins and Needles” and “Sing For Your Supper,” and songs like “Picket Line Priscilla” never failed to attract attention when singers reinforced a picket line.

The third chapter, “Communism, Anti-Fascism and People’s Music,” opens with the formation of Almanac Singers in 1941, “the first urban folksinging group.” They began by faithfully presenting traditional ballads and work-songs but soon found it necessary to income and enliven their repertoire by also setting new words to old tunes. Their first six-record album of antiwar songs was shockingly outdated when, just after its appearance, the Soviet Union was invaded.

Woody Guthrie commented satirically on the relation of poetry and topical politics, singing:

I started to sing a song
To the entire population,
But I ain’t doing a thing tonight
On account of this new situation.

Artistry and Politics

Lieberman also quotes another of Guthrie’s perennial protests, this time couched in prose. He wrote his wife about an episode in what was clearly a continuing battle:

“I was trying to preach the idea that in a singing group… the ability to perform, play music or sing had ought to be the first requirement, and that, within this singing group, if it was going to grow and spread and have a wide mass following, of course we would do everything in our power to make up songs and ballads that would spread the gospel of the working man, but that people who just naturally could not sing or play an instrument… I argued that our group should not be governed by the vote of such members.”

Although the Almanacs mourned the fate of their album most of them were, no doubt, happy with the change that brought them back into the mainstream of the antifascist struggle they ardently supported. Pete Seeger, among others, returning from a year spent traveling across the country with Guthrie and their guitars joined the army where he found soldiers as eager to hear him as union meetings and farmers had been.

Seeger expressed a general euphoria when he said he thought, “We could make a singing labor movement, take up where Joe Hill left off, and carry the tradition on.” In December 1945, he and others hurried to create an organization for this purpose.

About thirty young radicals, including a number of union educational directors, met to found People’s Songs and launched its monthly People’s Song Bulletin. In addition to the national New York office there were soon a number of local chapters and a substantial Los Angeles branch. The repertoire broadened to include various other popular musical forms, especially jazz.

In chapter four, “My Song is My Weapon,” Lieberman quotes Irwin Silber’s starry-eyed comment, “We thought that the world was worth saving and that we could do it with songs.” She also quotes Fred Hellerman’s more realistic assessment “The stated purpose was to change the world …. Another purpose, a good purpose, was becoming a central point for people with like interests and goals to establish contact.”

This chapter also further indicates how completely the group’s radicalism was, in general, a matter of feeling rather than thought; their blithe indifference to serious political threats and differences was remarkable even in a largely untheoretical movement.

Apparently they remained unaware not only of the gathering cold war but also of the shift in their own party’s line. Lieberman Illustrates this by citing their apparent indifference to the “Malta controversy,” which became a cause celebre in literary circles, led to the resignation of several leading intellectuals and showed that cultural workers in a radical move-merit could be as unthinking and philistine in their approach to literature as the worst of the bourgeoisie.

Providing Emotional Support

Happily unconscious of reaction on both le and right, most of the songsters continued to believe, as Ernie Lieberman put it “We thought that songs were a weapon in the sense that they could change people and … inspire people to great deeds and that they could bring everybody over to our way of thinking.”

But if songs rarely effected such a sudden, or even gradual, conversion of outsiders, they did achieve an equally important function in encouraging, strengthening and warming inside The author says, “Songs were an Important means of providing emotional support … offering a sense of togetherness and unity,” and quotes a veteran party organizer, Dorothy Healey “It was the songs that united people, that gave them a sense of unity.”

Another important achievement of People’s Songs was the creation and recording of a significant body of work that could be, and was, retrieved and developed by a new group of young radicals in the sixties. Lieberman quotes Alan Lomax’s acknowledgment of this contribution:

“At first I did not understand how these songs related to the traditional folk songs… Moody l begin to realize that here was an emerging tradition that represented a new kind of human being, a new folk community composed of progressives and anti-fascists and union members. These folk, inheritors of the democratic traditions of folklore, were creating for themselves a folk-culture of high moral and political content.”

The fifth chapter, “Songs of Labor and the American People,” deals with the increasing distance between increasingly bureaucratized conservative labor unions and an increasingly rigid autocratic Communist Party. Despite the frequent well-earned popularity of party members in local leadership, national directives too often helped the combined efforts of government, business and the mass media to drive union members away from progressive organizations and spokespersons.

The high hopes People’s Songs had for a singing labor movement dwindled as all but a tiny minority of beleaguered left-wing unions hurried to distance themselves from any suspicion of radical sympathies.
Lieberman spends considerable time showing how far from revolutionary most of the songs in the Bulletin and repertoire were during this period and seems rather naively surprised that the truly democratic nature of the material was not generally apparent Yet she makes clear the nature of the official attack on anything truly democratic, citing specific examples such as the Taft-Hartley Act.

With the same ambiguity, after painting this clear picture she momentarily assumes a half-hearted “two sides to every question” stance, saying that the isolation of People’s Songs “was due in part to (its) political sectarianism and naiveté.” However, she concludes cogently: “There was no postwar Popular Front… and songs could not in and of themselves create the kind of movement for which People’s Songs had hoped.”

People’s Songs to The Weavers

After a short chapter notable chiefly for its vivid recollection of the stirring “hootenannies,” comes a longer one giving an account of People’s Songs in its last major public effort— its participation in the Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace presidential campaign.

Evidently many still vastly overestimated the power of art to actually create, rather than simply crystallize and reflect, a movement Woody Guthrie himself seemed to blame the loss of the election entirely on the weakness of the election songs, demanding angrily: “Why did our songs not reach in and touch deep enough to cause the hand to push the C Row handles in that voting booth?”

Lieberman, of course, realizes how unrealistic was Guthrie’s assessment of the political possibilities. But she uses his further criticism of the lightweight popular election songs to introduce a brief discussion of his demand that art “be radical enough in the proper ways.” The discussion does not attempt to define those ways and plumbs no depths, although there is some interest in the differences between political figures who later judged the entire third-party effort a mistake and the singers who felt it had left a serious impression on many people and was therefore well worthwhile.

People’s Songs was forced to dissolve in March 1949. Three months later a more general party-inspired organization, People’s Artists, began its career by sponsoring the historic Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York. A year later it published the first issue of a new bulletin, Sing Out, featuring the “Hammer Song” by Lee Hays, a song later adopted by the new wave of young radicals in the 1960s. While People’s Artists ended its career in 1954, Sing Out continued to appear as a quarterly for some years.

The eighth and last chapter, “The Legacy of People’s Songs,” discusses The Weavers, a well-known, commercially successful quartet formed by four of the most popular hootenanny singers—Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert This discussion is largely composed of quotations from various critics on the relations of art and politics.

Lieberman first cites a founding member of People’s Songs, David Sears, who said: “They [The Weavers] were so good musically… and so exciting … and they did take over America as number one in the popular music field. If it wasn’t for the politics, they would have gone on forever as the deans of American folk music But … where would they have been without the politics?”

Unanswered Theoretical Questions

After detailing a number of ways in which The Weavers’ work was related to their politics and general history, Lieberman moves on to a review of opinions on the commercialization and corruption of “pop” music. She concludes by quoting with obvious approval from Sound Effects by Simon Frith:

“[T]he bases for cultural evaluation are always social: what is at issue is the effect of a cultural product. Is it repressive or liberating? Corrupting or uplifting? Escapist or instructive? The aesthetic question—how does the text achieve its effects—is secondary.”

As a clear, lively, sympathetic story of People’s Songs and some of the individuals who sang and/or composed them, this account could hardly be bettered. Nor could one do much more in 200 pages than the author has done.

Her impression of the general indifference to serious theoretical analysis of cultural questions both on the left and in the United States generally is unquestionably accurate, so that the absence of such analysis here in no way misrepresents her subjects. If it were not that the subtitle, the preface and related statements scattered throughout the book promise such a discussion, there would be no reason to question its absence in this small volume.

But Lieberman herself seems uneasily are of the unconsidered questions raised in the preface by her quotations (from Gramsci and Raymond Williams, among others) and by her own listing of the lessons to be learned from the experience of People’s Songs.

Those questions, repeated from time to time in succeeding chapters, are nowhere given more than a superficial “lick and a promise.” It is only for that misleading promise and its invariably shallow follow-up that one might criticize this otherwise admirable study.

May-June 1990, ATC 26