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Subversive Strumming: Fear and Loathing of the American Folk Music Revival

For the American political right of the post-war era, folk music more than rock ‘n’ roll was regarded as a national threat – but not because of the songs’ lyrics.

American folk music cohered and consolidated after World War Two when, in December of 1945, the People’s Songs musical collective, partially funded by trade unions and the Communist Party, was established to create, promote, and distribute labor songs. Although short-lived, the group was active enough to alert and alarm right-wing watchdogs, who reported members to the US Congress, claiming them to be part and participants of a communist front. Pete Seeger, a driving force for the collective, was thereafter a target of anti-communist witch hunts both as a member of the Weavers and as a solo artist.

Another development that helped mold perceptions of folk music as a left-wing form came courtesy of John Lomax, along with his son and People’s Song member, Alan. Their field trips into various backwaters of American society led to collecting and preserving early 20th-century folk music that would otherwise have remained in localized obscurity. The songs, with their eclectic range of styles and stylists, symbolized the ethnic diversity of the American people, as well as the creative results of the national melting pot at work.

Influenced by the Lomax father and son team, in 1952, folk aficionado Harry Smith put together the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 84 songs he compiled from long-forgotten records gathering dust since the 1920s and ‘30s. Many of those discs were initially issued by labels (like Victor and OKeh) hoping to reach untapped rural markets with homegrown music—country, folk, blues, gospel, Cajun, Hawaiian, mariachi—rarely heard beyond small geographical pockets. Like the Lomaxes, Smith saw that his anthology could do more than merely save lost culture. It could foster a cultural narrative for the nation and for folk music, too, highlighting the importance of the contributions of marginalized voices from all communities.

One cannot underestimate the significance of Smith’s pioneering work in paving the way for groups like the Weavers to popularize the form; as a result, the ensuing “American folk music revival” came to dominate and influence rock and pop music throughout the 1960s and beyond. Whenever Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, or Joan Baez interpreted songs from Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, they carried forth the cultural importance as well as ideological implications of the music. 

Despite enduring associations, assumptions, and stereotypes, there is nothing inherently left-wing about the American folk music genre. Although more successfully co-opted by the left than the right, the form is flexible to multiple applications depending upon audience and social conditions. Indeed, as music historians Kristine Weglarz and Mark Pedelty point out, folk music, like folklore, is open and subject to differing representations of which “folk” should be included. “[Folk] developed from an assertion of national identity into a site of contention over who belonged to the nation,” they observe. Whereas country music deviations from folk came to represent a more contained vision of the nation, one less inclusive and more resistant to change, the ‘60s folk revival revived not only musical styles developed in the ‘30s but the political progressivism of that era, too. Those taking the country music path mostly aligned with a more conservative ideology, one that regarded folk music as a threat as much as a recently estranged relative.  

Departing from country in geography as well as music, the folk scene became more urban, developing from backwoods enclaves into a national pop phenomenon in the early ‘60s. This growth spurt made right-wing observers concerned about the political influence folk’s new megaphone might have on younger generations. The Weavers could be tolerated and contained when just preaching to their own in trade union halls and on picket lines, but now new fans were being drawn into their orbit, the band’s reach and relatability boosted by a more accessible sound that included added orchestration and supplementary instrumentation. It was arguably folk music’s popularity more than its political content that put Seeger and others on the hot seat of the House Un-American Activities Committee.   

The House Committee on Un-American Folk Music Activities

Fear of folk revealed a recognition of the form’s power and potential while exposing the insecurities and prejudices within a nation jolted to the right by the hysteria surrounding the Cold War. Bob Dylan captured these pervasive anxieties in “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” (1962), a song satirizing the conspiracy theories and xenophobia emanating from this anti-communist and anti-civil rights organization. The John Birch Society’s “reds under the bed” obsessions brought folk music into their purview, just as it had for more extreme groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Such organizations were not the only far-right forces to attack popular music in America during the ’40s and ’50s either. From within the Federal Government, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), when it was not hauling up Hollywood insiders to interrogate about their supposed entanglements with communism, did likewise with certain artists from the insurgent folk music scene. Whereas the KKK targeted rock ‘n’ roll because of its associations with black culture, HUAC focused on folk music’s traditions of protest; both led inquisitors back to the influence of communism and to rooting out the enemy within.

As much as the HUAC investigations revealed the self-serving and paranoiac traits of its lead, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, they also betrayed an appreciation for the intellectual and emotional appeals of music, particularly how folk can mold and inspire, sometimes in subversive ways. Singer Peggy Seeger—Pete’s half-sister—conceded as much, writing in her 2017 memoir, First Time Ever, “Senator McCarthy and Co. were right to suspect folk musicians…The bottom line is a song cannot be controlled”.

From the point-of-view of HUAC, folk music was potentially and particularly influential on young people seeking answers to ongoing socio-political questions. Although few of the cross-examiners felt these singer-songwriters were likely to bring down the government, folk artists and songs supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were thought to be—if inadvertently—giving comfort and confidence to enemies and enemy nations.

Although launched in 1938 with the purpose of investigating German-American Nazis, the HUAC hearings reached national attention in 1950 when McCarthy claimed to have a list of communists working in the State Department. Before long, anyone suspected of communist connections or sympathies was summoned before the committee; among them was Pete Seeger. One of many to have considered the Communist Party as the natural opposition to the fascism that swept across Europe in the ’30s, Seeger’s continued support for the Party’s positions on organized labor, nuclear disarmament, and African-American rights led to him being subpoenaed to testify before HUAC in August 1955.

Unlike most, including his Weavers bandmate Lee Hays, Seeger pleaded the First rather than Fifth Amendment in his defense, arguing that politics were “private affairs” that were none of the Committee’s business. Refusing to cooperate but offering to sing any offending songs to his interrogators, he was indicted for contempt of Congress two years later and convicted in a jury trial in 1961. In 1962, the one-year sentence he received was overturned on appeal. 

As much as Seeger’s principled stand has since been lauded as an inspiration to others speaking out on political and moral issues, sometimes lost in historical reflections are the real long-term damages organizations like HUAC did to artists and art. By whipping up national hysteria against those it summoned before them, McCarthy and Co. ruined many careers, some irreparably. Amongst the “Co.” was another far-right organization, American Business Consultants, Inc., which consisted of FBI agents and John Birch Society members. This cabal put together Red Channels in 1950, a book listing various suspected communists—and so-called “dupes”—from the entertainment industry. Citing members of the Weavers, the book was sent to television and radio stations across the nation, causing canceled concerts and feeding into the frenzy that was curtailing so many careers.

Thanks to these far-right groups and their trickle-down blacklisting, Pete Seeger went from a pop star signed to Decca to a marginal folk singer performing in small venues and releasing his material on minor labels like Folkways. In January 1962, the Weavers attempted to make a comeback when invited to play on Jack Parr’s television show, The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar; however, they were promptly disinvited after refusing to sign the loyalty oath required by NBC. “No private business establishment such as NBC has the power or the right to require proof of any citizen’s patriotism,” protested the band’s Fred Hellerman at the time.

A year later, as radical folk poetry became all the rage on college campuses, ABC aired Hootenanny to capture and capitalize on the phenomenon. Despite being an obvious candidate for the show, Seeger was banned from it, still regarded as “guilty by suspicion”. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary boycotted the program in protest, but it was apparent that McCarthyism, by then relegated to the annals of national embarrassments, still cast its ominous cloud over American culture.

The Peekskill Riots

The effects of the red scare went beyond the censures and intimidations of HUAC and the John Birch Society, too. Sometimes, ordinarily civilized, law-abiding citizens were motivated to behave in ways more commonly associated with the regimes they had gone to war with just years earlier. Such was the case with the Peekskill riots of 1949.

Paul-Robeson was one of the most popular folk singers of the 1930s and ‘40s. He was also a socialist and, after visiting the Soviet Union in the ’30s, returned convinced that its system offered the best solutions to colonialism and oppression. His political beliefs, coupled with his public advocacy for civil rights, workers’ rights, and nuclear disarmament, had by the late ‘40s earned the actor-singer-activist the sobriquet “Black Stalin”, as well as the attention of the FBI, CIA, and Britain’s MI5 and MI6, all of which had him under surveillance.

Robeson’s growing reputation as a subversive “red”, alongside comments he had made denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, set the stage for his scheduled appearance at an open-air concert sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York, in August 1949. Also on the bill was Pete Seeger, amongst other left-wing folkies. Tipped off by an article denouncing the show in the local Evening Star newspaper, the local Klan sent out a welcoming party of its members and local sympathizers, many carrying baseball bats and rocks, some situated in the surrounding hills as snipers. Before the concert even began, hundreds of protesters chanting “Dirty Commie” and “Dirty Kikes” stormed the stage en masse, forcing police and security to intervene and cancel the event.

Not to be deterred, the organizers rescheduled the concert for the following month. This time protesters waited until the performances had concluded to make their move, when, camped out on the surrounding country roads and armed with rocks, they pelted cars transporting the artists and fans as they left. Over 140 were injured, with local police doing little except to divert the attendees in the direction of the mob.

Although local historians recognize the role of the KKK in organizing these acts of violence, so many local adults and youths unaffiliated with that organization participated with glee. This historical event offers tragic insight into how quickly far-right prompts can turn into mainstream hysteria in our times.

Works Cited

American Epic, Volume 3. “Out of the Many, the One. Directed by Bernard MacMahon. PBS. 2017.

Crampton, Luke, and Dafydd Rees, Rock & Roll: Year by Year. DK Publishing. 2005.

Hajduk, John C. Music Wars: Money, Politics, and Race in the Construction of Rock and Roll Culture, 1940-1960. Lexington Books. 2018.

Smolko, Tim, and Joanna Smolko, Joanna. Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music. Indiana University Press. May 2021.

Weglarz, Kristine, and Mark Pedelty, Political Rock. Taylor and Francis Group, 2013.