By Scott Costen
AMERICAN folk music is best remembered as a staple of 1960s counterculture.
But its popular origins date back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, when musicians like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Sis Cunningham used their voices, guitars, and banjos to spread unapologetically socialist messages to their audiences.
These three folk artists, and many more like them, had deep and abiding connections to the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).
Some were party members, some “fellow travellers” and others occasional allies.
But in one way or another, they all suffered because of their relationship with a political party that was subject to increasing legal, financial and moral persecution.
The lives, music and struggles of these folk singers form the nucleus of Aaron J. Leonard’s new book ‘The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA – 1939-56.’
Published last month by Repeater Books, this is an important, well-researched and eye-opening account of the years-long persecution of eminently talented musicians based solely on their left-wing political convictions.
These men and women were a “divergent mix of individuals” including “Okies, Jewish intellectuals, WASPy Harvard men, ex-convicts, grandsons of slaves, football stars, and country teachers.”
According to Leonard, the CPUSA gave them access to ready-made audiences and free publicity in the party press. It also helped them overcome the “significant social, political, and racial barriers to their working together.”
“Their association with the Party was neither accidental nor capricious,” he writes. “It was rather a conscious choice borne of what these artists saw as the aching grievances of depression-era US society.”
In some cases, the folk artists enjoyed brief periods of commercial and critical success before authorities laid their careers to waste. Such was the case with the Weavers, a quartet featuring Seeger that topped the charts with a version of the Lead Belly song ‘Goodnight, Irene’ in 1950.
But as the cooperative spirit of the Second World War gave way to the paranoid excesses of the Cold War, the musicians’ association with the CPUSA became “the impetus and driving catalyst for their targeting by hard-right forces in Congress, right-wing organizations, and the FBI.”
The artists were subject to a shocking amount of surveillance and harassment. For example, Seeger’s New York FBI file, held by the National Archives, exceeds more than 5,800 pages.
Guthrie was still being monitored – and his associates were still being hounded – even after he was hospitalized with a terminal disease.
In the book’s concluding chapter, Leonard poignantly reflects on what might have become of the singers and musicians if they hadn’t been red-baited and repressed at the height of their careers.
“What further artistic milestones could they have achieved?” he asks. “How many thousands, if not millions of people, could have been exposed to the beauty of their art?”
While mostly a compelling and enjoyable read, ‘The Folks Singers and the Bureau’ suffers from typos and other mistakes that should have been caught early in the proofreading stage.
For example, “tiume” appears on page 12 in place of the word “time.” On page 19, “Oklahoman’s” is used instead of “Oklahomans.” And a news report is later credited to “Associate Press” rather than Associated Press.
These errors are not enough to warrant a negative review, but they do diminish the enjoyment of an otherwise outstanding book.
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