Comedians assured us that we weren’t crazy, the emperor’s cloths were in tatters. Folk music captured our souls. In the spring of 1954, Pete Seeger came to Reed and gave a concert to a packed house, singing old labor and anti-fascist songs from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, telling stories with each song, giving us a progressive history of the last few decades. It was a revelation, a burning ember of movements for social justice that had seemed utterly crushed by the Anti-Communist Crusade.
Folk music had revived after World War II, led by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays when they formed a musical group called the Weavers in November of 1948. They had a big hit in 1950 with a single of folksinger’s Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Other hits followed: “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” written by Woody Guthrie and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” written by the Weavers. Folk music purists and many progressives considered the Weavers commercial success a sell out. For most of their career Seeger and Hays had specialized in labor songs and protest music, singing with Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Lead Belly, and Cisco Houston. They called themselves the Almanac Singers and were the official musical group of the CIO. They supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for president in 1948.
The Weavers career ended abruptly in 1951 when Decca records dropped them from their catalog after Pete Seeger was mentioned in Red Channels, a notorious, privately published list of people of who might have communist associations. Once your name appeared in Red Channels, you could no longer find work. A planned Weavers’ television show was canceled and the FBI placed them under surveillance. By 1953, unable to book concerts and blacklisted from appearing on television and radio, the Weavers disbanded. Seeger survived by performing at summer camps and schools like Reed.
The lyrics of the songs Seeger sang at Reed were a step beyond the revolt of the early Fifties comedians. Seeger’s songs were not wise cracks at the establishment nor erudite indictments of foolish government policy. They were songs that called for action … bravery, idealism, intelligence and hope. I know it sounds corny today, an indication of how naive we were. But when Seeger sang about brave young men in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s, we were inspired. He sang about the hard lives of working people, mine disasters and factory fires, ships lost at sea and the struggle of workers to organize. Viva La Quice Brigada. Union Maid. This Land is Your Land, Talking Union Blues, We Shall Overcome. We shared, albeit remotely, in the bravery Seeger sang about by attending and cheering the concert of a blacklisted singer.
Other forms of music grabbed me in the early Fifties. It didn’t take much. The commercial music of the time was simply “do wop” terrible. I listened to classical music before I discovered jazz in the small San Francisco clubs and blues on a radio station coming in from northern Mexico. Jazz played at all the small clubs in San Francisco and breakout artists like Miles Davis were getting commercial record contracts. Capitol Records released first a ten-inch and later a twelve-inch LP led by Miles Davis called the Birth of the Cool.
Blues were entering mainstream white culture by 1955. Bill Haley & His Comets released “Rock Around the Clock” in January (by July it was number one on the American charts). Alan Freed produced the first rock and roll concert on January 14. In May Chuck Berry released his first single, “Maybelline” and little Richard released Tuttiu Frutti.
All of these new musical trends were exciting. Jazz took traditional melodies and reconstructed them, much as we would have liked to reconstruct American society! Blues were about a world of raw emotion and violent drama completely denied in the white music of the Fifties.
The new comedians tweaking the nose of the Establishment, underground folk musicians calling for social justice and blues and jazz musicians were all shaking the white picket fence. But it is only in hindsight that they were harbinger of growing social movements to come.