An American Communist Dies, and The New York Times Gets His Life Wrong
Every time an American Communist or leftist dies, you can count on one thing: the New York Times will run a major obituary, and it will be misleading, incomplete, or very favorable to their life and record. The latest example of the paper’s favoritism to deceased men of the far Left is Saturday's obituary of Irwin Silber, the first editor of the folk music magazine Sing Out! and a secret rather than open member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. I happen to know a great deal about Silber. My very first published article appeared in that magazine in 1955, and through the years, I had many run-ins with him and could have shed a great light on what he thought and believed.
The current editor of the magazine, who did not really know him, calls Silber “one of the architects of the folk revival.” That is, in my judgment, more than inaccurate. Rather, Silber’s role was to direct a growing interest in the music into very narrow Stalinist channels. As the well known folk-singer and guitar picker Happy Traum told me at the time Silber took over as editor, “It’s a coup.” Traum too was a leftist, but a rather moderate one and non-political, far more interested in the music and its art than narrow politics.
At the time, Silber was one of the most hard-nosed Stalinists in the American CP. The obituary tells readers that Silber left the Party “in the late 1950s.” (I doubt that too. In 1957, a friend and I visited Silber at The Daily Worker, where he was an editor and writer. The CPUSA did not let non-Party members write for and edit its official paper.) Other obituaries say that he left after the famous Khrushchev Report of 1956, the first indication of a power struggle among the Soviet leadership, in which Khrushchev shocked the world Communist community with his limited and incomplete account of Stalin’s crimes. The indication is that Silber, shocked at the truth of Stalin’s record, left when he realized the enormity of Stalin’s crimes.
What the paper does not say, nor do most of the other testimonials one can find if you Google his name, is that Silber left the Party because he believed Khrushchev had sold out Communism, and he longed for the return of the kind of staunch Marxist-Leninist leadership and system that Stalin had built and presided over. Years later, as Wikipedia’s account of his life gets correct (and evidently the obit writer, William Grimes, did not consult), Silber became editor of what had become a far left paper The Guardian, and used his work there to make it the spokesmen of what Silber called a “new Communist movement,” based on a favorable reevaluation of Stalin and strict Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist principles. As Wikipedia describes that movement Silber led, “these new organizations rejected the post-1956 Communist Party USA as revisionist, or anti-revolutionary, and also rejected Trotskyism and the Socialist Workers Party for its theoretical opposition to Maoism.”
Silber in fact gave a keynote speech that was printed in The Guardian, which ended by echoing Stalin and actually saying something like “let the bourgeoisie tremble, as we build a new Marxist Leninist party that will crush capitalism.” ( I am writing from vacation without access to my notes and files, so this is from memory.) The ruling class, much to Silber’s dismay, ignored his blustering.
One other example of his outlook. When the once Communist actor and singer Yves Montand appeared in a French movie that depicted the torture of those falsely arrested as traitors during the purges in post-war Communist Czechoslovakia, based on the memoir of one of the few found guilty who was not hanged, Silber lambasted it in a review, arguing that even if it was true, it would hurt the movement if revealed.
The obit writer does not ignore Silber’s one famous article: his condemnation of Bob Dylan for moving away from “protest songs” to more introspective and literary songs. Wrote Silber: “Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self- conscious -- maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it's happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now -- rather than to the rest of us out front. Now, that's all okay -- if that's the way you want it, Bob. But then you're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.”
Dylan of course ignored Silber’s put down, and Johnny Cash wrote a letter to the magazine asking them to leave Dylan alone and to let him write as he wanted. Obit writer Grimes gets another major thing wrong. He writes that “Mr. Dylan was not amused. Mr. Silber is often proposed as a possible target of the Dylan song 'Positively Fourth Street.' One line in that song goes: 'You say I let you down. You know it’s not like that/If you’re so hurt, why then don’t you show it?'”
Did Grimes even read his own article? That line could not have been written about Silber, since Silber clearly showed Dylan how he felt. In her recent memoir about her years when she was Dylan’s girlfriend, Suze Rotolo writes that “Positively Fourth Street” was about her and her sister Carla, and their hostile attitude towards him.
The song that does accurately reflect Dylan’s attitude towards Silber is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which contains the following verse.
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Nor does the obit write about Silber’s less well-known attack on Pete Seeger and The Weavers, in which he condemned the group for singing African-American songs when the group was made up of all white singers! Silber’s attack was akin to those coming decades later when black scholars argued that whites could not teach black history. His column was resented greatly at the time by Seeger and The Weavers, the preeminent left-wing group that had climbed to the top of the Hit Parade, until the blacklist hit.
Silber’s attack came in this latter period, after their famous 1955 revival concert at Carnegie Hall. At the time, I was taking banjo lessons from Seeger, and I asked him how he felt about it. He responded: “Irwin isn’t a musician or a folk-singer. He’s a purely literary person, who has nothing else to do but write such junk.” What he meant essentially is that Silber was a party apparatchik, not a true man of music and art.
Silber then produced a series of concerts for an ersatz Weavers imitation group, The Gateway Singers, that included one black woman along with three white male members. The group was virtually laughed out of Carnegie Hall by its audience, who was familiar with the real thing, and was incensed at this poor Weavers imitation. When I asked Silber about this, he told me: “Of course they’re crap. I couldn’t care less. I’m going to make a lot of money out of them.” Such was Irwin Silber’s ethics.
Finally, as editor of Sing Out!, he launched a crude attack on the folksinger Oscar Brand, who for decades has presided over WNYC’s weekly folk music program, “Folksong Festival,” still on the air after 65 years. Silber penned an article called “Oscar Brand Joins the Witch-Hunters,” in which he condemned Brand for purportedly naming names before HUAC, which Brand never did. What Brand had done, however, was to sing what today we would call politically incorrect songs; i.e., Confederate songs from the Civil War, songs supporting America during the Cold War, etc. Brand had been a member of People’s Songs, but unlike Seeger and company, was more of a Norman Thomas Socialist than a Communist. In Silber’s eyes this made him a traitor. To this day, one comes across people who think Brand was an “informer” because of Silber’s misleading article. Brand’s reputation and employability in folk circles suffered as a result of the article.
Silber, then, had one role: the enforcer of the Communist Party line in music. One of the last articles Silber wrote for the current incarnation of the magazine he once edited, was on what would have been Paul Robeson’s 100th birthday. Called “Legendary People’s Artist,” Silber’s 1998 article reiterated every false myth about Robeson that his Stalinist brethren ever dreamed up.
Silber eulogized Robeson in a way that reads as if we were back in the late 1940s during Robeson’s heyday, when the great baritone represented not only the struggle for racial equality in America, but the hopes of the Communist Left that America would follow the Soviet path to Communism. His article said less about Robeson than it revealed how little Silber had learned and the fact that he was still an unreconstructed Communist.
Just don’t expect to learn any of this in the newspaper of record.
I defer to Pete Karman, who writes in a hostile tone that neither Suze Rotolo or her sister wrote that "Positively 4th Street" was about either of them. I noted that I was writing from vacation, without books or notes available. Upon returning home, I acknolwedge that he is correct. Most commentators say the song could have been about scores of different people, Suze among them. The error was not done with malice. I note that I reviewed Suze's book favorably here, and that upon reading it, I learned from a friend of hers that she liked my review a lot, and actually said it was better than many others she received, including the one in The NY Times.