An American Communist Dies, and The New York Times Gets His Life Wrong
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.