Positively Princeton: Professors, Pickers and Provocateurs

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meditation on music and politics

Yours truly was thrilled to be able to attend a lunch seminar held at Princeton University yesterday, titled “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics.” (Say that five times fast.) It was held under the auspices of the James Madison Program at that university, whose founding director is Robert P. George.

Professor George introduced the speakers: Lauren Weiner and Ronald Radosh (it was Ron who had kindly invited me) and Professor George had also brought his guitar and mandolin, the better to later perform some tunes with those same speakers and with guest Bob Cohen (the estimable Cantor Bob who has been mentioned several times before in this space, e.g. at this link.). Cornel West, also of Princeton, was a guest attendee (and ended up contributing some deft backing vocals to the musical mélange).

I didn’t take any notes at all, but I’ll offer my flawed reporting on the seminar anyhow. The genesis for the get-together was Lauren Weiner’s fascinating and entertaining article (in the forthcoming issue of First Things) titled “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?” (Lauren is a writer who has written on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion and many other publications.) Her article traces some of the history of various folk revivals in the United States and the efforts to turn the songs and the whole genre towards the goal of promoting, well, Marxist revolution. Her talk was very much centered on the same themes as her piece. One of her most interesting observations was on the way in which the whole effort finally gained its greatest traction by becoming focused on anti-anti-communism (in the wake of events in the 1950s related to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate investigations of Joseph McCarthy). To quote a little from her article:

Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 version of “Talking Un-American Blues” about the subpoena (eventually canceled) that she and her coauthor Irwin Silber received from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alan Lomax and Michael Loring sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”): “Re-pu-bli-cans they call us ‘Red,’ the Demmies call us ‘Commie.’ / No matter how they slice it, boys, it’s still the old salami.”

This was a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics. […] The 1962 song “The Birch Society” by Malvina Reynolds has the typical Pop Front blend of brazenness and coyness — with an extra dollop of sanctimony, a Reynolds specialty. “They’re afraid of nearly everything that’s for the general good,” she sang, “they holler ‘Red’ if something’s said for peace and brotherhood.” The fact that they also hollered Red if somebody actually was a Red got lost in the shuffle. For here, at last, was a rallying point — anti-anti-communism — with a potential for wide appeal. It became fundamental to the politics of nearly everyone who was left-of-center and was adopted by legions of middle-class young people unmoved by concepts of such as worker ownership of the means of production.

Dylan’s song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” had to get a mention in this context and did. One observation I would make myself about Dylan is the following: Even while he was flirting with these themes and entertaining his left-wing friends and audiences, he also in some way seemed to be looking right through the transparency of it all. It might be summed up by a verse of “I Shall Be Free No 10”:

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Those so inclined would hear that as a slam on Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican. Yet, the humor is double-edged and, to me, the sharper edge is the one that has the intolerant “liberal” as the real clown. (And obviously that’s underlined all the more by Bob’s statement in his memoir Chronicles that his “favorite politician” during his early time in the Village was none other than Barry Goldwater, although he felt he couldn’t share this fact with anyone at the time.)

Anyhow, Lauren’s talk also proceeded to reflect on some of the ironies in how that which was once serious-left-wing-movement-music became assimilated into the capitalist musical culture, and transformed, and largely defanged.

Ronald Radosh then spoke. (Ron is the author of many books including his really essential memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and most recently A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, coauthored with Allis Radosh.) Unfortunately, I don’t have an article to which to refer and with which to cheat when it comes to Ron’s talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize its main points, but it was a wide-ranging trip through related territory and beyond. He talked in particular of the role of Pete Seeger in the movement (under whose tutelage he himself learned to play banjo). He recalled watching a recent tribute to Seeger, on his 90th birthday, where Bruce Springsteen specifically gave him credit for having been “singing songs of peace since the 1930s.” As Ron observed, what was ironically left out and is doubtless unknown to many who watched the tributes is that those “songs of peace” in the 1930s were in defense of Joseph Stalin’s then-ally, Adolf Hitler. Ron was also interviewed for a tribute to Seeger, apparently at Pete’s own suggestion, so that a mention of Seeger’s errors (e.g. his persistent refusal to criticize Stalin until very recently) might temper all of the adulation. However, Ron’s remarks about such matters ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only his pleasant recollections about learning how to play the banjo from Pete.

Ron also shared some memories of the late musician Erik Darling, who replaced Pete Seeger in the group The Weavers, and then had a fish-out-of-water perspective on the whole milieu, being himself actually more of a fan of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.

There was some discussion after Ron’s talk but the people who had brought instruments were obviously eager to start using them, and things progressed quickly to a melodic exploration of the same landscape. One of the themes was the way in which old tunes are turned to again and again (or co-opted, if you prefer) with new lyrics applied; in particular the way old gospel and spiritual numbers were recruited for new causes. So we heard how “Jesus walked that lonesome valley, He had to walk it by Himself” became “You gotta go down and join the union, You got to join it by yourself”.

On a different but related angle, Bob Cohen illustrated how the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaned heavily upon a Yiddish tune called “Dem Milner’s Trern” in writing his song “Do Not Forsake Me” for the film High Noon. Bob also pointed out that the same melody can be heard prominently in the film A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. Later, Cohen also sang a little of “When The World’s On Fire,” a hymn recorded by the Carter Family, which provided the tune for Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Lauren Weiner sang one of her favorite songs of the coming revolution, “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” with the support of the ensemble. Ron Radosh led the band in “Which Side Are You On,” also giving us some lines from the late Dave Van Ronk’s humorous rewrite of the tune, where he was looking back on some of the ironies and conflicts of the leftie/folk revival and asking “Which side are we on?” Robbie George also gently performed a beautiful folk gospel song (the name of which, to my great consternation, is escaping me today) with Cornel West’s poignant supporting voice. A rousing version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” ensued, and the proceedings ended with a boisterous “This Land Is Your Land.”

So, I couldn’t tell you exactly what may have been established by the seminar, but one thing in any case seems clear to me: music is bigger than politics, certainly more enduring, and makes a much deeper connection to the human spirit. It seems that even when songs are turned to the most utilitarian ends and strapped to some flawed cause du jour that—if they are genuinely great tunes—they will ultimately be reclaimed by music herself.

And I couldn’t really close without mentioning this: When I had the pleasure of being introduced to Professor West, he told me that he had gotten the subtitle of his memoir from Bob Dylan. He was on his busy way and I didn’t ask for specifics, but I later checked, and his recently published book is titled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Well, that’s not a Bob Dylan line with which I was familiar. I wondered if it might be from Tarantula or something. But no; some Googling eventually supplied the answer:

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

So there you go.