A short while ago, my old friend Roy Berkeley passed away, after a lengthy battle with cancer. Some from the folk music world may have known him. He was a mainstay in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s of the New York City folk scene, along with people like Dave Van Ronk, The New Lost City Ramblers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. Roy played flatpick country/folk guitar, and sounded like a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. During these years, along with Van Ronk and others, he wrote a parody of the well known leftist songbook, The People’s Songbook, that he called The Bosses’ Songbook.
Roy was also a political activist—a man who moved from the Trotskyist movement (like Van Ronk, he was always an anti-Stalinist) to social democracy and then to Republican Party conservatism. A member of the NRA, he was devoted to the safe use of guns, and eventually became deputy sheriff in his town of Shaftsbury, Vermont.
To honor Roy, I wrote the following letter to him, to be read in early June at a memorial service to be held in the Vermont he loved so much:
Boy, you and I go way back, all the way to those heady youthful times at Washington Square in the 1950’s. And you were always a step ahead of me. When someone first saw me talking to you, I think it was the Communist writer Mike Gold’s son Carl Granich, he warned me: “Don’t you know Roy’s a Trotskyite?” Somehow, I took his warning in vain, and became your friend anyway. Of course, back then I was a diehard unreconstructed Commie. Then, I eventually moved a bit and became a democratic socialist. Too late: you informed me you had become a dreaded Shachtmanite-a third camp socialist who saw the US and the USSR as the same. Then you moved along with your group to believing that freedom and democracy was alone supported by the United States, just as I was moving to the position that the US was not as bad as the Soviet Union and its satellites, just a little better. Finally, in the past few years, I called myself a neo-conservative. You still beat me. You became both a deputy sheriff, a gun toting NRA member, and a rock-ribbed Republican. Just proves I couldn’t keep up with you!
Anyway, I was so saddened that you chose this month to leave us all. I think I have a sneaking suspicion of why you did this. You were seeking the perfect excuse to miss going to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. I know what you were planning. You were going to bring a guitar, leap up onto the stage, and sing that wonderful song you penned for The Bosses’ Songbook, “The Ballad of a Party Folksinger,” which you originally titled “The Ballad of Pete Seeger,” but which I recall, your fellow editor Dave Van Ronk thought might be libelous. I could see security rushing the stage, as you belted out that verse:
He went for his orders at Party headquarters,
Saying Pete, you’re way behind time,
It’s not ’38 but ‘2009’
and there’s been a change in the Party line.
I guess you knew they wouldn’t allow you to do that, and you avoided the stress that would have caused you. Well, anyone who wants to can still buy your record of the old Almanac Singers anti-FDR songs, believe it or not, at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. At least you’re not censored down there. Better than the guy who made the documentary film on Seeger, and cut out of it every piece of footage he filmed of you. Unlike me, who said a few nice things about Pete (giving him credit for reviving interest in American roots music) you simply blasted him, leaving no way he could edit it as he did to me. You were just too tough!
So, old friend. I have wonderful memories of the time we spent at your beautiful home, where you tried to instruct me how to shoot a pistol at a target, as I failed each time. “You’ve got to be prepared for the Revolution,” you admonished me, “what are you going to do when the capitalists come at you with their guns?” Guess I’ll have to talk them down, Roy.
Anyway, when I eventually join you, I know where to find you. You’ll be part of that great band picking and singing with Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and having a blast. Yeah, I know I could never really play well (you suck, Ron) you told me a couple of years ago, just let me sit in on one song, ok?
We’ll then pick up where we left off. As Woody said, “take it easy, but take it.” Be seeing you, Roy.
Your good friend,