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During the 1950s and 1960s, when Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds coaxed classrooms full of kids to join them in the singing of folk songs, no one paid much attention, not even those who, in the middle of the Cold War, saw America’s “singing left” as a threat to the republic. “They never thought there would be a problem with Pete Seeger singing to six-year-olds,” Seeger’s biographer, David King Dunaway, wrote. But considering the baby boom those six-year-olds turned out to be, Dunaway’s later observation made sense: What was in the offing was “an American folk music revival that I think we have to give the FBI credit for helping to establish.” 

The law of unintended consequences gave a quirky twist to the relation between the Old and New Left and, in the process, lent peculiar accents to America’s musical and political culture that we can’t seem to get rid of even today. The folk revival, “a fad sandwiched between the beatniks and the hippies,” may have been brief, but it was also the baby boomers’ coming of age, and its echoes have been lasting. Bruce Springsteen made a splash in 2006 with his Seeger Sessions. Ry Cooder paid homage to Woody Guthrie in the 2007 release My Name Is Buddy. Sheryl Crow told Billboard magazine that her song, “Shine Over Babylon,” is “very environmentally conscious, in the tradition of Bob Dylan.”

It’s curious how much the postwar children of prosperity enjoyed hearkening back to hard times. Dylan’s early compositions were full of Dust Bowl references. Odetta was on television rendering the sounds of the chain gang while bathed in a glamorous cabaret spotlight. The Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain” (1964) complained that “you can’t jump a jet plane” as easily as you hopped a freight train back in the good old, bad old days. “Green, Green,” Barry McGuire’s 1963 top ten hit, had the perky coeds of the New Christy Minstrels belting out the plea of the Great Depression: “Buddy, can you spare me a dime?”

The Appalachian murder ballads, convict songs, and Dust Bowl laments of the 1960s did prompt some debate about authenticity, but the rescuers of old-time music cheerfully exposed themselves to the charge of dilettantism. “Some of my favorite songs I’ve learned from camp counselors,” admitted Pete Seeger. Dave Van Ronk—whose disarming memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was published posthumously in 2005—recounts that many years after he had helped popularize “House of the Rising Sun,” he actually went to New Orleans, only to learn that the original establishment was not a bordello, as he had supposed, but a women’s prison. Another staple of Van Ronk’s repertoire, “Candy Man,” had been taught to him by a master of ragtime guitar finger-picking, the Reverend Gary Davis. The straight-laced Davis was loath to join him on “Candy Man” before an audience—eventually Van Ronk caught on that the song he’d been performing was about a pimp.

Superficiality did not hinder the music. It sold like hotcakes (at least until the Beatles arrived and made rock ’n’ roll king), and the secondhand quality escaped those of us working up third-hand versions, strumming along with our phonograph records. From my own spot in the Great American Middle—a subdivision of ranch houses newly erected on flat farmland west of Chicago—I couldn’t see the pretense in “Tom Dooley,” as the preppy-looking Kingston Trio impersonated a poor Confederate soldier who hung down his head and cried. Struggling to play and sing—my elders on their Silvertone guitars from Sears, and I on my baritone ukulele to accommodate the small hands of an eight-year-old—we were disinclined to delve into questions of provenance.

These were borrowed tastes, but nobody seemed to mind. As Van Ronk observed, “One of the first things that must be understood about these revivals is that the folk have very little to do with them. Always, there is a middle-class constituency, and its idea of the folk” whoever that might be ”is the operative thing.” Capturing all of the contradictions, the historian Robert S. Cantwell wrote that this was a time “when the carriers of a superannuated ideological minority found themselves celebrated as the leaders of a mass movement; when an esoteric and anticommercial enthusiasm turned into a commercial bonanza; when an alienated, jazz-driven, literary bohemia turned to the simple songs of an old, rural America.”

That part about an “ideological minority” being “celebrated” by somebody had gone over our heads, too: We did not know that the folk boom was a reverberation of an earlier boomlet, a foray into American music roots, many of whose movers and shakers were as Red as a bowl of cherries. Who on our suburban street knew that Woody Guthrie, the hero of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan, had been a columnist for the Daily Worker? Or that the man from whom we heard rollicking sea chanteys, a Briton named Ewan MacColl, was at one point kept from entering the United States as an undesirable alien? Then there was the cuddly-looking guy with the slightly pedantic six-record set and companion volume, Burl Ives Presents America’s Musical Heritage. If my parents or any of the neighbors were aware that Ives had been summoned, in 1952, to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and had identified Pete Seeger as a communist, they kept the details to themselves.

Even today, this back story is not well known. But it should be, for it sharpens our view of several interconnected matters: the communist controversy in the United States, market capitalism’s ability to absorb and soften extreme ideas, and the decades-long domination of our cultural scene by the “forever-young” generation born during and shortly after the Second World War.

Many who inspired that generation to make folk music had been in the orbit of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). War and depression shook Americans’ faith in capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s, and in reaction, broad swaths of the intelligentsia were smitten by “Pan-Sovietism” (to borrow Murray Kempton’s phrase), either joining the party or becoming fellow travelers. Among those who saw trouble in this development was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who warned in Life magazine in 1946 that “the wildly enthusiastic communist claque for certain types of phony folk art has lowered the standards of many Americans not themselves party members or sympathizers.” In the Atlantic Monthly, the Harvard professor Carl Friederich called “strictly subversive and illegal” the repertoire of the Almanac Singers (the group formed in Greenwich Village by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and others, some of whose members later became the Weavers).

Were Schlesinger and Friederich crazy? Not really. From the nation’s founding, through the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Wobblies printed their pamphlet of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, political themes had made their way into popular music. Without question, however, the most concerted effort at politicization came from the CPUSA. Go out and make antifascist alliances with liberals, Georgi Dmitrov ordered in Moscow in 1935, and so the communists obediently fanned out into the American labor movement and civil-rights activities. 

And a few headed for the hills, musically speaking. 

The most important example is the Seegers. In the 1930s, Charles Seeger, a classically trained musicologist, was one of Manhattan’s leading cultural lights. He and quite a few of his fellow artists, including the composer Aaron Copland, saw in the Russian Revolution a harbinger of international peace and the abolition of class conflict. And so, in 1934, they formed a “Composers’ Collective” to urge their countrymen to join the revolutionary struggle. As Seeger wrote—in the Daily Worker , using an alias—music would be “one of the cultural forms through which the work of humanizing people and preparing the proletariat for its historic tasks operates.” 

The collective first tried bringing high-brow modernism to the masses. This involved, among other things, holding a contest for best original May Day marching song. (Copland’s entry took the laurels; Seeger countered that his was more singable and, anyway, the workers weren’t likely to have a piano handy during their protest marches.) The effort was a bust. But it led Seeger, family in tow, to roam the rural southeastern United States, exploring the music played by the regular folk and groping for a way to turn these demotic musical expressions in a politically helpful direction. 

By the time Charles’ son, Pete, came of age, the record laid down by the “people’s democracy” in the Soviet Union had lengthened to include show trials, the forced collectivization of agriculture, a well-developed police state, and the takeover of neighboring countries. Nonetheless Seeger fils, the next-generation wandering minstrel, stuck with his inherited “Pan-Sovietism” through a long and successful musical career. (The historian Ronald Radosh, in a public exchange with him in 2009, elicited a rueful comment about having stood by Josef Stalin despite everything.) 

Pete first took up the banjo as a twenty-one-year-old, sitting on front porches across the South and learning from the old masters of the rural tradition. Sometimes those masters balked at city slickers glomming onto their music. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a North Carolinian who mounted what may have been the first “folk festival,” detested Seeger for his communism. (As the historian Ronald D. Cohen notes, Lunsford once introduced a folk act at his Asheville festival as “three Jews from New York.”) 

Seeger and his friends were undeterred. Their duty, as they saw it, was to convert the middle class to their way of thinking. Besides, they genuinely loved the music. By Van Ronk’s casual estimate, half the folk revivalists were Jewish, and they “adopted the music as part of a process of assimilation into the Anglo-American tradition.” 

By the 1940s, folk singers had become a ceremonial part of Communist Party meetings. And at nearly all of them, one would find Pete Seeger playing, under the revolutionary pseudonym “Pete Bowers,” with the likes of Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Burl Ives, Josh White, Saul Aarons, Bernie Asbel, Will Geer, and a new arrival on the East Coast musical scene, Woody Guthrie. 

To achieve the effect they wanted—music that was “national in form and revolutionary in content” in Charles Seeger’s conception—they dipped into the past for their material. “Jesse James,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” and “On Top of Old Smokey” were brought to urban settings, in some cases for the first time. Topical songs—many written for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign of 1948—were political editorials often set to old hymns and folk tunes: “Capitalistic Boss,” “Join the Union Tonight,” “Oh, What Congress Done to Me,” “Defense Factory Blues,” and “Marcantonio for Mayor” (for the Stalinist Vito Marcantonio). 

Use was made of old English ballads (“Jack Munro” became Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?”), together with slave songs (“My Darling Nellie Gray” became “The Commonwealth of Toil”). Children’s ditties got recycled: “Polly Wolly Doodle” turned into “The Picket Line Song,” for instance, and “The Farmer in the Dell” was no longer about the rat taking the cheese but a captain of industry whose spoiled son drove a Cadillac (merely a different kind of rat, come to think of it). It was all part of an effort to connect with factory-and-farm America while proffering “an answer to the misery that was clearly around us,” in the words of singer Ronnie Gilbert, the sole female member of the Weavers. 

The best adapter of the bunch, and one of the better vocalists and guitarists, was Woody Guthrie. Several of Guthrie’s best-known offerings were built on borrowed melodies. “There once was a union maid,” sang Guthrie, “who never was afraid” of the “goons and ginks and company finks.” The melody was from Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” by way of “Red Wing,” a popular 1907 song that began: “There once was an Indian maid, a shy little prairie maid.” 

The most beloved Guthrie recasting is, of course, “This Land Is Your Land.” It was a response to “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin, which Guthrie found complacent and cliché-ridden. His original manuscript contains verses that denounce property rights, but the standard rendition cut that material, and the strong and simple melody goes back at least to “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine,” a Carter family song based on a Baptist hymn called “When the World’s on Fire.” 

The critic Leslie Fiedler used to write about what he called “the Popular Front mind at bay,” and the phrase gives us an inkling of the strangely divided sensibility of people like Guthrie. It enraged this man, with his American ancestry, to be “accused of being a Russian red.” The Soviet Union was nonetheless the final arbiter of all that mattered to him, in politics and even aesthetics. The same person who scrawled indignantly in the margin of his scrapbook that “I ain’t out to spread no foreign ideas amongst the people over here” also enthused in a letter to Lee Hays, his fellow Almanac Singer, that: “the Soviet consul member was there, Nichi Somebody, and he listened to our songs . . . . He’s gonna send a big batch of them over to the Soviet Union . . . . If they take a sudden notion to produce these records over there, naturally, you know what that might lead to—hell, we might sell a whole flock of them. It’s damn good to hear that the Almanacs and Union Folks over here in the USA guessed so close to the Real Truth in selecting and choosing to back this kind of music.” 

The style of these Bolshevik balladeers was heavily influenced by Alan Lomax, assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Like Pete Seeger, Lomax was a second-generation music man. His father was John Lomax, a southern folk-music hobbyist and pioneer in the techniques of sound-recording, who took his son with him on his journeys. Their travels had taught them that black people, some of whom they recorded in rural prisons, were making distinctive music that deserved to be brought forward. 

And there was something else—something that irked even leftists, if they were noncommunist. “However loathsome and psychotic” J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was, according to Dave Van Ronk, they “got one thing right: The CP [USA] was the American arm of Soviet foreign policy, no more, no less.” Alan Lomax, broadcasting down-home American music over the radio, did his bit to promote Moscow’s interests, at least in small ways. A Lomax-produced radio show out of CBS in New York called Back Where I Come From , for example, was the stuff of Arthur Schlesinger’s nightmares. Guthrie was a regular, as was an ex-convict and twelve-string guitar wonder, Lead Belly (Huddy Ledbetter). 

Premiering in August 1940, Back Where I Come From featured, according to historian Robbie Lieberman, “socially conscious songs and stories, even though not explicitly ‘left’ stuff. For example, someone would sing ‘John Brown’s Body,’ and Lomax would comment, ‘There was a war that was worth fighting’”—implying, the American Civil War was good, but England’s fight against Stalin’s 1940 ally Hitler was bad. One could trace in Lomax’s comments “the CP line during the period of the Nazi—Soviet pact,” writes Lieberman. Lomax’s comrades were even louder on the point: While the pact was in force, Seeger and Guthrie wrote vitriolic anti-Roosevelt songs for the Almanacs to sing about the pointless sacrifice that lay ahead should the president send American boys against the Nazi war machine. 

The party line changed when Panzer divisions rolled across Russia’s western border in June 1941. This had musical ramifications. Guthrie quickly began inserting anti-Hitler lyrics into his old songs. (He also joined the Merchant Marine, and Seeger was conscripted into the Army.) On the radio there was The Martins and the Coys, with music by Alan Lomax’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lomax as arranger. Folk historian Ronald D. Cohen describes this 1944 show as “drawing upon traditional stereotyping of southern culture,” with “two feuding families” resolving “their quarrelling to join the war against fascism.” Why join now? Because now it was the Red Army trying to fend off the Wehrmacht. Cohen stops short of calling The Martins and the Coys a patronizing piece of agitprop, contenting himself with this dry comment: “Although it was recorded in the Decca studios in New York, no domestic network would air the program, so Lomax shipped it to London for broadcast on the BBC.” 

Here was proof of the counter-subversives’ clout. In fact, the American Legion and local groups, such as the Christian Anticommunism Crusade picketed the appearances of folk singers who had been named as communists in such publications as Red Channels and Counterattack. Lomax himself went eventually to England to escape the blacklist and a bad marriage. That, however, was after the summit of musical Marxism-Leninism was reached, with the creation of an organization by the name of People’s Songs. 

Founded in New York in 1945, People’s Songs sprang from the publicity arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a part of the labor movement in which communists were heavily represented. Lomax and Seeger were the group’s leaders. They intended it to be a radical Tin Pan Alley—a factory of musical creativity that could draw workers into CIO unions (instead of unions affiliated with the reactionary American Federation of Labor) and citizens into the voting booths to pull the lever for party-preferred candidates. Their big electoral cause was the presidential bid of Henry Wallace in 1948. Wallace’s Progressive Party aimed to knock the Cold Warrior Truman out of the White House—and Alan Lomax, naturally, was the Wallace campaign’s musical director.

People’s Songs—which lasted from 1945 to 1949—ginned up a host of musico-political activities, sprouting fifteen chapters around the country. The labor movement was coming into its prime, and the People’s Songsters aimed to be the singin’ and strummin’ shock troops: trolling for new musical talent, making folk recordings, producing film strips for the sing-alongs—they called them hootenannies—that were part of union-membership drives. Seeger went on the campaign trail with Wallace to enliven the Progressive Party’s rallies. Surviving photographs show neatly dressed People’s Songsters posing with their instruments, their grins a mile wide, with Paul Robeson, elder statesman of Stalinism in the arts, looking on in approval. 

An official newsletter—forerunner of the communist-run folk magazines Sing Out! and Broadside—dispensed tips to aspiring songwriters. “Parodies of favorite old songs are the easiest to write,” the editors advised, and by coming up with “new ‘socially significant’ words” for a satire on a political opponent or a treatment based on a legislative issue you can “create a potent weapon.” Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s brief membership in the Young Communist League overlapped with his stint as first tenor in the Carolinians, which featured People’s Songs star Josh White. The Chicago chapter of the organization boasted a young folkie by the name of Studs Terkel. 

All this youthful energy, devotion—and, in some cases, talent—yielded a pretty dreary output. Even as sympathetic an observer as Robbie Lieberman—the daughter of People’s Songster Ernie Lieberman—points to lyrics that were “only likely to have meaning to the Communist Left.” When, for example, the People’s Songsters offered paeans to the Office of Price Administration (the Reds’ pet federal agency because it had charge of rationing, wages, prices, and rent-control), their weapon fired blanks, as it did with a song deploring the allegedly unjust provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Even songs condemning racial prejudice threw in criticism of the effort to block Soviet domination of trade unions in western Europe. (“We don’t want no Marshall Plan . . . . Henry Wallace is our man!”)

A few of the catchier songs did reach a larger audience. That included counter-subversives, though, producing more skirmishes in the culture war that was the communist controversy in America. There was the Joint Committee Against Communism, led by Rabbi Benjamin Schultz, which went after Columbia and RCA Victor for releasing “Old Man Atom.” It was a musical warning by Vern Partlow, of the People’s Songs’ Los Angeles branch, of the danger of letting the United States maintain its monopoly on nuclear weapons. The rabbi’s campaign caused Partlow’s song to be withdrawn from distribution and apparently dissuaded Bing Crosby from recording his own version. 

According to the historian David Everitt, a housewife named Edna Johnson Buchanan lugged her phonograph to community assemblies so her fellow citizens could hear “The Banks of Marble,” by the Weavers. It was a throwback to hard times, for by then (1950) the Depression was long gone. The song’s refrain was an invitation to the weary miner, the put-upon farmer, and the unemployed seaman to “make a stand” and then “we’d own those banks of marble, with a guard at every door. And we’d share those vaults of silver, that we have sweated for.” Mrs. Buchanan was outraged that her husband, a Marine who saw combat in Europe, was now off fighting the communists in Korea even as these domestic Reds racked up big earnings by attacking the system he was risking his life to defend. She and her father, Laurence Johnson, were part of the popular groundswell against the Weavers that sidelined their act by the early 1950s. 

Nearly as disagreeable—for a different reason, of course—were party apparatchiks not of the musical persuasion. As Lieberman relates, many of them found the notion of a “hootenanny revolutionist” absurd. What could this cornpone do to bring down the system? Malvina Reynolds, a People’s Songster from northern California, quit the CPUSA out of anger that its leadership “had no concept of what I was doing or what effect it would have.” 

As it turned out, People’s Songs didn’t have much immediate political effect. Henry Wallace received only two percent of the vote, and the movement as a whole had already crested. As the Soviet challenge to the Western democracies grew after the Second World War, the CPUSA’s bid for supremacy on the Left waned. The CIO unionists aligned themselves more firmly with Cold War foreign policy—helped along, after Truman’s reelection, by a purge of communists from the CIO leadership (under the hated Taft-Hartley Act). The Progressive Party’s collapse demoralized Seeger, who retreated to New York’s Hudson Valley to build, Thoreau-style, a home in the woods for his family. 

Folk music did not go away with the political marginalization of Red folkies. A revival was now underway, nurtured by the increasingly profitable Sing Out! magazine (whose commercialism irked Pete Seeger, one of its editors) and the records being churned out by Moe Asch, the producer and former People’s Songs patron, on his well-regarded Folkways label. 

Some kept singing—and wrote ditties about Red-hunters coming after them. Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 rendition 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 demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy and other anticommunist excesses provided the opening. 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 such as worker ownership of the means of production.

Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” appeared in Broadside magazine’s inaugural issue in the same year Reynolds did her satire. A 1964 variant had Dylan singing a line in protest of Pete Seeger’s exclusion from the ABC television show Hootenanny on political grounds. Both that song and “Society’s Child,” a plea for interracial understanding written by a teenaged Janis Ian, came out of the musical salon that had formed around Broadside. And Broadside had formed around, or at least at the behest of, Malvina Reynolds. Concurring with Seeger that Sing Out! had lost its political edge, she had coaxed Popular Front friends into starting the rival publication. In their Red Dust and Broadsides (1990), Sis Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen describe vetting songs monthly in their New York apartment in sessions frequented by Dylan, Ian, Phil Ochs, and others. 

Ochs in particular was a master of social observation. His topical songs courted instant obsolescence, being so closely trained on the news of the day. Yet there were times when his special talent—skewering liberals—shone. According to Dave Van Ronk, Ochs “had believed in the liberal tradition, and it had betrayed him.” From out of this disillusion came “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and “I Ain’t a Marchin’ Anymore,” which rip mainstream Democrats for being materially selfish, lukewarm to desegregation, and, worst of all, Cold Warriors. “Now the labor leader’s screaming when they close the missile plants. / United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore”—a more concise indictment of the military-industrial complex was never penned (nor sung in as oddly compelling a tenor voice as Ochs’). 

This generation thought of itself as wholly original—and it’s true that the New Left had little taste for pro-Soviet bandwagoning. But it did absorb the Old Left’s opposition to American foreign policy. Its real uniqueness lay in a self-absorption of the most open and frank kind. The baby boomers took up a welter of causes—ban the bomb, respect mother earth, civil rights, stop the war, feminism—but what stands out is how much they loved picturing themselves in the act of banning the bomb, praising mother earth, and the rest. In the eloquent non sequitur of folksinger Fred Neil: “I’ve been searching for the dolphins in the sea, and sometimes I wonder, do you ever think of me?” 

With his beatnik-inflected meanderings, Neil was one of the first in Greenwich Village, according to Van Ronk, to start doing the “personal, subjective stuff.” Bob Dylan, among others, quickly picked up on it. Dylan was not the first of this new breed—the “singer-songwriter”—but his self-confidence made him the trailblazer. While he retooled traditional songs in the Guthrie manner, and (according to his biographer, Joe Klein) even made his Village debut literally wearing an old suit of Guthrie’s clothes, Dylan was not resting with the Old Left model. Sis Cunningham’s and Woody Guthrie’s music contained not an iota of introspection—a well-known bourgeois pathology. That didn’t matter to Dylan. (His failure to adopt the Party line disappointed his mentors—a harbinger, perhaps, of his flouting of all of folkdom when he switched to an electric guitar with rock accompaniment.) 

Filthy lucre may have been counter-revolutionary but few of the old folksingers declined opportunities to distribute their work. Seeger wanted folk music to compete with the products of a rapidly expanding and corporatizing music industry. To find his opportunities, Seeger had to be resourceful because he was blacklisted by the primetime television networks. He got himself on television, at least in a small way, by mounting a self-funded show on a local New York educational channel and landing a half-hour show that played on Canadian television. Moreover, the primetime ban did not stop him from signing a recording contract in the early 1960s with Columbia Records and “a prosperous musical marriage” it was, according to Ronald D. Cohen. 

In 1962, Seeger’s conviction for contempt of Congress (he had refused to cooperate with HUAC) was overturned on appeal. The system—that hated thing—had vindicated his right to his views. But primetime producers did not relent. He made do, as his biographer, Dunaway, points out, by performing on college campuses. Seeger was not the first to go on the university circuit. Back in the World War I era, Carl Sandburg was adding folk-singing interludes to his lectures. Seeger began doing it, however, just as the music industry was being absorbed into a burgeoning youth culture. Cohen quotes a 1963 trade-publication article on the new “role of the nation’s colleges, universities, civic organizations, and other such basically non-show business institutions in shaping entertainment patterns.” 

Even as Seeger was bringing old-time music to students, and making the campus concertizing that is common today look viable, television was taking notice. Hootenanny was ABC’s attempt to cash in on the folk craze. Segments were taped at colleges across the country featuring Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, and other prominent acts. All except Seeger. An effort by performers led by Joan Baez, among others, to boycott the show in protest did not last long—nor, in fact, did the program—but the Seeger affair became a high point in the 1960s generation’s demonstration to itself that it took a stand for civil liberties. And, not incidentally, for anti-anticommunism. 

Oldsters like Seeger also influenced the music. He and Malvina Reynolds, for example, pioneered the practice of asking ingenuous musical questions to prod the Establishment to change. His “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was followed by Reynolds’ “What Have They Done to the Rain?””a song about nuclear fallout made popular by Joan Baez in 1962. Eight years later, John Fogerty wrote the Vietnam protest song “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”—a hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival—and Cat Stevens chipped in “Where Do the Children Play?” By then, the oh-so-simple interrogative that catches “the straights” flat-footed was compulsory for assorted flower children and countercultural types, hallucinogenic drugs only having reinforced this tic. 

Reynolds’ achievement with her 1962 song “Little Boxes”—heard today in many versions, most prominently as the theme song of Weeds , the Showtime television series—was to bend the People’s Songs manner of editorializing into something more general: a critique of the bourgeois lifestyle. The earliest versions of fast food drew Reynolds’ ire, too, and while that send-up was less than tuneful, it represented, as well, the kind of approach that was taken up by the folk and folk-rock songwriters who came after. 

Yet, as we know, many in the new generation, even politically active ones, aimed more for personal liberation than for liberation of the masses. The output of folk and folk-rock artists—the painterly romanticism of Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen’s driving dirges of existentialism, for example—mostly reflected a personal-liberation kind of Leftism, not a Marxist-Leninist kind. To be sure, the role assigned to these people by their large and now aging audience was a serious one. The likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Carole King were looked on as more than entertainers. Their work was imagined as “philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm” (the title of a book on the subject). 

That means, of course, that, in investing so much meaning in their pop-culture favorites, the baby boomers have more than a little in common with their predecessors. Americans have not marched, singing, to the barricades. On the other hand, successions of young adults have for decades been singing and tapping their feet (and occasionally sustaining eardrum damage) in the auditoriums of academia—after paying good money to get in—following the practice that a Bolshevik balladeer helped establish. And when America kicks back, turns on the tube, and watches a “hip” show about an upper-middle-class widow selling pot out of her suburban home—proving the utter hollowness of the American dream—it hums along with another Bolshevik balladeer. It’s enough to make you think that one day soon they could replace the Francis Scott Key tune that is our national anthem with Guthrie’s song. The “Star-Spangled Banner” is way too hard to sing, as everyone knows, so to cling to the status quo is to stand in the way of progress. And that is downright un-American. 

Lauren Weiner has published articles on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal , the New Criterion , and other publications. This article is reprinted from the January 2010 issue of First Things.

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