a journal of modern society & culture

Review: Aaron J. Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau (London: Repeater Books, 2020)

Warren Leming

The heroes and heroines of my late teens were a remarkably and unapologetically rowdy bunch. Almost all were tagged Communists, or whatever was worse, and all were part of what was known as “the Great Folk Music Revival” led by Pete Seeger and a ragtag band of fellow singer/songwriters, chief among them the now iconic, though formerly firmly forgotten and vilified, Woody Guthrie – with “This machine kills fascists” emblazoned on his prematurely anti-fascist guitars.

If you were tracking this wild nascent movement in the 1950s you came across the same series of usual scruffy suspects with absolute regularity: Burl Ives, Guthrie and his frequent partner Cisco Houston, Millard Lampell, Izzy Young, Bess and Alan Lomax, John Hammond Sr., Oscar Brand, Lee Hayes, Josh White, and Earl Robinson, to name just a few luminaries.  The omnivorous if not quite omniscient, surveillance agency meddling in all of these artists’ lives was the FBI, which not only waged war with Communist parties throughout the world but with anyone they imagined in their straight little heads was tangentially associated with communism. John Hammond was of interest to the Bureau, but as he hailed from an impeccable social and financial background he was deemed a decidedly moderate threat by an agency bent on hooking bigger and easier fish. 

Most the other seditious folkies mentioned above had had loose contacts, if not full memberships, in the Communist Party USA. For some it was to prove a career-killing and sometimes even fatal association. Aaron Leonard has taken on the formidable task in this book of retrieving and retelling carefully forgotten histories of those woebegone talents who had their careers and lives upended, and in some cases obliterated, by a Federal Agency intent on the erasure of the “Bolshevik menace” even from supposedly subliminal music lyrics.

Leonard charts a long, hard and often dirty repressive saga highlighted, if that is the word, by the ultimate dire fate of the Black Panther Party, targeted by the Bureau in the 1960s and decimated in the process – much like the American Communist Party that preceded it. Leonard pays what some observers may consider insufficient attention to infamous Communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht who was summoned to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, double-talked them for hours, and wisely fled the US the next day, joking later that at least “the Nazi’s would never have let me smoke my cigar.” Seeger too got hauled in, was questioned harshly and then was attacked in the press, ever ready to do its Cold War duty in outing and then shouting down anyone deemed “Red,” which Seeger at least actually had been. How he endangered the Republic with his banjo strumming remained top secret.

In the1940s during the Second World War an uneasy pragmatic alliance existed between the US and the Soviet Union but all that was to go South nearly as soon as the War ended. It became apparent that Stalin and the US were on a collision course that would generate radical aberrations in both the US and the USSR social systems. Both systems were determined to punish anyone deviating one iota from the State’s conception of itself. In the US this attitude ushered in the McCarthy periods, and in the USSR in came the Trotskyite/anti Wrecker trials. The subsequent executions and Gulag sentences extended well into the 1950s with horrors inflicted on millions. Both systems, Leonard notes, proved excessively adept at finding, isolating and destroying those they deemed “subversives.” Seeger’s career was derailed in the 1950s and he was never again allowed a popular media platform, instead settling for college tours and occasional PBS-style appearances. Guthrie enjoyed serious commercial success on radio in the 1930s, but as his irrepressible radical political edge sharpened he was deemed less and less media-acceptable and no longer corporately welcome. 

The Taft-Hartley Act intended to neuter Communist influence in the Unions and, in tandem with less decorous measures, was very successful, though careers like Seeger’s, Guthrie’s, and the Almanac Singers largely played out performing in marginal arenas in support of American labor. Seeger in the 1960s was effective at cultivating a significant college audience for folk music, and his recordings for the non-commercial but effective Folkways Records overseen by the formidable Moe Asch became a serious influence on American music despite the institutional opposition he faced.

Hoover took a deep if hostile interest in the careers of the folkies, Seeger chief among them. According to Clancy Sigal there were well-known channels available to show biz folk which could, for a price, get them off the black lists laboriously and often erroneously compiled by the  FBI and its motley crews of paid informants. Leonard demonstrates that repression of the sort the Bureau wielded is as American as apple pie, and if we factor in Reagan’s FBI informer career we can see that Trumpian trends have a history that long precedes the sociopathic excesses of the “Liar in Chief.” 

Leonard devotes a chapter to Roosevelt confidante and Vice President  Henry Wallace, who saw his career mauled and mutilated by the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party which, prompted by the Cold War hysteria of 1947/48, removed Wallace from the ticket and used its power to make sure Wallace never returned to public life. Seeger played a significant role in Wallace’s 1948 campaign and his defense of a man deemed pro-communist was to incense the Press and FBI.

Leonard make it clear that the assault on the folk movement and its major figures was tightly orchestrated, funded, plotted, and carried out, although we do not know to this day all the relevant details of who betrayed whom and how. FBI files, Leonard notes, have a way of just disappearing. There are gaps and anomalies galore in the Bureau’s recordkeeping and what the Bureau will admit to or make public can only be described as “dicey at best.”  Leonard does us a great service in reexamining the tremendous significance of culture, of  song, story, and performer in shaping the world Gestalt. That all of these cultural performers were subject to external influence may come as no surprise to those who live in a surveillance force field composed of the FBI, CIA, NSA, ASA, and related agencies. Julian Assange’s dangerous predicament and Mr. Snowden’s plight are a reminder that the long arm of the Intelligence Agencies (who have no real track record of telling  the truth about anything except by accident or leak) is now an indispensible part of the State apparatus.

Many figures chronicled in Leonard’s book – Seeger, Guthrie, the Lomaxs, Ives, Brand, and others – managed somehow to live long lives and were eventually honored for their impressive bodies of work anyway. It’s an historical irony Hoover would not have approved. As we step away (if we indeed do) from the Trump debacle and the subversion of an already badly maimed democracy, the lessons Leonard addresses demand the closest attention. The malign forces at work will long outlive us, and the lessons they teach are ones we require if we are not to repeat what we have experienced during the dark Trump years we endured. 

Warren Leming is a writer/critic who divides his time between Berlin, Chicago, and rural Indiana.