Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Reflecting on the American folk music scene of the 1960s

I'm just old enough to have grown up on the tail end of the American folk music scene in the 1960s. When I was little, everyone I knew listened to Peter, Paul & Mary, the Limeliters, and the Kingston Trio. Either you liked their music or you didn't. I did as a kid and I still do now. As a kid, I was wondrously ignorant of the politics behind the music, of course. All of this came rushing back to me, this time with the politics included, when watching the new American Masters show about Bob Dylan. I've never liked Dylan myself -- I find his voice tremendously irritating -- but I was rather impressed with how he was used by the Leftist political forces when he first burst on the scene, and how he kept announcing, though nobody was listening, that he was not political. Phibian, of CDR Salamander, has done a couple of interesting posts on the subject. Seeing Pete Seeger in the Bob Dylan show, both in 1960s footage and in recent interviews, got me twitching though. Where had a recently read about him? Then it came to me. City Journal had only just done an article calling him America’s Most Successful Communist. I'd never really been aware of Pete Seeger, so hadn't paid too much attention to the article in the first go round, but I went back and checked it now. Here's the article's central thesis:

The conventional wisdom holds that it was ever so—that American popular musicians have always been leftists, and that music-as-radical-politics has stretched across the decades, expressing the nation’s social conscience. The late New Left chronicler Jack Newfield, for instance, celebrated a “native tradition of an alternative America” that included not just such openly activist musicians as Woody Guthrie but also apparently non-political singers like Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson. Yet this “native tradition” is a myth. Until quite recently, popular music’s prevailing spirit was apolitical: “It has a good beat, you can dance to it, I give it a 95,” as fifties teens gushed about new records on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” effort to use popular culture to advance its cause. One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.
It's a really interesting article and, if you watched the Bob Dylan show, you may want to read this as a companion piece.