Picking and Singing at Princeton

On Monday, I participated in a wonderful event at Princeton University, a forum sponsored by The Madison Center, run by the distinguished scholar, lawyer and philosopher, Robert P. George.  Billed as “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics,” the meeting was really about the politics of folk music, in particular, the ties of the Old Left (Communist Party and fellow-travelers) to the culture of folk and old-time music.


Rather than report on it myself, I am republishing here the observations made yesterday in the blog by Sean Curnyn, who came from New York City to take part. Curnyn in the proprietor and founder of a wonderful website devoted to Bob Dylan, and related subjects. He is author of two wonderful articles in The Weekly Standard; this one on Dylan’s politics,  and this piece on Greil Marcus’s book about Dylan.  So in the future, check out his blog at www.rightwingbob.com. You will enjoy it!

I only wish to add one part of my own presentation here. I have blogged and written many places about Pete Seeger. When Seeger left The Weavers, he was replaced by Erik Darling, whom everyone assumed was a Seeger clone, musically and politically. But not only did Darling bring a lot musically to the group, his own view of the world was far removed from that of the left-wing milieu out of which the other Weavers- Fred Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays- came.  Here is what I said about Darling:

When Seeger left The Weavers in the mid 50’s to go off on his own, he was replaced by a master singer and banjoist, the late Erik Darling.  The choice of the talented Darling turned out to be filled with irony. Most people do not realize that not only was Darling not a leftist, but was a man who was inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand. Yet, the Weavers were considered the heart of the cultural Left, and their audiences, especially in big cities, poured out to hear them and believed they were making a statement about the lasting impact of their movement and the righteousness of their thinly veiled  Communist politics.

Yet, as Darling wrote in his posthumously published memoir, when he joined the group he was “not a political person at the time.”  In fact, by the time he was performing and recording with the group, Darling had become a dedicated anti-Communist. He was repelled by what he called “the culture of Communism,” in which, he wrote,  the government would not only run everything, but would “make all the decisions…including what music to record and play on the air.”  And yet, here he was a member of a group, as he went on to say, that was “one of the most political groups that ever walked on the face of the earth.” He thought that what The Weavers others members believed would lead to “government bureaucrats running our lives,” which he thought was “totally ludicrous and against everything I’d come to believe.”


Strangely, Darling wrote that he never in all his years singing with Seeger and later with the Weavers he never had one single political discussion! He thought they were only concerned about ending segregation, and he simply assumed they had all left the orbit of the CP after the Khrushchev report of 1956. His problems began, he wrote- and they accounted for his leaving the group- because he came to feel that  they “stood for an underground Marxist agenda. People would acknowledge me from a distance at parties…knowing I was a Weaver, and wink, like the people in the French underground winked at each other in the movie Casabalanca.” But, he writes, “ I wasn’t aligned with any political group,” and found that I was in a “political no-man’s land.” Everyone, he wrote me by e-mail shortly before his passing, “assumed you shared their politics.”   So, Darling wrote, believing in art that was not politicized  and meant to have a message, reading Ayn Rand, as well as personal stress caused by the collapse of his marriage led him, he wrote,  to leave “the great group for political as well as musical reasons.”

Darling, who was a friend of mine and one of my banjo teachers, passed away last year. He died just as his memoir about his life in folk music was published. Most people do not even know it exists. But those who want to read his story, it is available here . Give it as a holiday gift to someone who likes folk music, and wants the real story.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Positively Princeton: Professors, Pickers and Provocateurs …7:40 pm

RWB was thrilled to be able to attend a lunch seminar held at Princeton University yesterday, titled “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics.” (Say that five times fast.) It was held under the auspices of the James Madison Program at that university, whose founding director is Robert P. George.

Professor George introduced the speakers — Lauren Weiner and Ronald Radosh (it was Ron who had kindly invited me) and George also brought his guitar and mandolin, the better to later perform some tunes with those same speakers and with guest Bob Cohen (the estimable Cantor Bob who has been mentioned several times before in this space including at this link). Cornel West, also of Princeton, was a guest attendee (and ended up contributing some deft backing vocals to the musical mélange).


I didn’t take any notes at all, but I’ll offer my flawed reporting on the seminar anyhow. The genesis for the get-together was Lauren Weiner’s fascinating and entertaining article (in the forthcoming issue of First Things) called “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?” (Lauren is a writer who has written on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion and many other publications.) Her article traces some of the history of various folk revivals in the United States and the efforts to turn the songs and the whole genre towards the goal of promoting, well, Marxist revolution. Her talk was very much centered on the same themes as her piece. One of her most interesting observations was on the way in which the whole effort finally gained its greatest traction by becoming focused on anti-anti-communism (in the wake of events in the 1950s related to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate investigations of Joseph McCarthy). To quote a little from her article:

Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 version of “Talking Un-American Blues” about the subpoena (eventually canceled) that she and her coauthor Irwin Silber received from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alan Lomax and Michael Loring sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”): “Re-pu-bli-cans they call us ‘Red,’ the Demmies call us ‘Commie.’ / No matter how they slice it, boys, it’s still the old salami.”

This was a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics. […] The 1962 song “The Birch Society” by Malvina Reynolds has the typical Pop Front blend of brazenness and coyness — with an extra dollop of sanctimony, a Reynolds specialty. “They’re afraid of nearly everything that’s for the general good,” she sang, “they holler ‘Red’ if something’s said for peace and brotherhood.” The fact that they also hollered Red if somebody actually was a Red got lost in the shuffle. For here, at last, was a rallying point — anti-anti-communism — with a potential for wide appeal. It became fundamental to the politics of nearly everyone who was left-of-center and was adopted by legions of middle-class young people unmoved by concepts of such as worker ownership of the means of production.


Dylan’s song Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues had to get a mention in this context and did. One observation I would make myself about Dylan is this: Even while he was flirting with these themes and entertaining his left-wing friends and audiences, he also in some way seemed to be looking right through the transparency of it all. It might be summed up by a verse of I Shall Be Free No 10:

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Those so inclined would hear that as a slam on the Republican Goldwater. Yet, the humor is double-edged and, to me, the sharper edge is the one that has the intolerant “liberal” as the real clown. (And obviously that’s underlined all the more by Bob’s statement in his memoir Chronicles that his “favorite politician” during his early time in the Village was none other than Barry Goldwater.)

Anyhow, Lauren’s talk also proceeded to reflect on some of the ironies in how that which was once serious left-wing movement music became assimilated into the capitalist musical culture, and transformed, and largely defanged.

Ronald Radosh then spoke. (Ron is the author of many books including his really essential memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and most recently A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel , coauthored with Allis Radosh.) Unfortunately, I don’t have an article to which to refer and with which to cheat when it comes to Ron’s talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize its main points, but it was a wide-ranging trip through related territory and beyond. He talked in particular of the role of Pete Seeger in the movement (under whose tutelage he himself learned to play banjo). He recalled watching a recent tribute to Seeger, on his 90th birthday, where Bruce Springsteen specifically gave him credit for having been “singing songs of peace since the 1930s.” As Ron observed, what was ironically left out and is doubtless unknown to many who watched the tributes is that those “songs of peace” in the 1930s were in defense of Joseph Stalin’s then-ally, Adolf Hitler. Ron was also interviewed for a tribute to Seeger, apparently at Pete’s own suggestion, so that a mention of Seeger’s errors (e.g. his persistent refusal to criticize Stalin until very recently) might temper all of the adulation. However, Ron’s remarks about such matters ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only his pleasant recollections about learning how to play the banjo from Pete.


Ron also shared some memories of the late musician Erik Darling, who replaced Pete Seeger in the group The Weavers, and then had a fish-out-of-water perspective on the whole milieu, being himself actually more of a fan of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.

There was some discussion after Ron’s talk but the people who had brought instruments were obviously eager to start using them, and things progressed quickly to a melodic exploration of the same landscape. One of the themes was the way in which old tunes are turned to again and again (or co-opted, if you prefer) with new lyrics applied; in particular the way old gospel and spiritual numbers were recruited for new causes. So we heard how “Jesus walked that lonesome valley, He had to walk it by Himself” became “You gotta go down and join the union, You got to join it by yourself”.

On a different but related angle, Bob Cohen illustrated how the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaned heavily upon a Yiddish tune called Dem Milner’s Trern in writing his song Do Not Forsake Me for the film High Noon. Bob also pointed out that the same melody can be heard prominently in the film A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. Later, Cohen also sang a little of When The World’s On Fire, a hymn recorded by the Carter Family, which provided the tune for Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.

Lauren Weiner sang one of her favorite songs of the coming revolution, The Banks Are Made of Marble, with the support of the ensemble. Ron Radosh led the band in Which Side Are You On, also giving us some lines from the late Dave Van Ronk’s humorous rewrite of the tune, where he was looking back on some of the ironies and conflicts of the leftie/folk revival and asking “Which side are we on?” Robby George also gently performed a beautiful folk gospel song (the name of which, to my great consternation, is escaping me today) with Cornel West’s poignant supporting voice. A rousing version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive ensued, and the proceedings ended with a boisterous This Land Is Your Land.


So, I couldn’t tell you exactly what may have been established by the seminar, but one thing in any case seems clear to me: music is bigger than politics, certainly more enduring, and makes a much deeper connection to the human spirit. It seems that even when songs are turned to the most utilitarian ends and strapped to some flawed cause du jour that — if they are genuinely great tunes — they will ultimately be reclaimed by music herself.


And I couldn’t really move on without mentioning this: When I had the pleasure of being introduced to Professor West, he told me that he had gotten the subtitle of his memoir from Bob Dylan. He was on his busy way and I didn’t ask for specifics, but I later checked, and his recently published book is titled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud . Well, that’s not a Bob Dylan line with which I was familiar. I wondered if it might be from Tarantula or something. But no; some Googling eventually supplied the answer:

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

So there you go.


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