Hi Jay,
Interesting piece. I understand the cynicism about being linked to causes that you’re not sure about or in fact don’t agree with. What’s really true is that very often people take a stand they don’t understand, in my opinion Rocket Launcher is a good example. What Bruce had to say about it sounded good at the time, given the opportunity to fire a rocket launcher at an Army Helicopter in Guatemala that was attacking civilians, I doubt Bruce would. Killing fascists, It’s a matter of belief and steely eyed courage. With a rocket launcher or a baseball bat, it’s a really good idea. Ask my dead relatives about fascists. Really interesting song in retrospect.

Every once in a while I read a piece like yours which if I understand it correctly says “I’m a writer and I’m working hard and struggling and I’m essentially not political and I in some ways resent the inherited and implied politics of the folk scene being thrust on me which is why  I have herein parodied the words written on the guitar of the most universally respected and iconized folk writer probably in history who happened to be very political”. Is that a fair analysis? If not read no further. I’m writing out of respect not from an argumentive head space.

Some years ago I was talking about Pete Seeger at the Winnipeg Festival, back in the days when I was running it, he was there that year, on the other side of a canvas wall, unknown to me was Norman Blake and Bryan Bowers. Bowers is an old friend of mine and he told me this story. Norman Blake hated Seeger because Seeger was a red. Norman writes all these very touching political songs about working folks in Appalachia but as a high school product of McCarthyism, he couldn’t draw the line between what he believes and Pete’s beliefs, which when brought down to the short hairs, are not that different. They weren’t spying on me on purpose, it just happened. I was so pleased that Seeger had showed up that I was gushing to a reporter and Blake went ballistic, he went back to the hotel because he was so pissed at me. A couple of days later he was doing a concert in Calgary at one of the clubs and he attacked Pete, red baited Pete from that stage and half the audience got up and left and a couple of folks told him to fuck off. Bowers asked me about it a year later when I next saw him. I didn’t know about them being on the other side of the canvas wall until then, I did know about the Calgary deal and I was as curious about Normans reaction. Bowers was curious about my reaction. I didn’t know what to say so I presented to Bowers  a small historical outline that I’m going to present to you for your consideration.

The entire existence of the folk music market place in North America is, in the long term, a direct result of the work of the American Communist Party. Coming from a European tradition where folk music was more closely linked to the working class, the leadership of the CPUSA was looking for a link to American workers and some wag in Moscow thought it was a great idea so the Party started Sing Out magazine and Peoples Songs and the Almanac Singers and they literally made folk music the political assignment of Pete and Woody and whole bunch of others. For the most part, with the exception of providing a musical soundtrack to the rise of the CIO and directly to the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, the American Communist Party was bypassed and never got out of it what they put into it. They never made that emotional connection with the mass of American workers though their ranks rose to 175, 000 members in the USA in 1947. This is what brought on McCarthyism.

The period I’m referring to is 1945-1975. This is the time we often hear bandied about as the “urban folk revival” which is because the CPUSA got a bunch of urban intellectual’s interested in folk music and the whole thing took on a life of its own. City people started getting interested in the banjo because Pete played the banjo and once they started learning how to play, they discovered the traditional side of folk music and then discovered Mike Seeger. It was a wonderful convergence of ideas and history. Some of those people started the Newport and Philadelphia folk festivals which started to create a mass (relatively) audience for folk music. Estelle Klein who really established Mariposa as a big deal came through the same communist front Jewish organization that my folks came through and so did Gary Cristall  (Vancouver Folk Fest). A huge amount of the infrastructure ground work for the entire North American folk scene was done by Commies or their kids. It just happened that way. A number of festivals, Home Routes, the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival and the west End Cultural Centre owes its historical existence to the fact that I’m a Seegerite etc.

Political music is a major component of what we refer to as folk music. The body of work is immense. We have the last 500 years pretty much covered.

I don’t know whether you resist that “folk” designation as a writer, I think you’re a great folk writer, but  whatever you choose, the fact that you as an artist, starving or momentarily with resources, the gigs and the existence of many of the gigs you and your many colleagues get to play, are the historical rebounds from that CPUSA led  initiative in the late 1940’s.

All of which brings me to the point that “This Machine Kills Fascists” needs to be respected.

Your friend and fan,

Mitch Podolak

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One thought on “Letter of the Week

  1. Pete Seeger is a complicated figure about whom no honest observer can speak without appending a whole lot of “on the other hands.” It is undeniably true that many of us who, though we did not grow up within the folk-music tradition, discovered it, at least indirectly, through the influence of Stalin, the Popular Front, and the CPUSA. Possibly the folk revival was the CPUSA’s one lasting contribution to American culture. Certainly, its slavish devotion to the Soviet Union wasn’t.

    Seeger quietly left the party in the late 1940s, but it took him decades (during which he was known to sing the praises of Mao and Castro) to become a publicly repentant Stalinist. That is not an inconsequential point, and it has nothing to do with “red-baiting,” whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context. On the other hand (here comes that phrase), Seeger’s devotion to social justice, civil rights, and environmental activism has made him a very good citizen of this country, and a true patriot.

    That said, I’d encourage your correspondent — a friend, by the way, of my longtime pal Dakota Dave Hull — to look up a little book titled Inventing American History, written by William Hogeland, published in 2009 by MIT Press. Chapter 2, “American Dreamers,” is a bracingly skeptical survey of the hagiography of two figures with interestingly parallel careers, Seeger and the late conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. Hogeland notes, “Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.” I’ve read whole books on Seeger less insightful than this single essay.

    Not having been there, I don’t know what Norman Blake, whose politics are left-leaning but untainted by onetime Stalinist associations, said or did not say about Pete Seeger. He may, however, have had a point worth heeding, as opposed (as here) reflexively dismissing.

    Jerry Clark
    Canby, Minnesota

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