Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Bob Dylan and the Revolutionary Jews

by E. Michael Jones

NOTE:  This essay is over 30,000 words and is about two autobiographies by two revolutionary Jews.
  • Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
  •  Ronald Radosh, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001)
Apart from the title, pictures and clips all added by me, the piece was written by E.Michael Jones under the original title "Cosmopolitan Folk Music"

I believe that it was George Trevelyan who, in one of his early essays, wrote that the ideal would be for every nation to be different and at peace; adding prophetically, that what we are tending towards is to be all alike and at war. . . . we can get our music from Germany, our painting from France, our jokes from America, and our dancing from Russia. Has this brought us peace? Does not this colourless cosmopolitanism bring in its train wars, such as our isolated forefathers never dreamed of?

National Music

“What kind of music do you play?” Bill asked, and without batting an eye, Dylan responded “Folk music.”
His answer introduces us to the central paradox of Chronicles,  Dylan’s autobiography. Folk, as in folk music, is another word for deracination. Bob Dylan, according to Bob Spitz, one of his many biographers, “was haunted by his lack of roots.”  Dylan “claimed little connection to an ancestral bloodline” and was forever changing his name, finally settling on the first name of a Welsh poet who had died of alcohol poisoning a few years back. 

This was, of course, not true. Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman, Bob’s parents, were alive and well in Hibbing, Minnesota.  He had spoken with them recently on the phone. Dylan went on to say that he had just arrived in New York City via boxcar, which was also not true. He had driven there with college students from Minneapolis, where he had been a student and part of the folk scene. The reference to the boxcar, of course, set up the best question of all:

Abe Zimmerman and Beatty Stone when they still had dreams
Dylan says much the same thing in his autobiography. One of the things which he “didn’t have too much of” was “a concrete identity.” And so he made one up out of snatches of the folk songs he had been singing:  “‘I’m a rambler—I’m a gambler. I’m a long way from home.’ That pretty much summed it up” is how Dylan described his “concrete identity” or lack thereof in his autobiography.  Dylan would go on to claim that he was an orphan, and, as if worried that dropping his family name wasn’t enough, he would deny being Jewish. (At another point, he accused the disapproving mother of his New York girlfriend of being an “anti-Semite,” because she didn’t view him as the ideal potential son-in-law.) There was, of course, a certain amount of irony in this because by the time he arrived in New York City in January of 1961, folk music had become pretty much a Jewish enterprise, certainly in New York City. Bob Dylan was a genius at creating and projecting an image of himself. He was also the quintessential Jewish folksinger, but at this particular moment in time that image involved a certain amount of crypsis, lest the idea become a source of mirth rather than mystery.

Myth was Dylan’s only reality.

Fabrication of image, mythic or not, was in some sense a necessity because Dylan was a third-generation Jew, which is to say, a Jew on whom the triple melting pot had already done its work. Bob’s grandparents had come from Odessa, but his grandmother, his only surviving link to that past, was now living in Duluth, a predominantly Polish patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods typical of the cities which spread westward across the northern tier of the United States. Bob Dylan’s ethnic identity was now dependent on religion not country of origin, and since he had no religion to speak of, he had to create an identity out of the materials at hand. That meant music because he aspired to be a musician, and, in particular, it meant constructing an
identity out of snatches from the folk song music of the ‘60s. Bob doesn’t mention the Poles of eastern Minnesota and the Mesabi range, but in an offhand way he gives some indication that his musical heritage was Polish. It was most certainly not Appalachian Scotch Irish, whose deracinated derivative passed as folk music at the time of his arrival in New York. “Polka dances,” Dylan tells us in his autobiography, “always got my blood pumping. That was the first type of loud, live music I’d ever heard. On Saturday nights the taverns were filled with polka bands”

That is the sort of thing Dylan would say after he was famous. Sometimes he makes claims like this in his autobiography, to go out of his way to confound conventional notions of what is hip—to throw everyone off the track, in other words—but in this instance I suspect that Dylan is being  sincere, at least sincere in 2004. It is just as obvious, however, that it was not hip to be pro-polka in New York City in 1961, especially among the people that Dylan wanted to impress. One of those people was a Jewish Leftist by the name of Israel Young. Young ran the Folklore Center, which Dylan described as “the citadel of Americana [sic] folk music.” The center which Izzy Young, “an old-line folk enthusiast,” who was “very sardonic and wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick Brooklyn dialect,” ran was “a crossroads junction for all the folk activity you could name and you might at any time see real hard-line folksingers in there.” Bob Dylan wanted to become one of those “real hard-line” folksingers, someone like the lapsed Catholic from Brooklyn, Dave Van Ronk, who showed up at the Folklore Center in the middle of Dylan’s conversation with Izzy Young.

It became clear before long that Dylan would not be satisfied being a second-rate Dave Van Ronk.  He wanted to become a second-rate Elvis Presley, or better, he wanted to become the Elvis Presley of the folksingers, but to do that he had to impress Izzy Young, and to do that he would have to keep his mouth shut about the Polka joints in Duluth and Hibbing.  Bob Dylan wasn’t going to become as famous as Elvis by playing Polkas in New York City. He could have easily figured this out by talking to Izzy Young. After Dylan scandalized the folk world in 1965 by playing amplified instruments at the Newport Folk Festival, Young, the folk music maven, had this to say in Sing Out!, folk music’s paper of record: “Next year he’ll be writing rhythm & blues songs when they get high on the charts; the following year , the Polish polka will make it, and then he’ll write them too.” By 2004, Dylan was so hip he was beyond hip, and as a result he could say that he even liked polkas. It was clear that he couldn’t say this in 1961, not if he wanted to make it in New York City.

But that doesn’t mean that ethnic connections weren’t helpful. Bob Dylan told his first New York girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, that he was an orphan, and that “he had run away from his foster parents in Fargo, North Dakota.” That might have been a good line for picking up chicks, but he would save something more sophisticated for Izzy Young, as he “thumbed through a lot of his antediluvian folk scrolls” at the folklore center. So instead of telling Young that he was an orphan when “Izzy . . . asked me about my family,” Dylan talked about his grandmother from Odessa: “I told him about my grandma on my mom’s side who lived with us.” It was easy to string along a dumb goy like Bill from Yale, but Jewish identity had its perks when played right. In order to make it in the big time folk scene in New York, Dylan would have to come up with an identity that would appeal to the people who controlled the media and the folk-song establishment. That meant coming up with something that people like Izzy Young and other Jews found persuasive. That meant something that was Jewish but cryptically so. Bob Dylan, in this regard, was the consummate artist of identity, even more than the consummate singer songwriter. Dylan was part of “a long tradition in show business that permits a performer to adopt an ethnic identity not necessarily his own.” Just as Al Jolson put on black face, Bob Dylan put on white face, literally, during his days with the Rolling Thunder Revue. In a figurative sense, the scion of Odessa Jews put on both black face and white face in his search for a compelling and marketable identity. First, black face, as, according to Spitz, “he embodied Little Richard’s black gospel performance,”  and then, figurative “white face,” as he imitated the Okie Woody Guthrie. Dylan was a master of identity change, so masterful in fact that it became impossible to distinguish the mask from the face behind it.

Izzy Young
The most obvious identity for Bob Dylan in the early ‘60s, the singing Jewish cowboy, had already become a standing joke, one which provided Lenny Bruce’s act with lots of laughs. Bob Dylan had to come up with something more subtle than that without disguising himself so thoroughly that he would lose the benefit of knowing people like Izzy Young and Irwin Silber and all of the other singing Jewish cowboys. So Bob Dylan went to work assembling an identity from the sources available. There was, of course, Woody Guthrie (more on him later) but there was also, at least according to the autobiography, Bertold Brecht, Albertus Magnus (who “seemed like a guy who couldn’t sleep, writing this stuff late at night, clothes stuck to his clammy body”), Sophocles, who wrote the Oedipus trilogy, but who, according to Dylan, was the author of a “book on the nature and function of the gods” which also explained “why there were only two sexes,” and, of course, Thucydides. How could we leave out Thucydides?  Albertus Magnus, Dylan the polymath tells us,  “was a lightweight compared to Thucydides.”

Dylan never gets around to explaining what possible basis of comparison might bind Albertus Magnus and Thucydides, other than the fact that English translations of books they wrote sat cheek by jowl next to each other on some bookshelf in some apartment in Greenwich Village. However, when Dylan starts expounding on the influence of other seminal figures in his life, a pattern begins to emerge. “Picasso,” he tells us, “had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was a revolutionary. I wanted to be like that” (my emphasis). In a group of thinkers this disparate, it becomes obvious after a while that Dylan projected as much into them as the drew out of them, or, he drew out of them what he thought would play well with Izzy Young and the people he represented in the folk music world. That meant, in short, a penchant for revolution.

The Clancy Brothers
The same was true of the music he heard. Dylan tells us that he spent long hours hanging out with Liam Clancy (of the Clancy brothers) at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street (Jack Kerouac’s old hangout ten years earlier) which by the ‘60s had become “mainly an Irish bar frequented mostly by guys from the old country.” That meant that Bob was exposed to another serious form of ethnic music, every bit as genuine as the polkas in Duluth.  Dylan tells us that “All though the night,” he and the Clancy brothers and their Irish buddies “would sing drinking songs, country ballads, and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof.”  Ever the chameleon, Bob Dylan “was beginning to think I might want to change over,” i.e., become Irish, but he restrained himself because “The Irish landscape wasn’t too much like the American landscape.” Before he could appropriate ethnic Irish music, he would “have to find some cuneiform tablets, some archaic grail to lighten [sic] the way.” After listening to the Irish music at the White Horse, Dylan began to discover in it what he had already discovered in Picasso, namely, revolution. “The rebellion songs,” Dylan tells us, “were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative—a lot of action in the words, all sung with great gusto. . . .  They weren’t protest songs, though, they were rebel ballads. . . even in a simply melodic wooing ballad there’d be rebellion waiting around the corner. You couldn’t escape it. . . . Rebellion spoke to me louder. The rebel was alive and well, romantic and honorable”.

Like Captain Ahab who stared at the coin he nailed to the mast and saw in it only himself, Bob Dylan sailed to New York, and everywhere he looked he saw the revolutionary Jew staring back at him. Dylan was the ‘60s version of Jay Gatsby, another Jew who had to reinvent himself according to American myths and expectations. If you take America and place the Clancy Brothers on top of it, and place Popular Front singer Woody Guthrie on top of that and place him over Picasso, what do you come up with? The answer is revolution. The only persona—what Dylan calls the “Archaic Grail”—that could unite these disparate personae was the revolutionary Jew  Suddenly, the singing Jewish cowboy had become plausible in a way that Lenny Bruce could not understand, largely because the Jews of Dylan’s parents’ generation had become involved in the popular front, Stalin’s effort to get allies in his fight against Hitler, and had created a music that was both American and revolutionary. Bob Dylan took the popular front persona which Woody Guthrie had created, and he updated it to meet the exigencies of college students plunging toward the sexual revolution. It diddn’t happen overnight, but it almost happened overnight because folk music was avid for a change.

Joel (Joe) Hill
But the persona of the revolutionary folksinger didn’t begin with Woody Guthrie. As Dylan makes clear in his autobiography, it began with Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant who had fought in Mexico and ended up writing songs for the Wobblies in the first two decades of the 20th century. “Joe [Hill],” Dylan tells us, “wrote the song ‘Pie in the Sky’ and was the forerunner of Woody Guthrie. That was all I needed to know.”

In 1915 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote an article in Solidarity in which she said that Joe Hill, then serving time in prison, “writes songs that sing, that lilt and laugh and sparkle, that kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit and quicken the desire for a fuller life in the most humble slave . . . He has crystallized the organization’s {IWW} spirit into imperishable forms, songs of the people—folk songs.”

Thus began the semantic permutation of the word “folk” from its original meaning into its opposite. It comes from the German word Volk, which means race, nation, or—the Greek word for “das Volk” —ethnos. In a series of lectures which he gave in 1932 at Bryn Mawr College, now collected under the title National Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams said that “conditions in America do not admit of folk-songs because there is no peasant class to make and sing them.” What Williams failed to see is that the people who were formerly peasants in Europe became workers after they arrived in America. In American in 1915, the workers were unhappy enough with their condition to form a significant social movement. Some times they even sang about their troubles, just as their forebears had done in Europe, often to the same melodies. So folk music is another word for what Vaughan Williams would call national music or what we would call ethnic music, but in the hands of the Socialists and Communists it became “music of the people.” And since the term “worker” and “people” were synonymous in the lexicon of the Left, that meant music for the revolution:

Jewish Immigrants at Ellis Island
Song collections devoted to socialism and the case of the proletariat soon made their appearance, among the earliest in English being Chants of Labour (London 1888), edited by Edward Carpenter. Lenin in exile sought contact with the proletariat by occasionally venturing out to the cafes and theaters of suburban Paris to listen to revolutionary songs. As the Bolsheviks moved toward national power, Pravda printed “The Internationale” in its first issue. In the sixth issue, March 11, 1917, there appeared an article in bold type entitled “Revolutionary Songs” saying “we call [to] the attention of the comrades, that it is desirable to organize collective singing and rehearsals of choral performances of revolutionary songs” (Reuss and Reuss, p. 26).

By the ‘30s, when Earl Robinson, “perhaps the most successful composer of mass music of the American Left,”  wrote his most famous song, “The Ballad of Joe Hill,” the Left was still heavily involved in the labor movement and so the proletarian bards of the ‘30s could sing with all sincerity, “where workingmen defend their rights, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” By the time Bob Dylan started writing his own songs, the Left was in the process of dropping the banner of the working man and picking up the standard of sexual liberation instead. That meant that a new kind of music was necessary. Joan Baez singing “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” at a Dionysian festival like Woodstock in 1969 was only a little less incongruous than having the warm-up band at a Rolling Stones concert sing Palestrina. Unlike Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, who did not play at Woodstock, was smart enough to understand that the sexual revolution needed new music. Singing about working men defending their rights in 1969 was hopelessly out of date.

But just what was revolutionary music anyway? “The Internationale” is revolutionary music even if you change the words and use it as a jingle to sell Subarus. Conversely, the melody for “Wildwood Flower” is not revolutionary music, even if Woody Guthrie turned it into a popular front song. Given this distinction, the first revolutionary songs weren’t based on revolutionary music. Chicago, “the publishing center for revolutionary music prior to 1920,” gave us Socialist Songs with Music in 1901, followed by IWW Songs, eight years later, a compilation which was better known as “The Little Red Songbook.” The Wobblies, as a result of their songbooks, were subsequently known for their effective use of music as a propaganda tool. But neither the Wobblies nor Joe Hill wrote what could be termed “revolutionary music.” Both wrote revolutionary lyrics and set them to traditional tunes. The Wobblies’ early lead in this regard bore no fruit because the idea of emphasizing folk song as a propaganda medium was at odds with the views of the Communist Party at that time, which quickly took over the leadership of the Left in America in the wake of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917.

The Communists of the so-called Third Period felt that world revolution was imminent. In July 1928 Nicolai Bukharin, Stalin’s ally against Trotsky, announced at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International meeting in Moscow that “All artistic expression was to be politicized” and that art was to be used “as a weapon,” as agit-prop in the soon-to-commence worldwide upheaval.  As a result, “Artists and bureaucrats were expected to root out any bourgeois influence in workers’ cultural media.” At this point in time, it seemed pretty clear that America’s ethnic music was not revolutionary. Henry Ford, after all, one of America’s premier capitalists, was also one of America’s premier promoters of traditional music. Fiddlers in the folk tradition often found employment at Ford’s Dearborn estate, Fairlane, when the automobile manufacturer put on elaborate evenings of American folk dancing. One year before Bukharin’s announcement that art was a weapon in the class struggle,  Carl Sandburg brought out his best selling folk song collection, and John Jacob Niles gave the first formal folk song recital to a college audience at Princeton University. No revolutionary upheaval followed either event. In fact, the very opposite might have happened.  The Reusses claim that the IWW songbooks recruited more revolutionaries to folk music than ethnics to revolution. As of the late ‘20s, it was not immediately apparent that folk music was a vehicle for Left-wing thought. As a result, “the American communist movement in its first decade (1919-1928) established no firm position, favorable or otherwise, on folklore.”

During the Third Period, the revolutionary chorus was the preferred vehicle for communist musical propaganda. Their appeal to the American worker was limited, however, because “these choruses were located entirely within the immigrant language groups, most East European, which made up the majority of the movement’s early membership.” In other word, the Revolutionary Chorus was largely a Jewish phenomenon. The best known revolutionary chorus was the Jewish Freiheit Gesang Ferein, the “Freedom Singers’ Club,” which was founded in 1923  under the direction of Jacob Schaefer, According to an article which appeared in the Daily Worker in 1934,  revolutionary choruses like the Freiheit were “one of the most popular mediums for reaching the masses” because American’s were already used to singing in church choirs, a medium which the capitalist class used for “lulling the workers.” The revolutionary movement, on the other hand, “uses it for rousing the workers against [their] oppressors.”

The choral music of the Freiheit Gesang Ferein may have been genuinely revolutionary, but its appeal was limited, first of all, because the music was technically difficult to perform without rehearsal, but secondly, and, more importantly, because the Freiheit singers sang in Yiddish. “The Freiheit Gesang Ferein does valuable work,” the Daily Worker informed its readers in 1927, “but we have so many comrades who do not happen to be born Jews and they simply do not understand Yiddish” The writer concluded that it would be difficult if not impossible for the workers’ movement to grow  “if it cannot express itself in song,” meaning, of course, songs in English.

As a result, beginning in 1925, the Communist Party began to reach out beyond its essentially Jewish base to native-born American workers. On June 14, 1931, musically inclined members of the Communist Party established the Workers Music League, “to try to formulate a systematic theoretical approach to proletarian music.” Less than one year later, in February 1932, the Composers Collective was founded to produce and perform revolutionary compositions and to formulate guidelines on what constituted proletarian music. Just about everyone involved in the Composers Collective was a serious musician. That included Charles Seeger (father of Pete, the folk-singer), who had studied at Harvard, conducted the Cologne Symphony in his twenties and had become the youngest professor (of music) in the history of the University of California at Berkeley. It also included Freiheit Gesang Ferein choral director Jacob Schaefer, George Antheil, and Aaron Copland, who had won a commission to put a May Day poem to music in the ‘30s. Even in its earliest days, before the creation of the popular front, the Composers Collective had trouble linking the music it liked to the taste and abilities of the proletarian masses. When asked by Charles Seeger whether musically untrained workers would be able to sing Copland’s prize-winning melody to Alfred Hayes’s poem “Into the Streets May first,” Copland admitted they probably could not.

The communist composers’ political point of view was clear. “Music is propaganda—always propaganda and of the most powerful sort,” wrote Charles Seeger, under his pseudonym Carl  Sands, “The special task of the Workers’ Music League is the development of music as a weapon in the class struggle.” Following Stalin’s mandate, workers’ music was to be “national in form, revolutionary in content.” But that was precisely the problem. Largely because of their musical sophistication, the Composers Collective—quite rightly, it seems to me—felt that folk music wasn’t revolutionary. Their difficulty flowed from the next term of their dilemma. The American “folk” never really took to revolutionary music, which at this time “still
consisted of the revolutionary choral and orchestral units of the foreign-language groups.” Charles Seeger was to express the dilemma in personal terms as well: Seeger the elder gave up composition,  “because I couldn’t approve of the music I liked, and I couldn’t like the music that I approved, and I couldn’t make either one of them connect in any way with the social situation I found.”

The conflict between genuinely revolutionary music which was not popular and genuinely popular music which was not revolutionary is best epitomized by the career of Hanns Eisler, a communist composer who was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and who arrived in America in 1933, after Hitler came to power. Eisler was born in Leipzig in 1898 but after World War I he moved to Austria to become Schoenberg’s student and learn the 12-tone method, which Schoenberg had just appropriated from Josef Matthias Hauer. Eisler moved to Berlin in the ‘20s, where he dedicated with equal fervor to revolutionary music, composing left-wing cabaret hits like “Comintern” and “In praise of Learning,” songs which the Reuses tell us were “indisputably successful” because “in some cases they were actually being sung by workers.”

Eisler hated folk music—especially the sort that got dragooned into the workers’ revolutionary struggle by becoming affixed to revolutionary texts—calling it “a badge of servitude from pre-Revolutionary times.”  In the 1940s, long after Popular Front folk music had triumphed over the revolutionary chorus as the preferred vehicle of Communist propaganda, Eisler was still annoyed at Alan Lomax for having created the folk music movement and “for foisting those ‘damn songs’ on the working class.” More to Eisler’s liking were the revolutionary choral pieces of people like Charles Seeger whose lyrics

We are fighting with a host of foes, we do not fear guns or cannon.

Fascist promises cannot fool us; we will fight them to a finish.

Comrade, victory is leading you; to the battle gladly marching

Mount the Barricades; Mount the Barricades ; for the workers’ cause

Carry on the fight for freedom.

were set to a melody in what Dunaway calls the “Russian-sounding” key of F-minor, to a “darkened and dissonant piano accompaniment marked: ‘relentlessly.’” Both Eisler and Sands were “relentlessly” Third Period in their musical orientation, which meant that their compositions were undeniably revolutionary, but that at the same time they “had few real roots in American culture.” In this regard, Eisler and Charles Seeger were of one mind with the rest of the Composers Collective, which correctly understood the unrevolutionary nature of native American music, but could propose no alternative either. “Not all folk tunes are suitable to the revolutionary movement,” Charles Seeger wrote in 1934 in the Daily Worker. “Many of them are complacent, melancholy, defeatist—originally intended to make slaves endure their lot—pretty but not the stuff for a militant proletariat to feed upon.”

Composers Collective director  Henry Cowel used an article in the Daily Worker to say much the same thing. “One of the great faults in the field of workers music has been that of combining revolutionary lyrics with traditional music—music which can by no means be termed revolutionary.” Both men grudgingly conceded a minor role for revolutionary parodies of American folk tunes, but just barely: “There is still some room for occasional parodies of old songs such as ‘Pie in the Sky’ and ‘Soup,’ but not for many of them.”
The musicologists were, of course, right. The revolutionary lyrics of the new proletarian folk song contradicted the simple folk melodies upon which they were based. Worse still, the folk melodies subverted the revolutionary intent of the lyrics, in much the same way that the Dionysian rock and roll of Christian Rock (or Rap) would subvert the intentions of the well meaning but musically illiterate Christian songsters of a later generation. But being right about folk music as inappropriate to the revolutionary struggle didn’t mean that the Composers Collective was successful in proposing an alternative that was as popular as the music they criticized or as accessible to the audience that they wanted to reach.

During the course of the 1930s, Jewish communists would travel to places like Kentucky and North Carolina to organize strikes among the coal miners and textile workers and would return to New York City with Appalachian music on their minds. Often they would return with the Appalachian musicians as well. In 1932 the Worker’s Music League published the Red Song Book, featuring “Poor Miner’s Farewell” by Aunt Molly Jackson, who would travel to New York in 1933 to  attend the meetings of the Composers Collective and teach them how to write her kind of song. The Composers were not impressed. The Worker Musician criticized the Red Song Book for “arrested development” and attributed the songs’ poor quality to “the exploitation of the coal barons.” Charles Seeger, embarrassed by the cold reception Aunt Molly received at the hands of the New York composers told her, “Molly , they don’t understand you. But I know some young people who will want to learn your songs.” Seeger was obviously referring to his son, who would soon take a leadership role in a new kind of revolutionary music.

The Composers Collective may not have been impressed with Aunt Molly’s music, but the communists began to recognize that “indigenous creations were a lot more effective in recruiting and agitating the local populace than were doctrinaire slogans and pamphlets written by urban party leaders” i.e., by  Jews from New York City. Gradually, more pragmatic CP thinkers, like Mike Gold, began to see in the music of the south the proletarian music which the composers had sought in vain during the decade of the 1920s. As a result, a cultural symbiosis began to occur. The Jews who went to West Virginia to sing “Solidarity Forever” with the miners in 1931 returned singing “The Death of Mother Jones” at meetings in New York city, and “eventually, repeated encounters with living folk cultures in the US helped reshape urban, left-wing music.” 

When Aunt Molly Jackson came north to escape being killed by the mining company goons and to testify before the Dreiser Committee in December 1931, she exposed the urban Communists to songs like “We Shall not be Moved,” which was first sung at a 1931 West Virginia Miners’ Union strike. Once again the music, which was composed to a verse from the book of Jeremiah, got put into harness to pull communist propaganda, with, as Charles Seeger could have predicted, dubious results. It remained to be seen whether music like this was more effective in radicalizing the miners of America or Americanizing the country’s radical Jews. 

Mike Gold
At around the same time, Mike Gold (nee Granich) author of Jews Without Money, wrote a complaint that might be titled “Why Communists Can’t Sing.” “The Wobblies knew how [to sing],” Gold wrote, “but we have still to develop a Communist Joe Hill.” Like Carl Seeger, Gold would beget a son, Carl Granich, who would take his father’s admonition seriously and become a mover in the ‘60s folk movement. When Bob Dylan showed up at Ron Radosh’s apartment in Madison, Wisconsin in 1961 looking for a place to stay, he would mention Carl Granich’s name as his entry into the Jewish revolutionary brotherhood that now had a network of coffee houses and cadre across the country.

A few years later, Mike Gold went on to praise the singing of Ray and Lida Auvill, saying that it had “the true ring of American balladry,” which of course made it completely inappropriate as revolutionary music, according to Charles Seeger, who panned the same collection for its low musical quality. “For every step forward in the verse,” Seeger opined, “one takes a step backward in the music.” This, of course, annoyed Gold as an irredeemably elitist attitude. “Really, Comrade Sands,” Gold wrote responding to Seeger’s pseudonymous article in January 1936, “I think you have missed the point. It is sectarian and utopian to use Arnold Schoenberg or Stravinsky as a yardstick by which to measure class music. . . . What songs do the masses of America now sing?   They sing “Old Black Joe” and the sentimental things concocted by Tin Pan Alley. In the South they sing the old ballads. This is the reality, and to leap from that into Schoenberg seems to me a desertion of the masses. . . . I think the composers collective has something to learn from Ray and Lida Auville. They write catchy tunes than many American workers cans sing and like, and the words of their songs make the revolution as intimate and simple as ‘Old Black Joe’” (Reuss, p. 75).

New York 1961

When Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, he found a world as avid to publish his fantasies as he was to spin them. Robert Shelton, the New York Times folk music critic was one of Dylan’s most avid acolytes. Spitz claims that “Shelton played the indulgent straight man as Bob shoveled it on thick.” Dylan recounted the “I’m a rambler; I’m a gambler; I’m a long way from home” line with every cliched variation imaginable, and Shelton dutifully recounted what he heard to credulous New York Times readers. Shelton was to Dylan what the Franciscans of Bosnia were to the seers of Medjugorje. He was the authority that gave an air of plausibility to what was essentially the secular equivalent of the phony apparition—the urban Jew as the latest avatar of the ‘30s Okie. The important thing was not what Bob Dylan said about what he had seen but the fact that someone with the credibility of the secular clergy believed what he said. Once the secular equivalent of the clergy accepted his myth, his myth became a reality. That happened on September 28, 1961, when Shelton’s article appeared in the New York Times. According to Spitz, Dylan read and “reread the words in a state of shock.” The first article ever written about him had appeared in no less august a forum than the New York Times ,“and it was a goddamn rave.”

One day after the review appeared, Dylan showed up at the Columbia recording studios to play harmonica for Carolyn Hester, then married to Richard Farina, knowing that the legendary producer John Hammond would be there and that Hammond would offer him a recording contract on the strength of Shelton’s review. It wasn’t just the review. Dylan was offered a contract because Hammond “liked what he saw—the whole Dylan package, the angry young folksinger. It hit the right chord.”

Bob and Suze
Dylan knew who the players in the folk music scene were, and he knew how to appeal to their intuitions. He knew that they were as avid for the myths he could portray as he was to portray them. There was something artful about his deceptions, about telling Bill, the Columbia PR guy, that he had arrived in New York in a boxcar, and something methodically calculating about them as well. Within weeks of arriving in New York, Bob Dylan was sleeping with a 17-year-old Italian girl by the name of Suze Rotolo. He was also sleeping on the couch at her sister’s apartment on Perry Street, and, as it turned out, Carla Ortolo just happened to be the secretary of Alan Lomax, who just happened to be the man who created American folk music when the Communist Party got over its failed Third Period art-as-weapon aesthetic, and created the Popular Front in its stead. 

Alan Lomax was born to the folklorist John A. Lomax and Bess Brown Lomax on January 31, 1915 in Austin, Texas. In 1910 John Lomax brought out a book called Cowboy Songs, which gained a favorAble endorsement by Theodore Roosevelt, which appeared as a frontispiece and galvanized sales. Alan graduated from Choate preparatory school at the age of15, and, after spending his freshman year at the University of Texas in 1930-1, transferred to Harvard where he studied under his father’s long-time friend, the literary critic, George Lyman Kittredge. Alan, like his dad, was more interested in field work than sitting in a library, so after reading Nietzsche and “a widening variety of radical thinkers,” Lomax pere et fils set of on a field trip to collect ethnic music after Alan’s graduation in 1936. One year later, Alan was hired as the director of the Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress. The salary was modest, but the job with the government in Washington allowed him to meet Charles Seeger, who was then employed by
the WPA Federal music project. The job also allowed him to use the government’s offices to lend credibility to what was an essentially communist cultural offensive.

During the summer of 1934 Maxim Gorky and Andrei Zhdanov introduced the new doctrine of Socialist Realism at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers. After the rise of Hitler to power in Germany, world revolution, which no longer seemed as imminent as it had ten years earlier, would have to take a back seat to “a united cultural front against world fascism.” That meant gaining popular support through art that was accessible to the masses, and that in turn meant “a return to familiar lyric and melodic forms more acceptable to the masses,” which in turn “led to an official communist upgrading of folklore as a positive creative force in the life of the people. In time this attitude would lead to the popularization and intellectual use of folk songs and traditional melodies of the people on a scale unimaginable in the previous decade.”

The comrades who had backed Aunt Molly Jackson and the Auvills were suddenly in the ascendancy in the CPUSA as the ideological dogmatism of the Third Period gave way to the “American” pragmatism of the Popular Front. In January 1934, the Daily Worker praised folk music, even when it was not politically correct. Even Charles Seeger started to complain about the fact that the Freiheit Gesang Ferein insisted on singing in Yiddish. In order to fight the suddenly virulent threat of fascism, Communists need to make new friends. The Communists needed to Americanize. They needed to come up with singers who didn’t have Yiddish accents. It was during the period of the Popular Front that Earl Browder, CPUSA chairman, coined the phrase, “communism is 20th-century Americanism,” and that meant that “nearly all phases of radical life—including terminology, dress and social deportment—were revised to conform more closely to the routine existence of the average citizen.”

The Popular Front was a reality by the summer of 1935. That meant that members of the party were to forsake doctrinal purity in favor of broadbased collaboration with other anti-fascist groups, and that meant that folklore was no longer a sign of bourgeois decadence, and that meant that the folk song was going to be rehabilitated as the vehicle for revolutionary ferment among the broad working-class masses:

By the mid-1930s, though, left-wing organizations, influenced by members or supporters of the Communist Party, discovered intrinsic working-class values in folk  song and other folklore genres. Without question, this radical interest initially grew out of the discovery that in certain regions the folk song idiom was a convenient musical method for spreading and reinforcing revolutionary ideas, which was what agitation-propaganda, or agit-prop, departments of he communist movement were working hard to accomplish.
Alan Lomax in 'the field' with Woody Guthrie
Situated at the intersection of the Library of Congress and the Communist Party, Alan Lomax was the key figure in implementing the new change in party line. Lomax created the folk music movement one singer at a time, discovering over the course of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, the leading lights of the first generation of folk singers—people like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly, devoting much of his time to fostering their careers by guiding them through the tricky political eddies of Washington and New York society “teaching them songs, socializing with them and serving as their intellectual guide” as well as ensuring their “unflagging commitment to left-wing ideology.” Lomax was the ideal promoter because he was content to work behind the scenes, letting others bask in the limelight he arranged for them. As a result, by the 1940s, “the urban folk singers he had encouraged and who shared his worldview were ready to make a substantial imprint on American musical life, on the left-wing cultural scene, as well as on the national stage.” It is not an exaggeration to say that Alan Lomax created American folk music as we know it today. He certainly created it as it was known in the period from 1940, when the period of the radical choruses waned until 1956, when the Lomax group of folksingers fell apart because of disillusionment with Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and suppression of the Hungarian revolt.

American Folksinger

In formulating his idea of the ideal American folksinger, Lomax was most probably influenced by Will Geer, an actor who had starred in a play about striking Southern textile workers called Let Freedom Ring. Geer, who ended his career by playing the grandfather in the TV series The Waltons, began performing folk music for radical audiences in New York in the 1930s. In November 1935, he sang before striking textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey, and was as a result featured in a long and flattering feature article in the Daily Worker. By  early 1936, “the groundwork had been laid for the American communist movement’s subsequent ideological and social commitment to folk songs and traditional ‘people’s’ culture.  The varied work of such larger groups as the Almanac singers . . . sprang from the void created by the clumsy gropings of radical musicians for a ‘unique’ class music for the proletariat in the early 1930s.”

Later that year, Charles Seeger took his son Peter to a folk music festival in Ashville, North Carolina, where he met Alan Lomax. The two men hit it off immediately, and in that same year Lomax hired Seeger to be his assistant at the audio division at the Library of Congress, allowing him to travel around the country off and on for the next ten years collecting American folk songs and listening to recordings at the Library of Congress. It was Alan Lomax who suggested that young Pete take up the five-string banjo, an instrument unknown to urban audiences at that time. Seeger came from a old-line WASP New England Puritan family, and the residual Puritanism he imbibed through his family’s heritage made him sympathetic to messianic political movements of the sort now promoted by the New York Jews. “Resistance” Dunaway writes, “was part of the New England nature,” which “viewed the world as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished.” Dunaway could have just as easily said “Revolution,” because Puritans were certainly involved in that, and Pete Seeger was more successful in seeing the potential for a cultural revolution than the Communist Party hacks, who gave him tepid support at best.

Pete and the Popular Front were made for each other. As a native-born American, he was consumed by a vision of Americans taking their music back from the capitalists who owned the radio stations and record companies. For Seeger folk songs had a patriotic undercurrent; the music had been “carved from the rhythm of daily lives, the curves of the American land, the outline of its architecture, and its climate.” Under Lomax’s tutelage, Seeger would keep the flame burning until a generation of America’s youth could be re-educated by it and emerge as the bearers of a genuine revolutionary movement. Seeger would eventually be run over by the movement he created, but his influence is hard to underestimate nonetheless. As Dunaway puts it, an “industry” eventually “emerged from Seeger’s enthusiasms.” He had not only sold thousands of record albums, he had also educated an entire generation at the Communist summer camps in the Catskills, teaching on a one to one basis many of the most prominent performers of the folk revival of the early ‘60s. At a single concert in Palo Alto, for instance, Seeger inspired the careers of both Joan Baez and Dave Guard  (of the Kingston Trio).

In many ways, the music was the simplest part of the revolution. More difficult was easing the communist propaganda into the music without offending the unwitting listeners. To do that required the creation of a persona, the persona of the folk singer, the man who was “of the people,” which is to say, not polished, forthright, willing to defend the rights of the working man, but also not “ethnic,” which is to say “folkish” in the bad sense of the word, the sense which described the contemporary state of affairs for the overwhelming number of America’s industrial workers. The folksinger would wean these people (or their children) away from their ethnocentrism; folksong would be the Communist Party’s answer to the Melting Pot Pageants of World War I. Historians of the folk song movement touch on this gingerly if at all, claiming that Lomax tried “to develop a similar working class cultural totality in the North based on rural folk idioms and content.” This is another way of saying that working class culture in the North was completely different that the culture of the south from which Appalachian music sprang, and so a persona like the cowboy or the rambler, gambler who was a long way from home was necessary to make it plausible, if that was possible, to the workers it was supposed to influence.

The answer to the complicated question of how to make Italians from Brooklyn like hillbilly music was an Okie by the name of Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, who was named after Woodrow Wilson, was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, the third of five children of a father who initially did well selling land in the oil boom of the ‘20s and a mother who was eventually carted off to a mental institution. When the boom went bust and the family broke up, Woody drifted down to Pampas, Texas and then to California, where he linked up with woman with the stage name of Lefty Lou from Old Missou, with whom he starred in a short-lived radio program. Eventually Woody ended up in New York City, much as Bob Dylan would do 20 years later, where he was discovered by Alan Lomax, who put his skills as a lyricist to work promoting the Popular Front.

After his success as a proletarian folksinger at the Paterson, New Jersey textile mill strike, Will Geer returned to California to find employment in the movies. While in California Geer met Woody Guthrie, who was trying to continue his own career as California’s singing Okie. When Geer got called back to New York to play Jeeter Lester in the Broadway production of Tobacco Road, he urged Woody to follow him there. Since gigs were becoming harder to find, Guthrie decided to take Geer’s advice and arrived in New York City just in time to take part in the first major folk music production in American history, the “Grapes of Wrath” concert to benefit the John Steinbeck Committee for California Farm Workers, which took place in New York on March 3, 1940. The concert was in many ways the public debut of the Alan Lomax school of folk music, since virtually all of the performers—including Aunt Molly Jackton, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, as well as Lomax and his sister—owed their careers to Lomax’s dedication and vision. The concert also ensured that Woody Guthrie would be inducted into the Folksong Pantheon.

As a result of the concert and meeting Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie’s career as a folksinger suddenly took off. After languishing as the singing Okie in California, Guthrie flourished as the left-wing bard from New York, largely because of Alan Lomax’s influence. Lomax, who had contacts with the Library of Congress and the soon to be busy Office of War Information, the propaganda ministry that got resurrected from the World War I Committee of Public Information, arranged for recording sessions immediately at the Library of Congress. After that Lomax used his influence to get Guthrie a recording contract with Victor Records, which produced his album of Dust Bowl Ballads. After that recording success, Woody got his own radio program as host for Model Tobacco’s weekly program Pipe Smoking Time. The money which Guthrie earned allowed him to bring his wife and family to New York, but it did not change the bad habits he had acquired as the rambler and the gambler who was perpetually a long way from home. Eventually, Guthrie “got disgusted with the whole sissified and nervous rules of censorship on all of my songs and ballads, and drove off down the road across the southern states again.”

Life-style Baggage

Soon it became clear that the music people like Woody Guthrie was singing brought life-style baggage along with it. In fact, the music bespoke a life-style which Woody was avid to lead, but which was at the same time anathema to the moral beliefs of the average listener for whom it was intended as a tool of agit-prop evangelization. Woody’s tunes may not have been revolutionary music, but as its link to the Dust Bowl made clear, it was fast becoming the music of the uprooted. In this it was similar to the Negro music of the post-Civil War turpentine camps which became the Blues and, eventually, Jazz. Since America was, in many ways, another word for deracination, it should come as no surprise that its music should give expression to that cultural fact.

And that in turn raised the issue of lifestyle and persona once again. The Scotch Irish Ballads and dance tunes had become the music of Okie rootlessness by the 1940s, and Woody Guthrie was one of the people who accomplished this transformation. The music that Woody Guthrie sang was so at odds with the Bing Crosby crooning that had become the mass culture norm that the lifestyle issue became unavoidable. Either the culture would tame the music—and the failed attempt to do that was the main reason Woody quit his radio job—or the music would change the culture, which is precisely what happened during the ‘60s, when the children raised on that music came of age.

In February 1941, buoyed by their success at the Grapes of Wrath concert and the spate of gigs which it generated afterward in the New York City area, the Lomax singers decided to join forces and form a group that became known as the Almanac Singers. In June of 1941, Woody Guthrie, freshly returned with his family from a tour of the Northwest, joined Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and John Peter Hawes to form a group that would implement the popular front appropriation of the American folk song as a vehicle for communist propaganda. The group took its name from one of Guthrie’s lines:  “if you want to know what the weather is going to be, you have to look in your Almanac,” which Bob Dylan imitated 20 years later in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.”

As some indication of how the times had changed, Dylan’s line became the source of the name of a group of terrorists known as the Weathermen. Of the new group, Millard Lampel said,  “We think this is the first time there has ever been an organized attempt  . . . to sing the folk songs of America . We are trying to give back to the people the songs of the workers.” That meant, of course, attaching agit-prop lyrics to standard folk tunes like “Billy Boy,” “Jesse James,” and “Liza Jane.”

Given Lomax’s connections, it was only a matter of time before the Almanacs produced their first album, and in March 1941 they released Songs for John Doe, their faithful rendering of the Communist Party line in light of the non-aggression pact which the Soviet Union had signed with Hitler in August of 1939. The album was pacifist in its orientation. As a result Franklin Roosevelt and his wife were attacked as warmongering imperialists with such gusto that the album became a hit with the America Firsters, much to the Almanacs’ revolutionary chagrin. “Oh Franklin Roosevelt,” the Almanacs sang to the tune of the chorus of “Jesse James,”
told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said;

He said, “I hate war—and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe until everybody’s dead.

Then on June 22, 1941 Germany invaded Russia, and the Almanacs, ever faithful to the Party line, had to drop their peace songs and start celebrating war. As Pete Seeger would say later, two day after the invasion of Russia, “we [stopped] singing ‘Franklin D, You ain’t going to send Me across the Sea.’” Ron Radosh, a personal friend of Pete Seeger and his student on the five-string banjo, recounts, how “In true Communist fashion, Peter and his comrades had to respond immediately to the change in the party line that occurred when Hitler invaded the USSR.” Radosh claims that Songs of John Doe were recalled and that “all pressings were destroyed.” Since Stalin and Roosevelt were now allies, the Almanac Singers issued an apology, and just to show that they held no grudges, the Roosevelts would, at Alan Lomax’s urging, go on to endorse their second album. The huge sigh of relief emanating from Almanac Singers in December, when Japan attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor was almost audible in New Jersey. Now their musical limbo was at an end, and the Almanac Singers could urge all-out participation the war against Germany as fervently as they had urged peace a few weeks earlier.

The abrupt changes in political direction which the Almanac singers had to make, ludicrous as they were, disguised the group’s really revolutionary power, which was not in politics but in lifestyle. Politically, the Almanacs spent their time preaching (or singing) to the choir. But in terms of lifestyle they were to have far-reaching effects, across ethnic, political and generational lines. This was to be a fortiori the case after the war when the Almanacs reformed in the late ‘40s as the Weavers. Once the war against fascism had been won, geopolitics faded from immediate consciousness and was replaced by lifestyle issues. Kinsey’s study on male sexuality was just one example of this shift in consciousness taking place at the time. The Almanacs’ taste in clothing (which got transposed seamlessly to the Weavers) was another. True to their Marxist ideology, the Almanac Singers/Weavers adopted a clothing style that the Reusses term “proletarian romanticism.” That meant shucking the clothes they grew up with and wearing instead clothing associated with manual labor, which is to say, blue jeans and denim shirts. Clothing combined with music would become essential ingredients in the lifestyle/sexual revolution of the ‘60s, and virtually all of the changes, including those made popular by Bob Dylan, were pioneered by the Almanacs and the Weavers. The emphasis on proletarian romantic clothing was not without its ironies, as Seeger himself noted: “There I was, trying my best to shed my Harvard upbringing scorning to waste money on clothes other than blue jeans.” Leadbelly, on the other hand, the Negro ex-con from Texas, “always had a clean white shirt and starched collar, well pressed suit and shined shoes. He didn’t need to affect that he was a workingman.” Like Mick Jagger at a later date, the Almanacs/Weavers often affected a southern accent while singing.

Proletarian Chic

Proletarian chic styles of clothing carried sexual baggage with them as well. In this regard, Peter Seeger, who married a Japanese woman and stayed married to her for the next six decades and beyond, had to take a back seat as lifestyle role model to Woody Guthrie whose “uninhibited sex life” became both the norm and the undoing of the New Left which grew up listening to his records. Taken together, the music, clothes, and sexuality of the Almanacs/Weavers proved to be completely off-putting to the very audience they hoped to woo. When the “proletarian” Almanacs showed up in the early ‘40s to do a concert for a Long Island butchers union, they were driven from the stage by the well-dressed butchers who greeted their music by booing and throwing plates. The experience prompted one of the Almanacs to say that it was time to be “getting back and singing for real working class people again.”

The disparity between “bohemian” folksingers and the “bourgeois” proletariat they sought to evangelize recurred again and again. In 1936 Earl Robinson took Leadbelly to a progressive summer camp, where he proceeded to embarrass the Left-wing but sexually middle-class audience with songs about “bad women and gun-toting Negro gamblers.” Leadbelly redeemed himself by singing a song about the Scottsboro Boys the next evening saving both himself and Robinson the fate of being kicked out of the camp by outraged Jewish mothers.

Leadbelly, because he was a Shvarze, was probably too much of a sexual threat to pose lifestyle questions openly. In this regard, he had to take a back seat to Woody Guthrie, who was even more sexually liberated, but white and, therefore, more American. Gradually, the sexual lifestyle issue began to replace concern about workingmen defending their rights in left-wing circles. Irwin Silber, a crucial figure in the Jewish Communist folk scene, and a transitional figure in the generational change from Old Left to New Left, began noticing changes early on, at the time of Woody Guthrie, changes that were in many ways provoked by Woody Guthrie’s “uninhibited” poor white trash lifestyle. Two years after arriving in New York, Guthrie abandoned his first wife and children and moved in with a dancer by the name of Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, who was also married to someone else at the time. Out of that union would come Arlo Guthrie, who would go on to pen a folk hit entitled “Alice’s Restaurant” just as the ‘60s folk movement was running out of steam. “The puritanical nearsighted left,” Silber noted referring to Woody, didn’t quite know what to make of this strange bemused poet who drank and bummed and chased after women and spoke in syllables dreadful strange. They loved his songs and they sang “Union Maid” . . . but they never really accepted the man himself.. . . they’d just as soon hear Pete Seeger sing the same songs.

Irwin Silber would later write that “We believed the world was worth saving and that we could do it with songs,” something that the Reusses call “the best single statement characterizing the Lomax tradition.” They are more on target when the go on to say that “the Almanac Singers . . . provided a central focal point around which to create a new personal lifestyle. Folk songs thus were at the center of ideology for the Lomax performers, who promoted them with all the missionary zeal of a new religious sect” (my emphasis).

Once the war against fascism had been won, lifestyle considerations became the major concern of the Left in America, which at this point was showing increasing signs of disenchantment with Moscow’s leadership. On the last day of 1945, more than 30 left-wing folksingers met in Pete Seeger’s Greenwich Village apartment and created “People’s Songs,” a folkmusic clearinghouse whose purpose was “disseminating the songs of the people [which ] truly express their lives, struggles, and their highest aspirations.” That meant, of course, hijacking traditional melodies once again and yoking them with texts like the forgettable “Stalin wasn’t Stallin’ Any More.” If the rise of folk music as the cutting edge of the lifestyle revolution depended on musical sophistication or poetic skill, the movement would have never made it out of Greenwich Village, but the fact that Alan Lomax and his sister had worked for the Office of War Information insured that the movement would gain a favorable hearing in the mainstream press as OWI alumni fanned out after the war and began occupying key positions in publishing and broadcasting. The OWI, at Lomax’s urging, had also recorded over a hundred hours of programming which featured the antifascist folksinging of people like Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and other Lomax musicians. In 1946 People’s Songs issued its first bulletin, which morphed into the folk music magazine Sing Out! in the 1950s, and by October 1946, People’s Songs had 1,506 members  in 32 states.

The Communist Party in America, however, failed to see the significance of the folk song movement, and the fact that within 15 years the People’s Songs membership would create an underground network of coffee houses, which would provide the ideal medium for injecting left-wing propaganda into previously inaccessible middle America. Typical in this regard was party hack, V. J. Jerome. Jerome, according to Radosh, was “one of the Communist Party’s [most]  feared leaders.” Jerome was “ the cultural apparatchik . . .  whose control of the Hollywood Communists in the 1930s from his perch at party headquarters in New York City was legendary.” Betty Sanders felt that Jerome was  “fond of folksongs and intimately familiar with the culture and traditions of East European Jews, of which he was a product,” but when it came to American folk music, Jerome proved to be “as inflexible and rigidly dogmatic on questions of doctrine as anyone in the communist movement.” When Betty Sanders showed him the new People’s Songs folk music anthology “his only comment was to inquire why the book contained two Israeli songs but only one Soviet song.” Jerome then insisted that another forgettable Soviet song be included in the anthology, which meant that  Woody Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia” got left out.

Jerome was, in other words, typical of his generation of Eastern European Jews. He was a communist; he liked Jewish music, and that was pretty much end of the story. What he failed to see was the influence that American music would have on his children. He also failed to see that music would be the vehicle of an actual revolution in America, as opposed to the revolution the Communists fantasized but were unable to pull off. He also failed to see that Jewish music would be affected by America as well, resulting in the Rise of Jewish Jazz, which would eventual give birth to Klezmer, when the folk music movement fell apart in the late ‘70s.

In 1937, most Jews listened to Yiddish music, which, by the mid-’30s was beginning to make its way into popular culture via the Shvartze musicians in Harlem. The first crossover hit was “Bey mir bistu Sheyn,” which appeared in a Yiddish musical in 1934 and was then picked up by the Negroes of Harlem and played in their jazz clubs. G minor was in many ways the blues variation of G, and so Yiddish/Russian tunes naturally lent themselves to blues-inspired interpretations. Jewish Jazz as a genre was first known as the “oriental fox trot,” and it soon made its appearance in the repertoire of people like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. The first know recording of this type was “Yiddish Blues,” by Lieutenant Josef Frankl. In the mid-’30s, Eddie Cantor had a hit called “Lena from Palestine,” which was based on a popular Romanian bulgar known as “Nokh a Bisl” (A Little Bit More). As the musicians from Harlem noticed, there was a connection between the Yiddish penchant for tunes in G and F minor and the blues. The clarinet was also in this regard a natural crossover instrument. In 1939 Artie Shaw released a tune called “The Chant,” which was based on “the close and presumably incidental relationship” between the “St James Infirmary Blues” and “Khosn Kale, Mazeltov” (Congratulations Bride and Groom).”

The Jews who came of age in the period immediately following World War II were in an acute state of cultural conflict, a conflict that would often manifest itself at Jewish weddings when the bride and her parents and their parents would battle over whether the band should play a freylekh or pop standards like “Where or When.” In order to be commercially viable the Jewish musicians had to do both, and as a result the musical melting pot continued. In 1947 Mickey Katz left Spike Jones’s novelty orchestra and created his own band, Mickey Katz and the Kosher Jammers. Their first album had a picture of Mickey in a baby carriage, smoking a cigar and presumably still in pain from his own bris. The music for that album was straight, but having cut his teeth with Spike Jones, it wasn’t long before he got into Jewish parodies, which pointed up the awkward fit between Jewish content and American forms. Mickey had touched a nerve. The Jews who found assimilation a necessity, often found it inescapably comical as well. Hence the success of his records. “I had given the Jewish record-buying public something they evidently wanted and up to now hadn’t had,” Katz said later. What followed was a series of revues and albums like “The Borscht Capades” he produced with this son Joel Grey and a stint as a “kosher disc jockey” in Southern California from 1951 to 1956. Many Jews found the idea of setting Yiddish lyrics to hit parade tunes offensive, but Katz’s success indicates that many more Jews found it hilarious. As I have indicated elsewhere, the humor was also subversive, and few American institutions would survive the subversion of Jewish humor in the coming decades.

Elliott Charles Adnopoz from Brooklyn
aka Ramblin' Jack Elliott
The cowboy was one of the most significant cultural casualties in this campaign. Mel Brooks presided over his funeral when he produced his film Blazing Saddles in the mid-70s. On the other hand, the singing cowboy was also one of the first role models the New York Jews appropriated as part of their desire to become American. The best example of this was a Jewish cowboy from Brooklyn by the name of Elliott Charles Adnopoz. Born in 1931, at the crucial midpoint between Woody Guthrie and rest of Lomax singers and their children, the baby boomers, Adnopoz ran away as a teenager and joined the Colonel Jim Eskew traveling rodeo, which had just performed in Madison Square Garden.  Adnopoz was embarrassed about being from New York and embarrassed about have a Jewish name like Adnopoz, so he told the folks at the rodeo to call him Buck. After meeting Woody Guthrie in New York, Adnopoz changed his name to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and became the crucial role model for a whole generation of singing Jewish cowboys, including most notably, Bob Dylan. Elliott eventually moved in with Guthrie and over the course of a few intense months adopted not only his guitar and singing style, but virtually every other aspect of his life as well, including his penchant for rambling. 

As the documentary on his life which his daughter directed makes clear, the prime attraction which the singing cowboy persona had for people like Elliott (and his mentor Woody Guthrie) was the way it absolved those who adopted it from family responsibility. The rambler was essentially a long-term protester against monogamy. The cowboy had been subverted by its Jewish imitators into, not an awkwardly chivalrous John Wayne or a defender of the rights of the working man, but rather a proponent of sexual liberation, American-style.  Ramblin’ sexuality was to become the prime attraction of Lifestyle Leftism, as it matured during the decade of the ‘50s. During the warm months of 1953 and 1954, Elliott and Guthrie would serenade teenagers in Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Elliott would sport his by then trademark cowboy hat, and Guthrie would look like someone who had just escaped from a flophouse on Skid Row.

Guthrie at this point was having increasing difficulty controlling himself, physically that is. He was suffering through the early stages of Huntington’s chorea, the nerve disorder which had killed his mother and would eventually kill him. His drinking didn’t help matters any. Nor did his “ramblin” womanizing. It was around this time that Guthrie abandoned his second wife and took up with Anneke Van Kirk Marshall, a 20-year-old he had met near Geer’s farm in California. Ramblin’ Jack would emulate his mentor in this regard as well, going through four wives by the time his daughter caught up with him to make her documentary.

In 1955 Ramblin’ Jack left for England, which was going through the Skiffle craze at the time. Jack knew how to sing “Rock Island Line” better than Lonnie Donegan, and as a result he became a sensation overnight. Wizz Jones remembers the impression he made, strutting around Piccadilly Circus in his cowboy outfit. Jones was also astute enough to pick up the meaning of the cowboy persona, especially after Dr. and Mrs. Adnopoz showed up in London and blew Ramblin’ Jack’s cover. “He was larger than life. With his cowboy boots and hat, he would stop traffic. But one day we realized that he really wasn’t what he claimed to be. He was Elliott Adnopoz. And one day his mother and father came to the gig. that’s amazing.” Instead of being disillusioned, Wizz Jones was filled with admiration for Adnopoz posturing as a cowboy, because it proved to a generation of Englishmen which would include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Donovan, John Lennon, and Rod Stewart that  “You can choose to be whatever you want to be. You can turn your back on your roots. You don’t have to be what your parents wanted you to be.”
Camp Woodland
The generation of children which was born to the Communist Jews of New York during the 1930s an ‘40s has come to be known as the “red diaper babies.” Their parents didn’t want them to grow up to be cowboys. They wanted them to grow up to be decent upstanding Jewish Communists like the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and to insure that this would happen, the Communists and their fellow travelers created a group of summer camps in the Catskills where they would be sheltered from the Red-baiting of the Irish Catholics who taught them in New York’s public school system. The commie summer camps which the Jews established for their children in the Catskills were the laboratory in which the new personal lifestyle for the next generation of American left-wing Jews was created. In the late 1940s, Ron Radosh attended Camp Woodland for Children, something he describes as “one of the myriad alternative institutions founded by the Communist Party in its effort to construct an alternative to America.” Woodland was technically independent “although,” Radosh notes, “it drew its staff from the Communist world.” 

The most radical of all of the Catskill red-diaper baby camps was Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, whose Indian sounding name derived from the first syllables of the three words, Workers’ Children’s Camp. Like Camp Woodland, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca was seriously countercultural, which meant that comic books were not allowed. In fact the campers actually recited a pledge “to combat the influence of jokes, comic books, newspapers, radio programs that make fun of any people.” As the anti-comic book pledge makes clear, the Jewish communists of the 1940s had more in common with the Legion of Decency than they did with, say, the Fugs, a Reichian sexpol rock band formed by people like Tuli Kupferberg, in the ‘60s, which is to say, by their own children. Even though it was affiliated with the Communist Party’s fraternal organization for Jewish Communists, the International Workers

Order or IWO, Camp Kinderland was more Jewish in its orientation, which meant it was there to hand on “to the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants the legacy of the secular Jewish radical culture developed in the Old Country.” Camp Kinderland featured an appearance by the widow of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, “whose portraits of shtetl life in Poland became the basis for the musical hit Fiddler on the Roof,” as well as “modern dance classes led by Martha Graham protégé Edith Segal, a hard-core Communist who tried to blend modern dance with Marxism” along with appearances by Zero Mostel and film director Jules Dassin. Camp Woodland, Radosh tells us, “did not celebrate Soviet holidays.” But in many ways, the distinctions were meaningless. Soviet holidays were Jewish holidays for the Jewish communists who lived in this milieu. Radosh, in this regard, recounts a joke which made the rounds in Communist circles when he was young: “What Jewish holidays do you celebrate?” The answer was:  “Paul Robeson’s birthday and May Day.”

When Radosh finally did join the Communist Party, via the Labor Youth League, “the reasons had little to do with politics and a great deal to do with the need to find an identity.” He could have just as easily said that Communism was part of his ethnic identity because he was a New York Jew. Communism was a way of being a Jew.  The LYL offered “the camaraderie of a tight-kit group of ready-made friends along with a sense of moral superiority” largely because it was ethnically homogeneous, something he takes up at another point in the same narrative, when he tells us that “most of the members of . . .  the Upper West Side LYL, were all Jewish.” One of the most salient aspects of what claimed to be a Communist organization was “a purely cultural Yiddishkeit that emphasized Yiddish literature and theater, the folk writing of Sholom Aleichem, the parables of freedom that abounded throughout Jewish culture, and most important a complete rejection of anything to do with religion.”

More important than Jewish religion, however, were Jewish morals, and these were in a state of flux during Radosh’s teenage years. The LYL, according to Radosh, “offered the possibility of what every teenage boy seeks: a girlfriend. God bless the Communist movement for giving me my very first sexual experiences form among a group of ‘liberated’ girls whom I found time to romance.”  Radosh makes light of his generation’s sexual experiences, but they would have far-reaching consequences for the Left. The subverters were being unwittingly subverted by their own un-checked penchant for subversion. It was at the Upper West Side Chapter of the LYL, that Radosh first met David Horowitz, who would become his lifelong friend, and eventually introduce him to the anti-Communist form of Jewish subversion known as neoconservatism.

Freed from the constraints imposed on them by the then largely anti-Communist public schools, counselors at Camp Woodland could promote  “progressive education,” which, again according to Radosh, “meant the creation of a new personality to fit the new kind of culture which we saw developing in America.” At Camp Woodland the Jews learned that they were in America but not of it. The pedagogical progressivism of Camp Woodland in the late ‘40s meant that the counselors were “to liberate children not from their parents but from America,” because if the camp had liberated the campers from their parents, they would have no longer been communists. The Jews sent their children to Camp Woodland to internalize what the camp director referred to as the “new emerging culture of democracy,” which meant “the ethos of the Popular Front, the Communist Party’s attempt to domesticate itself after the disastrous , revolutionary Third Period, when it had demanded a break with liberals and social democrats.” Camp Woodland was going to create “the new socialist man,” the “new democratic personality,” which would be “molded to fit the socialist paradise to come.”

Since its educational philosophy was based on the Popular Front, it should come as no surprise that folk music played a major role in the activities at Camp Woodland. It was at Camp Woodland that Radosh met Pete Seeger, who would have a lasting effect on his life, determining first of all what instrument he played—the five-string banjo— and the politics that went along with it. According to Radosh,  The highlight of many Sunday meetings was to have Seeger gather before the camp at the outdoor amphitheater, where he first sang what much later would become hits for the Weavers, including his version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” The camaraderie one felt in sitting with friends and singing the beautiful words and melodies produced a belief that all would be good in the world and that the lovely music we were creating would help us build that better world.

Largely because of the Catskill commie summer camps, folk music would become the revolutionary lingua franca for a whole generation of Jewish revolutionaries: I am convinced that much of the radicalism that Woodlanders would carry with them in later years came from the illusions they developed as a result of the weekly sing-alongs with Seeger. Songs are weapons, he often said. And during the years of the commercial top 40 “Hit Parade,” before rock and roll, songs were helping us to build an alternative culture mirroring the alternative politics that Seeger was trying to create during the 1948 presidential campaign, when he accompanied Henry A. Wallace throughout the country and sang wherever Wallace appeared for his new Progressive Party.

New Lost City Ramblers
Seeger, in addition, educated a new generation of predominantly Jewish five-string banjo pickers, people like Eric Weissberg, whose “Dueling Banjos” became a hit after it appeared in the movie Deliverance, and John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers. When, in November 1948, Pete Seeger resurrected the Almanac Singers under a different name, the Lifestyle-Left version of the Popular Front became known as the Weavers, a name Seeger derived from the eponymous Gerhart Hauptmann play about the English peasant revolt of 1381. The new group included Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman and it came into existence exactly one week after the conclusion of Henry Wallace’s failed presidential campaign. The Weavers personnel, if not under that name, provided the musical accompaniment to Wallace’s campaign tour and speeches. One year later, the Weavers secured a two-week gig at Max Gordon’s nightclub, the Village Vanguard. Their run there was so successful that it was extended indefinitely. One year later in the spring of 1950, the Weavers signed a recording contract with Decca records, and shortly after that they had a string of Top 40 hits beginning with the Leadbelly tune, “Goodnight, Irene.” The Weavers were well on their way to having their cake and eating it too. They were having commercial success while at the same time promoting revolution, something that would become commonplace in the music industry two decades later, but at the height of their careers they were suddenly cut down by the anti-Communist crusade and the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, who began his attacks in February of 1950. The war in Korea broke out in June 1950, and Alan Lomax, who didn’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind was blowing, left America for England in the fall of the same year, where he remained beyond the reach of subpoena for the next eight years.

In May of 1950, Sing Out! under the direction of Communist Party member Irwin Silber, published what was arguably the Left’s greatest hit, “If I had a Hammer,” by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. It would become the anthem of the ‘60s folk revival when Peter, Paul and Mary did a Top 40 version of the tune in 1963. The left-wing Lomax singers whose music was made popular by the Weavers were at the top of their game, but gradually they began to get called one by one to testify before the various anti-Communist committees then holding hearings in Washington. Burl Ives agreed to testify before the Senate McCarran Committee hearings in1952 as a friendly witness to clear his name, and as proof of his friendliness, he named the names of a number of fellow-travelers and party members, including Richard Dyer-Bennett. Ives’ testimony prompting Sing Out! to opine that “We’ve never seen anyone sing while crawling on his belly before. But maybe Burl Ives will be able to figure it out . . . . Nothing’s too hard for a stoolpigeon—except keeping his integrity.” It was at this moment in time that Tex Ritter stopped calling himself a folksinger because “for a few years . . . it was very difficult to tell where folk music ended and Communism began.” Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, in reminiscing about playing with Woody Guthrie in Washington Square, said that Guthrie would charge a nickel a song for his own material. If anyone requested a Burl Ives song, however, the price jumped to 15 cents.

 “Negro Ballads”

Julius and Ethel
Just about one year after Ives’ testimony, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage. Ron Radosh remembers standing at Union Square on June 19, 1953, listening to “Negro ballads sung by Communist Party folk singers” as tears streamed down his face. Radosh considered the Rosenbergs Jewish martyrs to fascist America, then in the throes of a witchhunt so ably described by another Jew, Arthur Miller, in his play The Crucible. Miller would go on to marry (briefly albeit) Marilyn Monroe, the world’s most famous shiksa, after he had dumped his social worker wife. Both art and life conspired in the Rosenberg case to convince Jews like Radosh that they were at the center of an apocalyptic drama, in which good Jews, which is to say Communist Jews, were getting prepared for yet another holocaust. Radosh had a personal stake in the case because two of his fellow campers at Camp Woodland were Michael and Robert Meerpol, the Rosenbergs soon-to-be adopted children. As Communist Party historian Herbert Aptheker would say, anti-Semitism “played and plays a part” in the Rosenberg case.  It was up to young Jewish Communists like Radosh, to convince New York’s Jewish population . . .that America was now “fascist” and was trying to execute two Jews for their “progressive” political beliefs. And for second and third-generation Jews like my friends and myself, the Rosenbergs’ fate could just as well been that of our own parents. My mother and father, after all, were also progressive activists steeped in the secular Yiddishkayt culture, people who cared for the Russians, who favored civil rights for Negroes, and who had fought  in or supported the valiant fight of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against fascism in Spain.

When the sun set on Union Square on that June evening, Radosh knew that, in keeping with Jewish ritual, the Rosenbergs had been executed. The weeping then turned into “a wail of heavy crying and moaning, and the singers started chanting the old hymn of slavery in Egypt land, ‘Let my People Go.’” When the New York mounted police appeared, Radosh saw them as “a reprise of the Russian Cossacks attacking the Jewish poor of the shtetl.” When Radosh attended the funeral of the spies who had given atomic bomb secrets to Stalin, the “moment would remain etched in my memory forever to be the symbol of what awaited good, progressive Jews who dared to stand up for their beliefs.”

Thirty years later, after learning that the Rosenbergs were indeed spies, as the right-wingers had claimed, he wrote an article in collaboration with an old friend , Sol Stern (“a colleague from my University of Iowa graduate school days and a former Ramparts editor and New Left Activist. Stern was a smart writer and shrewd political observer, and we shared a common background and perspective. We were both left-wing Jews from New York, for whom the Rosenberg case had been a central concern”) to that effect for the New York Times, only to learn that it had been spiked by Abe Rosenthal because he didn’t want to offend a Jewish judge who was deliberating in a case affecting the Times. The Rosenberg myth— David Rieff would claim that  “the Rosenbergs are the American Left’s only true martyrs”—was evidently still important to “our crowd.”

Radosh was a high school student at the Elizabeth Irwin School in Greenwich Village when the Rosenbergs were executed for treason. “Was there anyone of note,” Radosh asks only half rhetorically, “who was part of the Old Left or the New Left who did not attend Elizabeth Irwin?” The  only people who didn’t fit in at EI were the children of Trotskyites and Reichians.  EI was known as  “the little Red Schoolhouse for little Reds,” and the faculty were every bit as Left-wing as the students, arranging a class trip to the coal mines of Reading, Pennsylvania, so that the budding young communists could experience the proletariat and imbibe its wisdom first hand. The ethnic reality, however, was dramatically different than the Marxist fantasy. As part of their introduction to the working class, the EI students were taken to a working-class Catholic Church, where the local priest insisted on talking about “the Miracle of the Lady of Fatima, who appeared to local Polish [sic] peasants to warn them about the coming threat of communism.” So much
for  “the merits of working-class consciousness.”

Elisabeth Irwin counted among its graduates an equal number of famous folkies and famous Reds. Among the latter there were people like Victor Navasky, editor and publisher of The Nation, and Angela Davis. Among the former, Eric Weissberg, the banjo picker, Joady and Nora Guthrie, and, most famous of all, Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, who never graduated from the school. Radosh traveled to Washington with Classmate Travers as part of the Youth Committee for the Rosenbergs to picket the White House. Radosh, however, remembers Travers most for her precocious devotion to sexual liberation, which continually got her in trouble at the Elisabeth Irwin School, leading in fact to her expulsion.

Mary Travers caused a scandal at the school by posing in a sex photo tabloid, which she boldly passed around to her classmates. Travers came from a radical family which lived across the street from EI, which enabled her to harangue and insult her former classmates on their way to school even after her expulsion.

Being Jewish, being a communist and being a folksinger were individual strands which combined to form one seamless cultural garment for Radosh and his peers while growing up in New York in the ‘50s. During his high school years, Radosh used to hang out at Washington Square in the village on Sundays where he met “the luminaries of the early folk scene,” including Erik Darling, Happy and Artie Traum, Roy Berkeley and others. Radosh was there on the Sunday when  Ramblin Jack Elliott showed up with Woody Guthrie, In fact, he’s visible in one of the famous pictures of those two seminal folk musicians. Mingling with the folk legends were Radosh’s radical peers—Carl Granich, the son of Mike Gold,  and Bob Starobin, son of Joe Starobin, who was the foreign affairs editor of the Daily Worker. Between the Sunday afternoon sessions in Washington Square and the parties at the homes of people he knew in the Village and its environs, Radosh got to know “the first generation of city-bred country pickers and folk singers whose names would later become household words.”

It was Pete Seeger, however, who continued to exert the most influence on him. It was Pete Seeger who taught Radosh how to play the five-string Banjo in the classes he taught after school in the East Village, across the street from the Downtown  Community School. It was Seeger who entertained Radosh and his peers at Camp Woodland, and it was Seeger’s legendary 1948 folkways album which inspired them as they listened to it at home, picking up his take on America’s traditional melodies.  Pete Seeger is the reason that so many Jews played the five-string banjo, an instrument that was virtually unknown before Seeger picked it up and started playing it. Seeger was the Elvis Presley of the Jewish Left, and Radosh knew him intimately enough to call him his hero. When Seeger needed a place to spend the night, he was always welcome at the Radosh family apartment. He would reciprocate by inviting Ron to spend weekends with him at his Beacon, New York refuge. Mike Gold would often spend eekends at Seeger’s mountaintop retreat, and while there he was struck by how the New York teenagers “worshipped” Seeger, whom Gold called
“the Karl Marx of the teenagers.”

Pete Seeger
Seeger was unsurprisingly also extremely popular at the Elisabeth Irwin High School. Like the Blues Brothers, who played both kinds of music, “Country and Western,” the music department at EI ran the whole gamut—the whole socialist gamut, that is—from Third Period chorales to Popular Front folk tunes. The school’s music director was Bob DeCormier, who went on to become director of the New York Choral Society, the Harry Belafonte Singers, and, under the name of Robert Corman, musical arranger for Peter, Paul and Mary. During Radosh’s years, Cormier also directed the Jewish Young Folk-Singers, which was affiliated with the International Workers Order, which in turn was a creation of the Communist Party. Radosh was a member of the JYF and has fond memories of singing Shostakovich’s Stalinist anthem, “Song of the Forests,” as well as Earl Robinson’s cantatas “Lonesome Train” and “Ballad for Americans,” which concluded with a recitation of Langston Hughes’s paean to Soviet America, “Let America Be America Again.”

In 1954, an Israeli actor by the name of Theodor Bikel arrived in New York to perform in a Broadway play called Tonight in Samarkand. Within days of his arrival, Bikel, whom Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls “a gifted impersonator,” introduced  himself to the now blacklisted Pete Seeger, and before anyone knew it, Israeli folk songs had become part of the repertoire of the Left. Nine years later, Bikel was at Newport 1963 singing “We Shall Overcome.” Bikel added a new note, Zionism, to the American folk repertoire. It was in many ways an act of supererogation, because by 1954, when Bikel arrived on the scene folk music was a Jewish phenomenon. “Jewish repertoire may not have been central to the folk song revival,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, writes, but Jews certainly were. They owned and managed clubs and record companies. They were composers, performers, agents, and managers. They were writers and critics. Moses Asch, son of Sholem Asch, established Folkways. Jac Holzman and Leonard Ripley ran Elektra. Kenneth S. Goldstein issued innumerable recordings of songs from the field. Israel Young ran the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street. Aliza Greenblatt, the mother of Woody Guthrie’s former wife Marjorie, was a published Yiddish poet; she wrote “Der fisher,” which has become a favorite in the Yiddish song repertoire. Jean Richie’s husband, George Pickow, a Jew from New York, made her an improved mountain dulcimer. The list goes on.

“Burrowing from Within”

Since the Jews who controlled the folk music scene were inexorably left-wing in their politics, it was a safe bet that the Weavers would not remain blacklisted for long. In December 1955, a little over three years after Burl Ives had named names before the McCarran Committee, the Weavers celebrated their return to respectability at a fabulously successful concert at Carnegie Hall. Ron Radosh, however, was not on hand to rejoice with his mentor Pete Seeger. In September of 1955, Ron, unlike most of his Jewish Communist Comrades from the LYL, who has “more or less automatically” enrolled in the City College of New York, hang out of one-time Trotskyite and soon to be neoconservative Irving Kristol, left New York for Madison, Wisconsin, where he enrolled in the history program.  At least that is what he told the university, his real purpose was not learning but subversion. The Communist Youth League he had joined in New York, gave him “a ready-made community” of like-minded communist Jews when he arrived in Madison, and it was as a part of that “community” that Radosh began “burrowing from within.” In his memoir Commies, Radosh would describe his real purpose in going to Madison as the “classically Leninist” objective: to gain influence in, and if possible take over, other existing student groups. One of our ‘secret” members was a paunchy New Yorker named Jeff Kapow, who admitted in Paul Buhle’s book:  “There was no other choice but to work within the framework of other organizations whose aims were in some way compatible with our own.
The words used to describe this activity—”infiltration” and “burrowing from within”—have an essentially negative connotation and are, as such, unjust. For we were not so much using those organizations for our own ends as we were helping them fulfill their stated aims.”

Radosh and his communist friends then proceeded to infiltrate “the NAACP, the Young Democrats, the Students for Democratic Action (youth arm of the fiercely anti-Communist ADA), the Film Society, the Student council, the Student League for Industrial Democracy (a social-democratic group)” and tuned them into organizations who real purpose, no matter what their stated purpose, was “to overthrow our capitalist democracy and replace it with a socialist revolution modeled on the USSR.” Radosh and his friend were evidently successful in subverting these organizations, assuring us that “The old Commie tactic of ‘burrowing from within’ really did work.

Once again Radosh, even though he was hundreds of miles from home, and far away from the left-wing Jewish world of Lower Manhattan, found himself comfortably ensconced in a community that was seamlessly Jewish in its ethnicity, Communist in its politics, and musically involved in folk music. Radosh met his first girlfriend at the campus branch of Hillel. She was a Zionist and took part in Israeli folk dancing and criticized Radosh’s politics as “adolescent rebellion against parental authorities,” even though Radosh’s parents were every bit as radical as he was. Soon Marshall Brickman and Eric Weissberg, folkies Radosh had known from his Washington Square days, arrived in Madison and the Jewish, Communist folk scene began to replicate itself in the Joe McCarthy’s home state at one of the many coffee houses that would spread “Greenwich Village” across the country. Although Marshall Brickman “came from a bona fide Red-diaper-baby family,” both he and Eric Weissberg, Radosh’s bunkmate at Camp Woodland, were relatively a-political, spending most of the time at the apartment they shared with Radosh, listening to Earl Scruggs’ records, trying to imitate his banjo licks. Radosh looked down on Brickman and Weissberg because of their relative indifference to politics, and they in turn looked down on Radosh because of his lack of skill on the banjo. All of them, however, performed together on Theodore Bikel’s radio program, broadcast live from the Gate of Horn in Chicago. The Gate of Horn was part of what Spitz would call: a network of tiny clubs [which] stretched form coast to coast, establishing a kind of alternative entertainment circuit. Folksingers with talent could develop quite a reputation as they worked their way across the country, playing popular clubs. Coincidentally, a handful of coffeehouses emerged as the “important rooms” one had to play on the way up. There was Folk City in New York, the Gate of Horn in Chicago, an in San Francisco, the hungry I and Ash Grove became essential links to the big time. Each major city had a coffeehouse or two where enthusiasts came to see folksingers on the brink of success.

At this point, it’s worth asking whether subversion, “burrowing from within” was essentially Communist or Jewish. The answer, of course, is that it is impossible to distinguish the two qualities. Subversion is something that Jews did because they were Communists, but it is also something that communists did because they were Jews. Just as Radosh and his LYL buddies subverted the campus branch of the ADA, so Weissberg and Brickman subverted Earl Scruggs in their way, first by slavishly imitating his technique and then appropriating his music just as Pete Seeger had subverted other American music during the ‘30s. Earl Scruggs was now part of the Jewish revolutionary coffee house folk-music scene, whether he wanted to be or not, and that music would be transformed into the revolutionary Dionysian anthems of the ‘60s willy nilly. 

During his summers, Radosh returned to New York, where he worked as a camp counselor at another camp for Jewish communists, this time for grown-ups. Radosh could travel from one state to another, but he never left the world he was born into. He was hired as the folk music leader at Wingdale on the Lake, which in an earlier day had been known as Camp Unity, “an adult resort for party members.” Since Radosh’s duties as resident folksinger “involved little more than leading songs at the campfire once a week and being MC at the Saturday night shows,” he had plenty of time to socialize. As a result, he took a liking to a high school student four year his junior by the name of Alice Schweig. Schweig was the daughter of a wealthy dentist from the predominantly WASP Westchester suburb of Pelham, “the only area” in New York,  Radosh tells us, “that would vote for Barry Goldwater” in the 1964 presidential election.  As a result, “Alice had felt something of an alien.” As a result, it was easy to get Alice to adopt his political views. Since the couple intended to get married, Radosh was initially worried about how her parents might react to the prospect of her daughter marrying a communist. Radosh needn’t have worried. While rummaging around in their attic, he discovered that his in-laws-to be had been communists in their youth as well. “Although no longer open about it,” Alice’s parents  had been in “the communist orbit,” and as a result “they would not look askance at a partner for Alice who was committed to the dreams and hopes of their own left-wing youth.”

It turns out that Radosh’s in-laws had reason to worry, but not about Communism, because Communism itself was being subverted from within by something more powerful than politics. The Left was in the process of turning away from the concerns of the working class and becoming involved in the sexual revolution instead. The Jews, as in other instances, took a leading role in this instance of subversion, unaware that in succumbing to the siren song of Dionysos, they would destroy their own little world as well. Wingdale on the Lake, Radosh tells us, had a well-earned reputation as a den of free love, a place where uptight apparatchiks abandoned all pretenses and let their libidos loose. In particular, the adult female campers seemed to indulge in behavior that was never openly acknowledged or condoned, but appeared to be the favored sexual activity of the camp: sex with black male staff and campers, which could not be condemned because of the party’s ongoing campaign against “white chauvinism.” It was also the first I had ever heard of group sex and wife-swapping, with the highly prized black lifeguard and his white roommate regularly switching partners as part of their camp routine.

Alice and Ron were married in the summer of 1959. Before heading off to one more Left-wing Jewish folk music enclave, this time at the University of Iowa, they spent what amounted to an extended honeymoon at Wingdale on the Lake; it was not a good omen.

Once they arrived in Iowa, the Radoshes found another ready-made community waiting for them, namely, “the bohemian and political fringe” which could be found at “the university’s first off-campus, Greenwich Village-style coffee shop,” where Radosh met the poet Bob Mezey, who “was also a master guitar picker and folk singer” and Sol Stern, who was later to edit the ‘60s icon, Ramparts Magazine. Stern, Radosh tells us, “was another New York Jew who had attended the City College of New York and had been active in its left-wing milieu.” By now it was becoming obvious that the Jewish left-wing milieu had outposts in just about every university town in the country, a network which allowed them to promote folk-music, proletarian-chic clothing, sexual liberation, and radical politics ad libidem. That network of coffeehouses became the ministry of culture for the lifestyle Leftism which Pete Seeger and People’s Songs had popularized in the period immediately following World War II. Radosh could differ with Stern, who “ridiculed my orthodoxy,” but it was just as clear that they shared the same “basic socialist assumptions.”

Even that however, misstates the case. They shared cultural and ethnic assumptions which would make the revolution of the ‘60s as inevitable as it made the politics of their fathers irrelevant. Radosh and Stern were revolutionary Jews, and they now had a nationwide network of folkmusic coffee houses from which they could promote their revolution; the other details were essentially irrelevant. More importantly, the music which got featured at those coffeehouses would soon be promoted by the mainstream media, magnifying the revolutionary effect enormously, bringing revolution to the children of the goyim, who thought they were listening all the while to music which was an authentic alternative to Nelson Riddle arrangements of Frank Sinatra. 

The situation in Philadelphia was no different than that in Madison or Ames. The Philadelphia folksong society was formed in 1957 by a group of people who mirrored pretty much the Philadelphia ADA, founded 10 years earlier, which is to say Left-wing Jews and WASPs uniting to keep the city from falling into the hands of Catholic ethnics. Because they ran the clubs where folk music got performed—places like the Gilded Cage, run by Ed and Esther Halpern, and The Second Fret, run by Manny “Money” Rubin, and the premier radio show in town, hosted by Gene Shay, whose real name was Ivan Shaner, the Jews quickly took over the movement and redefined it to suit their tastes, which is to say, as a vehicle for cultural revolution.

Shaner had been born into a Russian Jewish family in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia, where his father owned women’s lingerie store. Shaner was orginally drawn to Jazz in the years following World War II, but then he met Ken Goldstein, who became professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. Having the most impressive folk record collection in town, Goldstein exerted an enormous influence over folk music. Goldstein was instrumental in creating the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1962. He also got people recording contracts, and from his position at the University of Pennsylvania he had a major say over how things ethnic got defined in Philadelphia. “Ken,” according to one folk devotee, “put Philadelphia on the map as a folk city.” Goldstein determined that “one doesn’t find tradtional musicians in Philadelphia,” and as a result began importing hot acts from the “network” of clubs across the country but largely from nearby  New York. One of the ironies here is that Philadelphia, because of its traditionalism, was a bastion of traditional Jewish music. Klezmer didn’t mutate in Philadelphia as it had in New York, but Klezmer didn’t count in the late ‘50s as “traditional,” which had become a synonym for revolutionary.

Meeting Ken Goldstein was a life-changing experience for Ivan Shaner, who switched from promoting Jazz to folk. He changed his name as well. “In those days,” Shaner explained 35 years after the fact,  “ethnic names had to be changed.” Since Shaner “soon found myself getting into Anglo-American folk music, Scottish ballads, etc.” he decided to change his name to the Scotch-Irish sounding Shay, which also had a cryptic reference to the first syllable of Shaner.” I. . ..  found I liked traditions,” explained Mr. Shay, but not specifying which traditons he liked.

Through Goldstein, Shaner met Tossi Aaron and ended up managing her career, after Ken Goldstein landed her a recording contract with Prestige records. Her albums Jewish Folk Songs for the Second Generation and Tossi Sings American Folk Songs and Ballads, evince, we are told, “an original Philadelphia folk sound.” It was Ivan Shaner who brought Bob Dylan to Philadelphia for his first performance there. While in town, Dylan and his famous girlfriend stayed at Tossi Aaron’s house in Cheltenham.

In 1961 Ramblin’ Jack Elliott returned to America after a six-year sojourn in England and Europe to find that the folk music movement which he had helped get started in the early ‘50s was now a certifiable cultural craze that was, to revert to song lyrics, “sweeping the nation.” Elliott’s timing was exquisite. A huge new generation of young people born after the war and bred in prosperity was looking for a leader, on whom they could shower money an adulation, and Elliott, 15 years their senior, looked like the logical candidate.  “It was like the Messiah coming down from heaven,” is how Izzy Young, the broker of folk music and messianic politics, described Elliott’s return to Greenwich Village in 1961

When Ramblin’ Jack traveled to New Jersey to visit his old friend Woody in the hospital, he found that there was considerable competition for just who was going to receive Woody’s mantle as the uncontested leader of the folk music movement. While attending the gathering which the Gleasons arranged every Sunday so that Woody could be serenaded by his growing army of fans, Elliott met a teenager from Minnesota by the name of Bob Dylan. Dylan had arrived in New York in January1961 and had quickly insinuated himself into the folk music scene by imitating Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk and anyone else who seemed to embody the ethos of the new urban folksinger. That meant, for the most part, imitating other imitators, which meant imitating, first and foremost, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Dylan lost no time ingratiating himself with his newly returned idol. He went up to Elliott and explained that he had all of Jack’s records. He then began to hang around with Elliott as obsequiously as Elliott ten years before had hung around with Guthrie. Dylan couldn’t move in with Elliott’s family because Elliott didn’t have a family. So he moved in next door to him at the Earle Hotel. When Dylan played his first gig at Gerde’s Folk City, he was billed as  “The Son of Jack Elliott.” It wasn’t particularly flattering to Dylan at the time, or to Elliott for that matter either. When Dylan’s career took off and Elliott’s stalled, Elliott bore his young imitator no ill will because he was simply following in Elliott’s footsteps. Sounding like Woody Guthrie had become a Jewish tradition by 1962.

What distinguished the two men was not so much their musical styles as their attitude toward their careers. Elliott seems to have taken to heart the essential message of deracinated folk music—”I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler, I’m a long way from home”—by living that life himself. Elliott had rambled all over Europe and had lost his first wife as a lifestyle casualty when she decided to put down roots in a Kibbutz in Israel. Ramblin Jack just kept on ramblin, which meant that he didn’t stay put even when he got back to Greenwich Village, which was not a smart career move at the time. He did stay long enough to be greeted like a god by his fans at a series of sold out concerts. He was also anointed by the secular clerisy. He was praised by Newsweek magazine as “authentic.”  He was also anointed by the high priest of the folk movement, Robert Shelton, who claimed that the son of the Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, had “a remarkable ear for the speech and sounds of the American plains,” and that he had “thoroughly mastered the idiom of genuine American folk music.” Ramblin’ Jack was on his way, having been called “authentic” and “genuine” by two of the culture’s major myth makers.  “Mr. Elliott,” Shelton concluded, “doesn’t know where the road of the future will take him. Some observers think that with stern direction he could channel his drifting and parlay his colorful demeanor and rich musical talents into a stage personality of great popular appeal.”

Public Consumption

“Stern direction,” to appropriate other lyrics, was the last thing on Ramblin’ Jack’s mind. Unlike Ramblin’ Jack, Bob Dylan was smart enough not to believe his own lyrics or to take the persona he was cultivating for public consumption too seriously as a norm for his own life. Dylan’s obsession with persona and image made him inscrutable, which further enhanced his image.  “I never knew when he was playing a role or being himself,” said fellow folk singer Mark Spoelstra. As a result of his own lack of roots, Dylan was the ideal candidate for reading the lifestyle needs of his audience, and tailoring his music to those needs. The folk music of the popular front, as should have been plain to just about everyone at the time, no longer fit the lifestyle situation of the huge cohort of babyboomers who were just moving into the marketplace, at least as consumers, at the time. When Henry Ford died in 1947, his grandson broke with the family tradition of hiring goons to beat up union organizers. With the autoworkers as their model, the nation entered a period of cooperation between labor and management which brought unparalleled prosperity to the country. The workers’ children who had been raised during that era, were, as a result, going to have a hard time relating to songs like the “Ballad Of Joe Hill” and “Solidarity Forever.”  They needed new music or new lyrics at least to address the big issues of the day, and as Ron Radosh indicated the avant garde of the cultural proletariat had decided to get involved in the dangers waters of sexual liberation.

In September 1961, Rod Radosh and his wife returned to Madison, Wisconsin, where he hoped to earn a Ph.D. in history under the direction of William Appleton Williams, a man he describes as “an authentic American radical,” which is to say, not Jewish. Not long after the Radoshes settled into their one-room apartment in Madison, a “very thin . . young kid . . with traces of baby fat on him” showed up at their door looking for a place to stay. The young kid was none other than Bob Dylan, who had gotten Radosh’s name and address from Carl Granich, son of Mike Gold, who was “a friend and awesome guitar picker from the young Communist circle in New York City.” Both Bob Dylan and Rod Radosh were part of the same national network of communist, Jewish, folksinging, coffee house, Greenwich Village, ramblin, gamblin, long way from home cultural and political revolutionaries who were just coming of age and wondering how to make their mark on the world. The one thing they had in common, other than the above mentioned characteristics, was a desire to subvert what they saw as the inhuman institutions of an, at least incipiently “fascist” America. Dylan did not stay with Radosh—he got sent down the road to stay at the apartment of Danny Kalb, who would later form the late ’60s variation on the Jewish folksinger, namely, the Jewish Blues band. Kalb’s band was known as the Blues Project.

Where Bob Dylan spent the night was irrelevant. When he arrived in Madison, he lived in the Wisconsin equivalent of Jewish Bohemia, which meant he could fit in by playing the guitar at one of the regular impromptu Hootenanny sessions at “a small new cafe on State Street . . . modeled on Greenwich Village hangouts.” Dylan wasn’t a star then. In fact, he took a back seat to the already established (in Madison, at least) Radosh, who performed an agit prop ballad written by Irwin Silber, “Talkin’ Un-American Blues,” which attacked the House Un-American Activities Committee in the style of a Woody Guthrie talking blues. The song delighted Dylan, who added it to his repertoire. Dylan then sang a few Guthrie songs of his own, including “New York Town,” which must have resonated with Radosh, the New Yorker in exile in the Midwest. (Radosh claimed that Dylan was, in fact, too ready to pick up his guitar. At one party, he was told “Bob, would you put that damn guitar away already? Nobody wants to hear you anymore!” Dylan meekly put his guitar away and left Madison some friends for New York.)

Dylan might have claimed that he was a rambler and a gambler and a long way from home, but he believed it only insofar as it fostered his career. What he really wanted to do was become a star as big and famous as Elvis Presley. Radosh was understandably skeptical when Dylan told him “with a tone of complete assurance,” that he was “going to be as big a star as Elvis Presley.” Dylan insisted, “No, you’ll see. I’ll play the same and even bigger arenas. I know it.” It was an assurance that never left him. “Destiny,” Dylan said of his life in 1961, “was about to manifest  itself.” Destiny, he continued, “was looking right at me and nobody else.”  Often as in the 60 Minutes interview following the release of the first volume of his autobiography, it sounded as if Dylan had been singled out by the “powers of this world” to fulfill some cosmic design.

What the Zeitgeist needed was someone bright enough to put two and two together, or at the very least bright enough to write new lyrics to the old melodies. The sexual revolutionaries, however, would soon run into the same problem that their Jewish parents had encountered during the transition from the Third Period to the Popular Front. “Wildwood Flower” still wasn’t a revolutionary melody. And it was even less appropriate for sexual revolution than it had been for the popular front. In order to update the music of the popular front, Bob Dylan had to tap into the cultural aquifer that had produced the thousands of tourists that inundated the Village every weekend. The Kingston Trio was popular but culturally irrelevant. Pete Seeger had been relevant, but the Popular Front was long dead and gone. Because he was a Jew working in what had become a Jewish subset—folk music—of what had become a Jewish industry by the 1920s, popular music, Dylan could count on a sympathetic hearing when he articulated his own deepest feelings, especially when his deepest feeling was rebellion or revolution. “Nothing seemed to delight Bob more than undermining the power of an authority figure,” his biographer tells us (p. 117). In this regard, Dylan was only doing what other Jews had done before him—Marx and Freud and Reich—and what they were going to do with even more gusto as the decade progressed. We have already discussed the connection between Jewish humor and subversion, a phenomenon which would reach a culmination of sorts in literature in 1969 with the publication of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and in film in the mid-70s with the rise of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. In folk music the same thing happened in the early ‘60s, primarily because of Bob Dylan, who redefined folk music in places like Manny Roth’s (uncle of rocker David Lee Roth) club The Wha? as the vehicle for the cultural revolution, with a little help from his friends.

Dylan’s biggest friend in this regard was a self-described “Jewish businessman” from Chicago by the name of Albert Grossman. Grossman, according to Spitz, was “neither a gentleman nor political, but rather a  “Jewish businessman,” who was also “a cagey operator who lived by the Teutonic [sic] theory that those who struck first and fastest usually eat best.” Grossman claimed to have graduated from the University of Chicago, which was not true, and to have walked away from a career in city government in the same city, which was also not true. He did, however, manage a folk club in Chicago and was astute enough to understand that the future of that musical movement lay in Greenwich Village, where he arrived shortly after Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the other Jewish phenomenon from the Midwest, Bob Dylan.  Grossman had a way of promoting narcissism in the performers he approached. Dave Van Rank, who was approached early on by Grossman, called him “an astute but very cruel man—extraordinarily cruel in a very cold and calculated way,” who went out of his way to corrupt the performers he represented. Grossman played “a kind of Mephistophelian role” with young village folksingers. He guaranteed them stardom “in return for their integrity.”

Grossman approached Van Ronk to see if he were interested in becoming part of a folk supergroup trio which he planned to manage. Grossman was astute enough to see that there was a large gap in the market between commercially successful but insipid groups like The Kingston Trio and the “authentic” but commercially unappealing imitators of Woody Guthrie. Grossman’s solution to that dilemma was a trio, which would come to be known as Peter, Paul, and Mary. PP&M combined the talents of a stand-up comic by the name of Noel Stookey (who changed his name to the vaguely religious sounding Paul), a singer by the name of Peter Yarrow, and Mary Travers, the platinum bombshell from the Elisabeth Irwin school, who had sexually liberated Ron Radosh and his classmates. Dave Van Ronk was Grossman’s’ first choice as Mary Travers’ foil, but in order to get into the act, Van Ronk had to first “change my name to Olaf the Blues Singer. . . wear a helmet with horns growing out of it, and pretend to be blind.”

Van Ronk had to be willing to make a fool out of himself on stage because, as he put it, “Integrity bothered Albert, “ who “used to say that there was no such thing as an honest man, and it was merely a question of finding out what my price was, even if it cost him $300,000 of his own money. That was the kind of guy Albert really was.”

Dave Van Ronk was five years older than Bob Dylan and an established figure in the Village when Dylan arrived in 1961. In his autobiography, Dylan describes meeting Van Ronk under the watchful eye of Izzy Young at the Folklore center. Dylan describes Van Ronk as like him, singing songs which “were originally sung buy singers who seemed to be groping for words, almost in an alien tongue.” Van Ronk had recorded his first album in 1959 for Folkways Records, a company founded by Moses Asch in 1950, and one of the critical links between the Popular Front and the folksong revival of the ‘60s. Van Ronk had come from a broken family in Brooklyn and had been taught by “vicious Irish nuns” at a Catholic school in Queens.

Van Ronk was orginally a merchant seaman who sang songs and played the guitar, but the blossoming folk music craze changed all that. Odetta listened to him sing and then suggested that he “make a demo tape” and “send it to Albert Grossman,” who then owned a club in Chicago. Van Ronk even hitchhiked out to Chicago to present the tape to Grossman and perform for him, but their personalities never really meshed, probably because of ethnic differences, although the suggestion that he change his name to Olaf the Bluessinger didn’t help any. The persona of the urban folksinger had already been set, and it was cryptically Jewish, not Irish Catholic from Brooklyn. Van Ronk had abandoned the religion of his youth for socialism, but abandoning his ethnic identity was to prove more difficult. Conversely, the compatibility between Grossman and Dylan lay paradoxically in the shared ethnic identity both of them had chosen to abandon, or, perhaps, not abandon but rework with the Zeitgeist in mind. Spitz tells us that Grossman, “much like his protégé Bobby Dylan,” developed a new persona for himself by concocting “an apocryphal autobiography.” He, in turned, helped Dylan do the same thing.

“Cultural Messiah”

Rather than allow competing ethnic personae, Grossman decided to eliminate the competition by urging Dave Van Ronk into adopting a comical and, therefore, self-destruction parody. Bob Gibson, an extremely successful folksinger from Chicago whose career was managed by Grossman didn’t come up with the proper image either. The goyim were finding it difficult to compete as cultural revolutionaries. The revolutionary Jew had a natural advantage in this regard, especially since the music industry promoters shared their views. According to Gibson, Grossman gave “highest priority” to “class,” which meant that “you had  to . .  . embody Albert’s elitist tendencies, which also meant taking regular instruction and criticism from him and assuming aspects of his personality.” That meant combining the “Jewish businessman” with messianic cultural politics, because, as Gibson notes, “Albert envisioned himself as a cultural messiah.”

Grossman wanted to get rich off his singers, but he realized that in order to make serious money he had to “create a legend,” which meant elevating the enthusiasm of the folk music fans then flooding into college campuses across the country to “a level that separated his new client from every other performer, so that no comparisons could be drawn.” That meant a cultural revolution: “The cultural revolution had officially begun, and God help the folk singer who couldn’t conceptualize his own myth.” Bob Dylan, in this regard, “was in a class all by himself,” and Albert Grossman was “going to make damned sure that he remained there,” by promoting “‘the Dylan mystique,’ as he began referring to it.”

Bob Dylan’s first album was released on March 19, 1962, earning a glowing if pseudonymously written endorsement by the ever-fawning Robert Shelton. He wrote the blurb under the name of Stacy Williams because “it would have been regarded as un-ethical for a New York Times critics to objectively review an album that carried his byline on the back cover,” especially since the payola scandals were still part of recent memory. The album consisted largely of covers of folk tunes popular in Greenwich Village at the time, including a version of “House of the Rising Sun,” which Dylan appropriated without permission from Dave Van Ronk. His only original piece, his tribute to Woody Guthrie, lifted Woody’s melody from a song which he had written about a 1913 mining disaster and had been popularized by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Dylan’s original music began to make its appearance one year later in the spring of 1963 when The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album was released, with a picture of him and Suze Rotolo walking down Great Jones Street together on the cover. “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” was the album’s biggest hit, and, like the cover photo, it had a lot to do with Suze Rotolo, who had gone to Europe at the urging of her mother. Dylan was desolated by her absence, and the song has a clear emotional and musical focus of the sort that would disappear when Dylan got absorbed into the sexual revolution he would unleash with his music. One decade later he would be singing indistinguishable songs about indistinguishable women, but that was still in the future. The revolution hadn’t taken place yet. He could still focus one song on one woman.

By the time Dylan’s third album, The Times they are a Changin’, was released on February 10, 1964, the revolutionary cat was out of the bag. Even though written in the folk mode, the title song was a piece with clear revolutionary intent, tailored specifically to the generation that was just coming of age and buying lots of records in their search for a new lifestyle identity. The music was different enough (a weird sort of G chord to an insistent strum and forthright harmonica which disguised the standard G, C, D progression) to add urgency to the lyrics, which were undeniably powerful. No more Popular Front working men defending their rights stuff, but rather a denunciation of, you guessed it, parents! “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’/Come get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand/ For the times they are a changin.” 

It wasn’t the Fugs. It wasn’t Dionysian excess, but it didn’t throw cold water on the sexual passions either. In fact, it ennobled those passions by associating them with the civil rights movement, messianic politics, and a whole host of equally revolutionary themes. Everyone was soon blown away by the power of the bard who made Jewish revolution plausible in a peculiarly American way. Dylan’s next four albums would establish him as “the spokesman of his generation.” In trying to explain how he revolutionized both folk and popular music, Spitz resorts to various mixed metaphors: “Natural selection,” he writes in a way that misplaces agency in truly Darwinian fashion, “had chosen Bob Dylan to be the high priest of protest singers.” At another point, he calls Dylan “an enlightened prophet,” but finally he settles on the business metaphors, saying that “beneath his scruffy folk exterior beat the heart of a Jewish businessman from Minnesota” who “knew the value of self-promotion,” and “in an offbeat way he courted the establishment crowd when he thought that could help his career.” In a plutocratic society, it is not necessary to distinguish between businessmen, political messiahs, and revolutionaries; one person can be all three. Or, to put it more succinctly, in order to succeed with your cultural revolution, you have to be all three rolled up in one. That’s a tall order in any culture. In America, it was all three rolled up in two—Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman.

Once Albert Grossman proved with Peter, Paul and Mary that folk music could pull in mainstream money, the money for recording contracts began to pour into Greenwich Village. Dave Van Ronk noticed that “all of a sudden there was money all over the place.” During the period which stretched from 1960 to 1965, recording company executives began handing out major label recording contracts like they were coming in Cracker Jack boxes. People who had been sleeping on floors and eating in cafeterias a year or two before, all of a sudden had enough money to buy a suit, if they wanted to. And musically it was very interesting. It attracted a large number of talented people, who probably wouldn’t have been interested in folk music had it not been so popular. Someone like Jose Feliciano. He played the guitar, he sang, ergo, he was a folk singer. Folk City, Gaslight, the Newport Folk Festival. There was a tremendous attraction for that brief period. Bob Dylan was another.

Mark Spoelstra confines the period in which folk music changed from something practiced by sincere amateurs to something that was taken over by the music “industry,” to roughly a week in 1962. He had gone to visit friends in Canada, and when he got back, Bob Dylan and his friends “were sitting around talking Big Bucks.. . . You’d have thought I’d walked in on a dinner party of wealthy industrialists. . . . What the hell happened while I was in Toronto? . . . The object of our closely knit folk community had always been to sing and have fun. And suddenly it seemed as if everything had changed.” Spitz would go on to claim that the point “at which folk music merged with show business. . . could actually be seen by the human eye.”

The notion that folksingers and money were incompatible had become “obsolete.” Bob Dylan was on his way to becoming  the well-paid “poet-philosopher of his generation,” which meant, first and foremost someone who could satisfy “Young middle-class Jewish intellectuals’ . . . hunger for someone to put ideas into their heads.”

Bob Dylan’s revolutionary music arrived on the scene not a moment too soon, because the other side of the collective Jewish personality in America, the Jewish comedian, was subverting the folk scene by making it look ridiculous at around the same time. In 1962, the same year that Bob Dylan’s first album appeared, Allan Sherman released his album My Son the Folksinger. Dylan was no stranger to parodies of Jewish folksingers—his “Talkin’ Hava Nagila Blues” being a good case in point—but Sherman took the tradition of Jewish parody established by Mickey Katz and his Kosher Jammers, who put Yiddish lyrics to popular tunes, to a new level at precisely the moment when the folk bubble was threatening to burst. The purpose of Dylan’s rendering of “Hava Nagila” and Allan Sherman’s album was, according to one critic, “to send Theodore Bikel into another line of work.” That may have been true, but there was more to it than that. The whole Jewish involvement in the resurrection of Popular Front Appalachian or Negro Music was a satirical target too big to ignore, and many scored direct hits, including Shel Silverstein when he wrote his parody, “Folk Singer’s Blues”:
Well now, I’d like to sing about the Mississippi,
Workin’ on the levee all the day
And when them cotton bolls get rotten
You got a lotta rotten cotton
And on Saturday you go and spend your pay, but
What do you do if you’re young and white and Jewish?
And you’ve never loaded cotton on the dock?
And you’ve never worked a day
Or drunk up all your pay
And the only levee you know is the Levy who lives on the block, Yes
The only levee you know is the Levy who lives on the block
Silverstein’s parody pointed up a disparity that was too big to ignore. Not only was folk music not revolutionary—something the musically intelligent Left discovered in the early ‘30s—the lyrics were wildly inappropriate as well. Young middle class Jews singing about picking cotton in Mississippi was prime comedy material. If folk music was to survive the assaults of people like Shel Silverstein and Alan Sherman singing “Catskill ladies sing your song, doo dah doo dah,” it would have to come up with different texts at the very least, and a more Dionysian music as well to fit the mores of the new generation of Jews who went to camp not to sing folksongs around a campfire but to have sex with the Negro lifeguard.

It was Bob Dylan who provided that music. But it was, more importantly, Bob Dylan who provided the new persona of the folksinging revolutionary which enabled others to make the music as well. “What folk music needed,” according to Spitz, “were performers who were willing to invest in it something unique and intensely personal,” rather than simply recycling labor movement songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s in the style of Woody Guthrie. That music was “no longer vital to the younger generation.” Bob Dylan was the Zeitgeist on a motorcycle. “By writing new folk songs, Bob had a chance to say something compelling about the current scene and comment on his own life and times.”

Nineteen sixty-three was the year when the personal became political or when politics became personal.  In February of that year Ron Radosh’s wife gave birth to their first child, Laura, but the arrival of a child did not help their marriage, which in distinction to Ron’s “exciting” intellectual life, “involved constant bickering and fighting.” One sure sign that the marriage was in trouble was the recurring thought that they should have never married in the first place, a thought which Radosh repressed by throwing himself  “into what we were beginning to call ‘the Movement’ and into folk music.”

Another sign of bad things to come was the fact that “the movement” was defined more by Freud than by Marx. When Radosh’s wife insisted that they both undergo therapy, Radosh didn’t know how to say no, because “besides Marxism, our other chosen-ism was Freudianism, which we thought could do for the individual psyche what Marx could do for society.” So Radosh and his wife and other movement types would make a weekly pilgrimage to Chicago where a cut-rate shrink by the name of Dr. Alan Robertson initiated them into the mysteries of “sleep therapy,” something “that allowed the patient to reach the deepest levels of the unconscious.” This particular form of therapy involved Dr. Robertson charging Radosh and his friends for the naps they took in his office, during which Dr. Robertson also napped. Needless to say, the therapy didn’t help Radosh’s marriage and when he wife developed a “serious medical problem,” she moved back to New York with her family.

The personal was becoming political for Bob Dylan as well. On May 2, 1963 Gene Shay picked up Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and drove them to Tossi Aaron’s home in Cheltenham, where they rested up in anticipation of Dylan’s concert the following day at the 300-seat auditorium at the Ethical Society building on Rittenhouse Square. The release of Freewheelin Bob Dylan with Suze on the cover was a month away, but, like the Radoshes, Dylan and his girlfriend were having problems too, largely because of his career. Dylan had met Joan Baez and they had both fallen in love—she with his music and he with her career. An affair ensued and a concert tour ensued from the affair. On the tour, Joan Baez would sing a few songs and then invite Dylan on stage, whereupon he stole the show.  The culmination of both the affair and the tour was the 1963 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan was officially inducted into the folk pantheon, a picture of which shows Dylan linking arms with Peter Paul and Mary, Baez, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and, for some reason, Theodore Bikel—all singing “We Shall Overcome” with some unidentified Negro representatives of the Civil Right Movement. A few months later, in Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his famous “I have a dream” speech. Folk music in general and Peter Paul and Mary in particular would figure largely in that event as well.

Bob’s legendary mystique took a major hit shortly after his appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival when an article entitled “I am MY Words,” appeared in Newsweek. The article deflated the mystique in a manner that Jay Gatsby could have appreciated, by exposing Dylan’s roots as a Jew named Zimmerman from the Midwest. He could no longer deny his parents, because they had been seen at his recent concert at Carnegie Hall. People with middle-class Jewish parents from the Midwest didn’t arrive in New York City in boxcars, certainly not in 1963. According to Spitz, Dylan “flew into a rage” when he saw the story because “he had been unmasked as a fraud.” The unmasking, however, would have little effect because by this time Robert Shelton had become virtually a member of the Dylan entourage, hanging out, drinking and partying with Dylan and Grossman, and Shelton had the New York Times at his disposal to repair Dylan’s myth whenever it got threatened by impious outsiders. Shelton accused Newsweek of doing “a hatchet job on Dylan,” and that promptly laid the roots issue and the issue of Dylan’s truthfulness about those roots to rest. 

Actually, what the New York Times defense of Dylan did was simply repress the truth so that the protest which it fueled would appear in another form. The success of Grossman’s group Peter, Paul and Mary ensured that a reaction would occur, especially when their biggest hit, and one of the biggest hits of 1963, turned out the be Pete Seeger and Lee Hay’s greatest hit “If I Had a Hammer,” a song which HUAC had condemned as “communist inspired,” in 1955. Just eight short years later, the same “communist inspired” song rose to the top of the Top 40 charts, and millions of high school students, “from San Diego up to Maine, in every town and mill” were singing it. Pete Seeger had been sentenced to prison for writing the song, and now Albert Grossman and his protégés were making millions off of it. It was a sign of how far the country had fallen, at least that is how some people were interpreting it.

In the summer of 1963, Pete Seeger showed up in Los Angeles to perform only to find himself denounced by a local organization known as “The Fire and Police Research Association of Los Angeles, Inc.” for using the folk song as “an unidentified tool of Communist psychological or cybernetic warfare to ensnare and capture youthful minds.” (Richard A. Reuss with Joanne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and left-wing Politics, 1927-1957 (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2000), p. 1.) Perhaps sensing that folk music had become one of his state’s leading tourist attraction, or perhaps sensing that he had stumbled onto an issue that would guarantee the Jewish vote, Senator Kenneth Keating denounced the California cops and fire fighters, announcing that he was “stunned by the revelation that folk music is part of the Communist arsenal of weapons.” Keating had always labored under “the impression that if anything it was thoroughly American in sprit, it was American folk music,” something that indicates he was either naive or pandering for the Jewish vote in Manhattan. Jere Real, writing for the John Birch Society’s periodical American Opinion, was quick to disabuse Keating of his naiveté. Folk music, according to the Birch society, was “a very subtle but highly effective presentation of standard Communist Party propaganda” in spite of, or, perhaps, because of all of “the handclapping, the guitar strumming, the banjo-picking the shouting and the howling” which went along with it.  As a result, “Not since the 1930s have so many people of the United States been so directly, so cleverly, deceived into a widespread parroting of the Communist line.”

The Birch Society was right about the subversion, but, as usual, they were wrong about who was doing the subverting. The Left in America had broken with the Communist Party in 1947, with  the founding of the ADA. Even Party hacks like Irwin Silber, who was still editor of Sing Out! in 1963, had resigned from the Communist Party in 1958, five years before Peter, Paul and Mary made a hit out of “If I Had a Hammer.” Folk music, according to the Birch society, was “a very subtle but highly effective presentation of standard Communist Party propaganda.” What the Birchers failed to understand was that people like Irwin Silber were revolutionaries now, not because they were Communists, but because they were Jewish folksingers.

The Right always had a difficult time distinguishing between form and content and the part and the whole. The form in this instance was the revolutionary Jew. The revolutionary content, however, was no longer communism; it was folk music. What the communists construed as a vehicle for Popular Front era propaganda had taken on a life of its own. The party no longer directed the revolution, nor did it define the content of revolutionary thought or activity. People like Bob Dylan did that, and they did it based not on any party line but on the lives they were leading, as seen through the lens of the ancestral Jewish penchant for revolutionary activity. Bob Dylan was not a communist (even Irwin Silber was no longer a communist), but he was a revolutionary Jew, and as such he could redefine the revolution to meet the needs of the Zeitgeist, which, as Norman Mailer, another revolutionary Jew, had announced in his essay “The White Negro,” were increasingly sexual.

Right-Wing Critics

Other right-wing critics of folk music were equally obtuse. Rather than run the risk of being accused of anti-Semitism, they decided to beat the dead horse known as Communism. In his 1974 book The Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook on Communist Subversion of Music, David Noebel claimed that “The Communist infiltration into the subversion of American music has been nothing short of phenomenal and in some areas, e.g., folk music, their control is fast approaching the saturation point under the able leadership of Pete Seeger, Sing Out! , Folkways Records and Oak Publications, Inc.” Three years earlier, Serge Denisoff, in his book Great Day Coming, had documented “the Old Left’s discovery and use of folksong materials.”

The Right-wingers were quick to say “I told you so,” failing to see that the Old Left’s appropriation of folk material had become a standing joke at the hands of Allan Sherman and Shel Silverstein. Irwin Silber could resign from the Communist Party, but he never stopped being a revolutionary Jewish folksinger, and that was precisely the persona which the Revolutionary Jew adopted when it got tired of defending the largely irrelevant dogma emanating from Moscow in the years after Krushschev denounced Stalin. Music may very well have continued to be a vehicle for revolution, but the revolution was not Communism, nor was it run by commissars from Moscow. It was run by the children of the commissars from Moscow, who now considered themselves Americans, largely because of all the folk music they had played at summer camp. The Reusses explain the fate of the revolutionary Jew when he made contact with American folk music but only obliquely, when the say that “to the extent that participants in the communist movement came from recent immigrant stock, absorbing American folk song and folk lore is one way to assimilate into American society.”

So Communism didn’t, in the final analysis, subvert folk music; folk music subverted Communism. The real continuity was ethnic, not political. The Revolutionary Jew would redefine the revolution to suit his needs, even if he destroyed himself in the process.

The Summer of ‘63 was folk music’s “moment of glory,” and nothing epitomized that moment more than the duets of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Those duets also unfortunately signaled the end of Dylan’s relationship with Suze Rotolo The lady who had marched down Great Jones Street adoringly hanging on Dylan’s arm was now history, in more than once sense of the word.  After Dylan left on his concert tour with Baez, Rotolo moved out of their apartment and got a job working as a waitress at a luncheonette on 12th Street. Rotolo was now finished with Dylan, or so she thought, until she discovered that she was pregnant. Bob Dylan dealt with his paternity by having Albert Grossman arrange for an illegal abortion at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side. It was a defining moment both for Dylan and for the movement he would lead. The emotional clarity of ballads like “Don’t Think Twice” would now become muddied by a torrent of surrealistic imagery. The imagery of songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” are usually and correctly traced to drugs, but the increased use of drugs is rarely traced back to one of its most common functions, namely, anesthesia, specifically anesthesia of conscience. Bob Dylan was notoriously cruel with anyone around him

His favorite targets were folk singers who admired him, people like Eric Anderson and Phil Ochs, who idolized Dylan in spite of the abuse he took at his hands. Eventually, Dylan turned on Joan Baez as well during their tour of England. Dylan and his buddy Bobby Neuwirth ridiculed Baez so mercilessly —some of which is caught on the Pannebaker film Don’t Look Back—that she eventually dropped out of the tour. This is the way that Dylan repaid her kindness in fostering his career a few years earlier.

As a result of this and other behavior of the same sort, Dylan’s music began to take on the characteristics of his deformed soul. The music became harsh and electronically amplified and the lyrics became increasingly opaque, as Dylan fell more and more under the influence of degenerates like the Beat poet Alan Ginsburg, whose poetry mirrored an equally depraved soul. Since the people who bought his records were undergoing the same sort of moral degeneration, each innovation in his music was greeted as an artistic breakthrough.

The best proof of Plato’s statement that “No change can be made in styles of music without affecting the most important conventions of society” Republic (242c), was the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the locus of the artistic “breakthrough” that ushered in the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. In typically subversive fashion, Dylan had named his album of revolutionary music (as opposed to the albums of revolutionary lyrics set to traditional folk music) “Bringing it All Back Home.” It was supposed to be a return to his roots, and in a sense it was—not to his roots in Hibbing but rather his pychic roots as the quintessential revolutionary Jew, only at home in subversion.

If the audience in 1965 was expecting a replay of the 1963 “We Shall Overcome” sing along, there were signs early on that they were going to be disappointed. Instead of Fannie Lou Hamer, fresh from a voter registration drive in Mississippi, the crowd was treated early on to a white guy by the name of Paul Butterfield, playing the blues of the post-War black migration to Chicago, which is to say, with loud amplified instruments. Scandalized by what he heard, Pete Seeger rushed backstage and demanded that the power to their amplifiers be cut. When no one complied, Pete grabbed a fire ax from off the wall and threatened to cut the cable himself. What ensued was the classic revolutionary moment in which the subverters are subverted by their own revolutionary ideology. The confrontation boiled down to a dispute between the old guard and the new, in this instance, a dispute between the WASP Pete Seeger—the Old Left Commie with Puritan American roots, the man who turned folk music into a lifestyle that circumvented American materialism—and Albert Grossman, the “Jewish Businessman,” who felt that messianic politics and making money were two sides of the same coin. Alan Lomax, also backstage, sided with Seeger ideologically, but he also wanted him to put down the fireaxe, even if, some people feel, it was that he could chop the cable himself. When George Wein, another festival director, suggested that they turn the power off and have a discussion, Grossman threatened in typical fashion, “You do that, and I’ll sue you.” Finally, it was Theodore Bikel who got Seeger to put down the ax, and he did it by appealing to the “tradition” of revolution. “This band these rebels” he stammered, “they are us. They are what we were twenty years ago.

Bob Dylan exploited the behind the scenes chaos to set up his own band on stage. By now he was a man who needed no introduction at Newport. As Peter Yarrow, the MC, scurried from the mike after performing that act of supererogation, Dylan unleashed a wave of sonic assault on the audience. Technically the song was known as “Maggie’s Farm,” but since Dylan had instructed his road manager to crank the amps up to 10, no one could hear anything but wave upon wave of electronic distortion over a pounding Dionysian beat. Once again, the same contending forces assembled backstage. Alan Lomax charged the mixing board with Peter Seeger close behind him. Pete tried unsuccessfully to pry the roady’s hands from the controls; Albert Grossman threatened to sue everyone once again; Peter Yarrow threatened to have Seeger arrested for assault, but in the end the musical din prevailed.

Political Revolution

The musical modes got changed, and, as Plato had predicted, the political revolution followed in short order. One indication that the revolution had succeeded was the difference between the post-festival party in 1965 and those in the years preceding it. Rather than the traditional hootenanny, the festival goers were treated to the Negro Dionysian music of The Chambers Brothers. Dionysos is the god of music, intoxication, and sexual excess, and by the early hours of the next day, he was clearly in charge of what was going on at the party. The revelers were drunk or stoned, sweatily pounding out the Dionysian rhythms not on their guitars, which seemed suddenly inappropriate, but on chairs, trash cans, and whatever else was available, and those rhythms, new to the folk music crowd,  “had a wild effect on the group’s already steamy passions.”   The 1965 post-Festival party, Spitz tells us, was “unusually loose and informal. . . . It was as if someone had given them a tremendous shove, turned their heads in another direction. A new world awaited them. As such, the party was marked by the kind of wanton promiscuity that one experiences after a revolution, a sense of ‘anything goes.’ . . . There were no rules anymore. . . The whole place was drunk on cheap booze and excitement” (my emphasis).

The 1965 Newport Folk Festival was a metaphor for what would happen to the country over the next ten years. As in the Dionysian festivals described by Euripedes, passions would get out of control, Agave would dismember her child, and, as Plato indicated, the ruling class of Plutocrats would use the revolution to impose subtle but inhumanly draconian forms of political control on the revolutionary nation which had been blinded by its own passions. Maria Muldaur, Spitz tells us, “remembers dancing like [sic] it was the first time she’d been set free.” But being set free also meant participating in the destruction of the community which had nurtured her, the folk music network of the 1950s, especially its headquarters, Greenwich Village, which had been “a wonderful place to come of age in . . . full of music and foolishness and camaraderie.” All of that came to a close in the waning hours of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Everyone was now looking for a recording contract. Everyone was in it for himself. “Even the music had changed,” and as Plato could have told her, once the music changed, morals followed, and once morals were subverted, the state was ripe for revolution, and once the revolution succeeded, tyranny would soon follow as its inevitable sequel. “That night everything seemed up for grabs,” Muldaur said later. “Life as we had known it, was out of control.”

Folk music had been replaced by Rock n Roll, now with revolutionary political lyrics as opposed to the standard Negro Dionysian complaints about V-8 Fords and women who couldn’t be trusted. Rock ‘n Roll itself was Negro slang for sexual intercourse. “Rock ‘n roll,” according to Spitz, “was meant to shake foundations; it was musical terrorism, a revolutionary, attention-grabbing sound” (my emphasis). And in the wake of Newport 1965 everybody was now determined to imitate Bob Dylan’s political amalgamation of revolutionary lyrics and Dionysian Negro music. Musically the craze was known as “folk rock,” and one of its first hits was the Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a song which was, appropriately enough, about intoxication. What followed is what Dave Van Ronk called “the hippie nightmare.”  Just to show that he was as amenable to the corrupting influences of Albert Grossman as anyone else in the Village, Dave Van Ronk formed a band called the Hudson Dusters in 1965, a band which went nowhere.

The advent of folk rock meant that the folk revival was now officially over, which meant, as Dave Van Ronk put it, that “business got very bad.” In the early 1970s, “the rooms were closing down, record labels weren’t signing acoustic acts any more.”

The demise of folk music meant the final demise of the old left as well. Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 at the age of 55. Pete Seeger, his contemporary, would outlive him by decades, but he would become increasingly irrelevant to a world that seemed out of control. “Everywhere he looked,” Seeger’s biographer tells us, a new culture spread among young people, one he barely understood.  Why should anyone want to take LSD? Why had Abbie Hoffman left civil rights for Revolution for the Hell of It?  When people came up to him at concerts and handed him flowers and beads, Pete didn’t know what to say. Pete kept his distance from marijuana, long hair and talk of free sex. In the middle of his concert, the audience filed out one by one to smoke grass on a darkened balcony, and Pete didn’t even realize they had gone. (Dunaway, p. 266).

Seeger’s Politics

Soon Seeger’s politics would become as irrelevant as his music. Right around the time Guthrie died, which is to say around the time of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, Seeger decided to promote peace by inviting Jews and Palestinians to a hootenanny at the Tel Aviv Hilton. He dedicated a verse of “Guantanamera” “to exiles of two thousand years and exiles of nineteen years,” a gesture that went over like a lead balloon.  Seeger, Dunaway tells us, “was out of his depth” so much so that he broke off in the middle of the song and walked off the stage “close to tears.” Three days later the Six Day War broke out. The Six Day War signaled the moment when the Jews began pulling out of the Left and devoting themselves to Zionist, as opposed to socialist causes. It also marked the moment when the Left began attacking Zionism as racism. It signaled as well then demise of the Jewish folksinger. Once the Left lost its overarching support in Communism, ethnicity began to reassert itself both in politics and music, but that would have to wait for a while because the revolution was still in progress.

In 1970, when President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia and set off a series of campus demonstrations across the country, including one at Kent State University in Ohio, where four students were shot to death by National Guardsmen, Ron Radosh was teaching history at the City University of New York, which had always been the tradtional haven for that city’s Jewish revolutionaries. When the revolution came to his campus in the spring of 1970, Ron Radosh was no longer playing the five-string banjo he had learned at the feet of Pete Seeger. He had changed his tune, in just about every sense of the word, even if he felt he was realizing the revolutionary dreams of his youth. Condemned to prove Plato right, Radosh found that he needed new music for a different revolution and so he concluded his harangue to the students by screaming “Got to Revolution/ Got to Revolution/ Pick up the cry/ Got to Revolution,” words he had picked up from the Jefferson Airplane song, “Volunteers.” Upon hearing his revolutionary war cry, the students, Radosh tells us, “went wild.” Without any sense that there might be a connection, Radosh then tells us, that around the same time, which is to say, the revolutionary period around 1969,  “my marriage was beginning to unravel.”

Nineteen sixty-nine was the year in which Radosh’s son Daniel was born, but his birth didn’t help the marriage any more than the birth of his sister, six years earlier, had. Radosh’s wife was seeing a psychologist who encouraged her to get “stoned on grass and LSD” as “part of an advanced therapeutic technique.” The same therapist encouraged Radosh’s wife to divorce him. Radosh at the time failed to see that the Jewish revolutionaries were being subverted by their own ideas. Even after writing his memoir, he still fails to see that point.  Radosh still supports the revolution without seeing that it has been redefined as something, not interested in promoting workers’ rights any more, but something which is essentially self-destructive, because it had defined the family as an instrument of oppression. Radosh feels that he and his wife probably would have stuck it out “if left to our own devices,” but they were not left to their own devices because the revolution had been redefined. What Radosh calls “the Movement” was in the process of “turning towards the politics of personal relationship.” Instead of wanting to smash capitalism, revolutionary Jews like Radosh and his wife, taking their cue from “the radical feminism of the early women’s liberation movement,” decided to “smash monogamy” instead, and in process of doing that they smashed themselves and their children. As part of her effort to liberate herself from “bourgeois possessiveness,” Radosh’s wife carried on an affair with David Gelber, another revolutionary Jew and close friend, who would become a top-level TV producer in a few years, first with CBS news and then with 60 Minutes. 

Radosh “waged a desperate fight to save the marriage,” he tells us, but given the arsenal of weapons available to a Jewish revolutionary at the time, which is to say, Marx and Freud, with by now a heavier emphasis on Freud, the outcome of that struggle was a foregone conclusion. Radosh’s wife “run away with another man, poor boy,” as he might have sung to the accompaniment of his five-string banjo a few years back, and as his way of coping with the situation, Radosh “took a long-awaited sabbatical to try to dig out of the wreckage of my life.” During his sabbatical, Radosh  “spent most days severely depressed, sleeping all night and half the day, and then shut up alone watching television until I crawled into bed.”

“Your faith or your Family”

In his autobiography, Dylan recounts a meeting with Archibald MacLeish, who told him “that if anything costs you your faith or your family, then the price is too high. . . .” MacLeish was righter than he knew. The Left was destroyed by its fatal attraction to sexual liberation. When the Left went down in flames, it took folk music with it. Some would say it took the Jews as well. Alan Dershowitz is one of them, writing about the demographic collapse among American Jews in his book The Vanishing American Jew, without once seeing that collapse as the result of the cultural revolution of the ‘60s.

Bob Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes, a marriage which produced five children, broke down a little later than Radosh’s but under the sign of the same era and for roughly the same reasons. The Revolutionary Jews were undone by their own revolutionary ideology, something which they still fail to see.

When their marriages fell apart, both men reacted the same way, compensating by substituting quantity for quality in their sexual relationships. Bob Dylan linked up with a group of musicians which came to be known as “the Band,” which he lured away from Screaming Ronnie Hawkins. The Band, according to Spitz, was  “one of the earliest bands to perfect the ethic of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll as an alternative life-style.” As a result, Dylan’s music continued its downward spiral, becoming “aggressive, cynical, hard-edged, highly mannered and surrealistic.” The lyrics, as a result of the loud amplified music, became first incomprehensible and then inconsequential. Why should the man who revolutionized the folk song with his lyrics care, “when the electricity simply picked you up and carried you into outer space for a hour or two.” And if the electricity didn’t do it, the drugs would. When Mick Jagger came to Dylan’s apartment to pay homage, he found the revolutionary bard lying unconscious on the floor, offering devout homage himself to the god Dionysos, who had taken control of his music and the revolution which flowed from it.

Ron Radosh behaved in virtually the same way when his marriage fell apart. Linking up with his buddy, Danny Kalb, the Jewish Blues singer, who had shared his apartment with Bob Dylan in Madison, Wisconsin in the early ‘60s, Radosh decided to make up “for what I now regard as lost time with [former wife]  Alice, by having sex “with virtually any woman I was attracted to who crossed my path.” Radosh goes on to tell us that “It was a good time to be single” because: everyone was available, and almost no one thought twice about immediately hopping into bed on the first day. I had never thought myself particularly attractive to women, but suddenly I had a full dance card and even got a reputation as a womanizer. Some to the things I did were questionable, but in the period when smashing monogamy was the new standard of the Movement, I could always rationalize my behavior as helping to free society from bourgeois definitions of reality.

It’s not clear whether Radosh used rationalization then to justify his promiscuity or whether he is still using it as an excuse now. The only thing which is clear is that he didn’t then and still now doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. “My major preoccupation, aside from socialism,” Radosh tells us in a way that both gets to the point and avoids it, “became looking for new women. . . . I rehabilitated the sexual self-esteem that my former wife had crushed. But I wasn’t especially happy.” During his Lothario period, Radosh got a call from Barbara Garson, author of the anti-Lyndon Johnson play, MacBird, the Vagina Monologues of its day. Garson called to ask Radosh if he could give her “banjo lessons.” Within 15 minutes of arriving at her apartment, Radosh was having sex with the famous playwright.

The sexual revolution, in other words, had replaced the Marxist revolution, and, in doing that, it had destroyed just about everything that he and his parents had worked for.  “The Marxist revolution we had hoped for was stillborn,” Radosh writes at another point, “but the sexual revolution was alive and well.” The sexual revolution, in other words, had killed the Left, just as it killed the fight for workers’ rights, the antiwar movement, and the Jewish birth rate, but the Left was too intoxicated to notice, and when the drug-induced intoxication wore off, their minds were still so darkened by their passions that years later they still couldn’t understand what had happened to them. Radosh’s memoir is one indication of that; Bob Dylan’s is another.

The advantage of Radosh’s memoir is that it gives a much more comprehensive picture of what was happened to the revolutionary Jew who had grown up with the folk music movement when the Tsunami known as the sexual revolution hit them. For Radosh, this meant an extended liaison with someone he identified as Judy, “an extremely pretty, outgoing and freewheeling woman, who believed in free sex anytime and anywhere” who occasionally “managed to find work in theater and film in exchange for sexual favors.”

Judy was a true devotee of Dionysos, which meant that “she was also a serious alcoholic, who after some days of sobriety would end up  dead drunk, crazed and violent.” Radosh persuaded Judy to drive with him to Washington State, where he planned to do work in an archive. Radosh described the trip out as their “own version of On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s 1957 Beatnik novel. That meant that Judy would “sometimes drink herself into a stupor and at other times insist on rounds of non-stop sex,” including one session on top of Mount Rushmore.

Once they arrived on the West Coast, Radosh looked up comrades from the commie folk music network only to discover that they were living the same sort of life he was. Bob Scheer, who was at one time editor of Ramparts was now living in a radical Berkeley commune known as the “Red Family,” which, like Radosh, had eschewed workingman’s rights in favor of sexual politics, and burning questions like “whether or not it was ‘bourgeois’ to want to close the bathroom door while using the toilet.”

Scheer took a fancy to Judy, and when he tried to make a move on her while in Radosh’s car, Radosh kicked him out, leaving him stranded by the side of the road. The only thing that kept Scheer’s interest, other than sex, was Kim Il Sung. When he wasn’t feeling up Radosh’s girlfriend, Scheer would enthuse for hours at a time about “the paradise he had seen during a recent visit to North Korea” and “about the greatness of Kim Il Sung.” Scheer had arranged asylum in North Korea for Eldridge Cleaver, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, who was on the lam from the US Government and the Huey Newton faction of the Panthers, who wanted to eliminate him in a power struggle for control of the organization. Radosh would find that Scheer, in this regard, was the rule and not the exception. “Others in the Movement had,” according to Radosh, “found heaven on earth in places like Cuba and even China (Nicaragua and Grenada were yet to come),” so why shouldn’t Scheer find paradise in Pyongyang.

Form and Content

Once again, we have to distinguish between form and content here. The form in this instance was the revolutionary Jew, who was blind and carnal, and, because of that fact, was forever seeking heaven on earth, and forever ending up disappointed when he failed to find it. The content in this regard, at least in terms of heaven on earth for a revolutionary Jew like Radosh, was the particular heaven on earth that was known as Moscow, Cuba, Hanoi, Nicaragua, and then later in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, when he got the neoconservative religion, post-Communist Poland and eastern Europe. Radosh’s memoir is written in the form of a religious conversion story, except for the fact that the religion he converted to is known as neoconservatism, which upon closer inspection turns out to be just one more form of Jewish revolutionary activity and subversion. So once again we need to distinguish between form and content. The only form which provided any coherence to the political content of Radosh’s life, which oscillated between Stalinism and Neoconservatism, was the persona of the Revolutionary Jew, who was determined to engage in subversive behavior even when it was his own marriage and family that he ended up subverting.

The revolutionary Jew was not averse to subverting his own brain as well. Judy eventually moved out of Radosh’s apartment after they returned to New York, but not before encouraging him to take LSD. Chemically induced derangement was now part of the program of lifestyle “liberation” which was, sometimes literally, killing the Left. After taking LSD, Radosh lived in “a state of virtual terror” for five days. Once his mind had been liberated, Radosh noticed that “monsters, snakes, devils,” and “anything my imagination conjured up,” would leap out of the walls and attack him, leaving him “frozen in fear, not being able to speak, walk or even move.” Radosh had hallucinations for week afterward, or any time the residue of the LSD got metabolized from one of his fat cells.

After reading in a magazine called Liberation that going to political demonstrations was the best way to get laid, Radosh took a sleeping bag to a sit-in at Columbia University, where, just as Liberation had predicted, he found someone to sleep with. Allis Rosenberg was another revolutionary Jew, who had just gotten a divorce from still another revolutionary Jew by the name of Alan Wolfe. All of the revolutionary Jews, it seems, were looking for love, and generally looking for it in all the wrong places. At least Radosh was. When the president of Columbia University accused Radosh of criminal activity as part of the sit-in, Radosh became worried “that the letter could have a damaging effect on my own prospects for promotion and advancement at the City University of New York, and could easily be used against me.” As a result, Radosh called Alan Dershowitz, who used his well-known reputation as a legal intimidator to get Radosh off the hook, even though Radosh readily admitted, in his memoir at least, that he was guilty of all of the offenses Columbia’s president laid at his feet.

Radosh’s recourse to Alan Dershowitz is more than an indication of Jewish solidarity trumping political differences. It also indicates that the revolutionary Jew will turn on the movements he has created as soon as it becomes apparent that Jews will no longer control them. Without Jews like the Spingarn brothers, there would have been no NAACP, but as soon as it became apparent that the Jews were no longer welcome in civil rights circles, the Jews turned on their erstwhile protégés. This happened in New York when the Ford Foundation, a promoter of psychological warfare then under the direction of WASP scion McGeorge Bundy, decided to undermine school board control of the public schools in New York, as they had done in Boston and Philadelphia. Using their usual modus operandi, Ford hired black front men as their proxies in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of New York, but the whole operation blew up when the Blacks started firing Jewish teachers, and Al Shanker of the teachers union suddenly got religion and became a counter-revolutionary. Because they were still good communists at the time, Radosh and his first wife sided with the Ford Foundation Negroes, but it was clear that the times they were a-changin.

In 1973, Radosh’s second wife got involved in a similar turf battle, this time with the feminists.  Allis Rosenberg Radosh was, of course, because of her background a feminist because that was the content of revolutionary activity for women of her class and ethnic background in the early ‘70s. Allis was part of “a socialist, feminist, consciousness raising group, and was planning to obtain a Ph.D. in history at the CUNY Graduate Center” when Radosh met her. She then began teaching in the women’s studies department at Richmond College of the City University of New York in proletarian, which is to say, ethnic Catholic Staten Island.  Richmond College had already been taken over by the Left, which in New York, meant Jews like Radosh and Rosenberg, even though “most of the students [there] were Italian Catholics far removed from any sympathy or association with the faculty teaching them.”

At Richmond College, however, the revolution proceeded to devour its own children. In this instance, that meant that the lesbians wrested power over tenure and promotion from the Jews, who then turned on the movement and became counter-revolutionaries. The new Mrs. Radosh vented her anger in an article which appeared in The Village Voice on June 21, 1973. “What Allis recorded in the Voice and what she daily came home  to tell me about,” Radosh tells us, barely able to keep his indignation in check, “was almost unbelievable.”  As in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the Jews has lost control of the revolution they had started. The women’s movement had been hijacked by lesbians. Of course, the Jews who had taken over Richmond College and used it as a pool of patronage jobs and a bully pulpit from which they would instruct the benighted Italian Catholics of Staten Island had done the same thing a few years earlier, but as Breshnev and George W. Bush would claim, revolutions were supposed to be irreversible. That means that those who wrested power from others were never supposed to have it wrested from them. It turned out that history didn’t work that way after all.

According to revolutionary principles, the fact that lesbians were  “most oppressed women,” automatically “put them into the vanguard of the women’s movement,” displacing the children of the Jewish communists who had popularized the idea of the revolutionary vanguard in the first place. The revolutionary Jew was once again hoisted on his own petard. Or so it seemed. All that the two incidents really meant was that the Jews would abandon the movements they had created but lost by creating new anti-black, anti-feminist organization which they could control under the rubric of neoconservatism. Once again the content of revolutionary activity would change, but the form—the revolutionary Jew—would remain the same. 

By the time the revolutionary Jew got what he wanted, he no longer wanted it. The Vietnam War was a classic case in point. In the spring of 1975 Radosh and his new wife attended what amounted to a victory celebration for the Vietcong in Central Park, where they listened to Joan Baez, “the diva of the antiwar movement” as well as “the artist who stood alongside the young Bob Dylan and epitomized the union of art and politics”  and Phil Ochs, as they sang Ochs’ anti-war anthem “I declare the war is over.” A few months later, Ochs, who was an alcoholic wreck by the time history proved him right, committed suicide when Bob Dylan did not include him on the roster of Rolling Thunder revue. Radosh and his wife experienced a milder version of the same felling of let down. Instead of being a moment of triumph, “the end of the war,” Radosh tells us, “produced a great void.” It was “an occasion for deep melancholy” because the war, along with the draft, had been “the issue that had given meaning to our lives” and now that issue was not only “beginning to evaporate,” as it had when Nixon abolished the draft, it had evaporated completely.

Radosh’s melancholia is easy enough to understand. The end of the Vietnam War was supposed to mean the beginning of heaven on earth, just as the end of capitalism was supposed to signal the advent of the same thing to his parents’ generation. By the time the war finally ended, Radosh knew that it wasn’t going to signal the beginning of anything, certainly not heaven on earth, and so it became a reproach to the whole idea that the revolutionary Jew had been propagating for going on two millennia. The Revolutionary Jew was, for just a moment, haunted by the thought that there might not be any heaven on earth ever, and the thought recurred each time one of his gods failed. The end of the war made it clear to Radosh that “The idea of an immediate, no-fault revolution, a fantasy of the previous decade, was no longer tenable. We would not break on through to the other side, as in the Doors’ revolutionary anthem, or at least not overnight as we had hoped.”  The Vietnam War “had been the center of everything,” even for those who “thought the revolution would be cultural and had abandoned politics for dope and rock and roll.” Now  the center of that life was gone. “None of us admitted it,” Radosh continued, “but we almost all looked inside ourselves with a rising sense of panic and wondered, ‘What now?’” Rather than face up to the fact that heaven on earth is an illusion, the revolutionary Jew began to search for it even more feverishly than he had done in the ‘60s:

It was time when some of my old comrades went looking for love in all the wrong places—human potential movements, therapeutic ecstasies and personality cults—while others began the long march though the institutions. And I, desperately afraid that my god would fail, went looking for another party to join, communism having long since withered away for me.

Radosh eventually found his own version of “love in all the wrong places,” namely neoconservatism. After railing against American imperialism for his entire life, Radosh finally became a spokesman for it at the very time when it became the most serious threat to peace in the world, which is to say, in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, when neoconservative revolutionary Jews like Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz seized the initiative and began orchestrating the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The uncanny similarities between the worldview of Trotsky and Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservative movement, have been noticed by many, but not by Ronald Radosh, who is now a proud representative of American imperialism and a recipient of state department grants to lecture the Chinese communists about how history has left them behind.

“Sponsored by the office of public diplomacy in the State Department,” Radosh writes, “I stood before Chinese university students and intellectuals as a proud representative of the United States.” Radosh tells us that he had “a keen appreciation of the irony involved,” but it is obvious that the real irony of his situation has evaded him completely. The real irony resides in the title of the last chapter of his book, “Coming Home.” Radosh intends it to indicate his return to America, but it could just as easily and ironically apply to Radosh as the quintessential revolutionary Jew. It was, in other words, easy for Radosh to come home to being a revolutionary Jew because he never stopped being one in the first place, certainly not when he converted to neoconservatism, because that ideology, every bit as much as the Popular Front in the ‘40s, folk music in the ‘50s, sex and dope in the ‘60s, and feminism in the ‘70s, is the locus of revolutionary Jewish activity in the world at the beginning of the third millennium. Once the neocons hijacked America’s foreign policy in the wake of 9/11 it was easy for the revolutionary Jew to come back to the home he had never left.

As Radosh moved from the Left into the neoconservative orbit, he had to endure the sneers of his former comrades. “You really are a running dog of imperialism , aren’t you?” Paul Buhle jeered when he met Radosh at a historians convention. Buhle was, of course, right. Radosh had become a
neoconservative running dog of American imperialism, an ideology he would follow as blindly as he had followed communism in his youth.  Radosh would go on to work for the United States Information Agency. He would also become Olin Professor of history at Adelphi University, feeding at the trough of the Olin Foundation, one of the major funding sources for neocon subversion. What Buhle failed to see is how Radosh by becoming a neoconservative remained a revolutionary Jew. As of this writing, it looks as if Iraq has about as much chance of becoming the next heaven on earth as any of the other meccas of failed messianic politics in the past.

Rolling Thunder

On October 27, 1975, six months after the fall of Vietnam and shortly after Rod Radosh married his second wife, three chartered busses rolled out of New York city and headed north. It was the beginning of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review and Bob Dylan’s way of compensating for the void which the end of the war had created in the tattered remnants of the commie folk song movement. It was also Dylan’s way of compensating for the family he had just destroyed. Spitz claims that the music “scene” destroyed Dylan’s marriage. “Scene” in this context is a code word for adultery and drugs: “The scene is what ended it. Sarah [Dylan’s wife] just couldn’t compete with the sideshow allure of New York.” Spitz gets even more explicit when he describes the ambiance of the Rolling Thunder Revue:

The unwritten rule in every male musician’s life was that touring gave him license to go wild. It was the place where, for one or two months out of the year, he was free to get all those freaky fantasies out of his system before settling back into fidelity with the little woman and the kids. What you did on the road was your business. It was like being a member of the music masons.

Sara Lowndes Dylan wouldn’t file for divorce until 1977, but the Rolling Thunder Revue was some indication that the marriage had ended two years before the official papers got filed. Bob Dylan compensated for the loss of his family but surrounding himself with “weirdos,” which is to say latter day versions of Bobby Neuwirth, people of his own background, which is to say, revolutionary Jews from Minnesota,  who gave toadying if oftentimes silent approbation to his wretched excess. He missed his family nonetheless, and “as a result, he manufactured this big musical family to help fill the void.” The Rolling Thunder Revue may have been a faux family but “the spirit of it was patterned after a summer camp,” in particular the Jewish communist summer camps where many of the musicians had first learned about American folk music. All in all, the Rolling Thunder Review bespoke Dylan’s nostalgia for the America which the Jewish cultural revolutionaries had destroyed. They were still conflicted in this regard, because the one thing the New Left refused to relinquish was sexual liberation. As a result, the Rolling Thunder Revue was to post-revolutionary America what the workers’ revolutionary theater trains were to post-revolutionary Russia, an attempt at agit-prop to convince the masses that, contrary to all available evidence, the revolution was still a good idea. That meant bringing sexual revolution to the small towns of New England in 1975, because “All those small towns whose womenfolk were struggling against the yoke of repression were sexual time bombs waiting to go off. The Rolling thunder Revue rolled into town and—Whammo!—teenagers and young moms suddenly found themselves doing things they’d only read about in Penthouse. Leave it to rock musicians!”

Instead of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan chose Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to accompany him on the revue, something his daughter documents in her documentary film. Ochs, as a result, committed suicide. Elliott was eventually replaced by Kinky Friedman—minus his band, the Texas Jewboys. Ochs was lucky in this regard, because had he still been alive he might have gotten the call to replace Kinky Friedman, a singer who sported menorah-embroidered silk cowboy shirts, when that parody of the singing Jewish cowboy wore thin. The quality of Dylan’s music can be deduced from the details of his Rolling Thunder lifestyle. He put on a cowboy hat, painted his face white, and sang one song after another in the same voice without giving any indication of when he moved from one to the other. It was in many ways a musical rendition of his sex life; once he had left his wife and family, the songs and the women became interchangeable and indistinguishable.

The revolutionary Jew had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. He had subverted the morals of once “puritanical” America, and in the course of subverting the morals of others he had wrecked his own life as well.  In the end, Archibald MacLeish was right, “if anything costs you your faith or your family, then the price is too high.”

In 1975, right around the time that the busses pulled out of New York to embark on the Rolling Thunder Revue, the Bothy Band released its epoch-making album of traditional Irish music. A rhythm section propelled by Donal Lunny on the bouzouki and Michael O’Domhnaill on the acoustic guitar indicated that the band had been influenced by the folk revival of the ‘60s, but the music was pure Irish ethnic, passed on the tradtional intra-family way. Michael and Triona Ni Domhnaill’s aunt had contributed 286 songs to the Dublin University folklore collection.

Four years later Mick Maloney arrived in Philadelphia and, under the guidance of Ken Goldstein, still at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Clark, with whom Goldstein collaborated in the creation of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Maloney began to use the nearly defunct folk music network to promote traditional Irish music, leading to a Irish music renaissance which would spread for the next 20 years through the ruins of the old folk network. By the late ‘70s, popular front folk music had morphed for a short time into folk rock, which in turn morphed into hard rock, heavy metal, disco, and any number of minor variations all of which were promoted intensely but with diminishing returns by what had come to be known as “the music industry.” The music industry could be compared to a layer of asphalt which gradually covered over large areas of fertile musical ground in much the same way that mall parking lots were covering over acres of fertile farmland during the same period of time. The point of the music industry was commerce and control, or commerce as a form of control, as pioneered by Jewish Businessmen like Albert Grossman, and epigoni like David Geffen. If, by the late ‘70s the music industry could be compared to one large metaphorical mall parking lot, then The Bothy Band’s 1975 album could be compared to some hardy plant popping its first tendrils out of a crack in the asphalt caused by the thaw following a long winter of ice and cold. It showed that there was still life in the subterranean stratum of ethnic music that the music industry had tried to colonize and control.

It wasn’t long before other plants began to bloom in the cracks in the music industry asphalt as well. In 1976 a group of Jewish refugees from the by-then defunct folk music movement formed a band called Klezmorim in Berkeley, California, releasing their first album that same year. As far as the Irish were concerned, it wasn’t a moment too soon. “Klezmer,” the musicians of the Irish revival of the 1980s used to say, “was God’s way of keeping the Jews from taking over Irish music.” At the moment when the Lomax popular front music tradition had morphed into Heavy Metal, the Jews turned to “Heavy Shtetl.” In 1978, the Los Angeles based NAMA Orchestra, released their album, Mazltov!, and Klezmer music was born. Although the term came into common parlance as a musical category around 1980, the music was not new.
Klezmer (based on the Hebrew kle and zmer, meaning vessels of song) was the ethnic music of the southern part of the Jewish pale of settlement. If New Orleans was the catch basin for the musical traditions of the South and the place where they got forged into something typically American known as Jazz, Odessa played a similar role in the evolution of Klezmer, the music of the southern areas of the Pale—Moldova, Bessarabia, the Bucovina region of Romania and the southern Ukraine. It was in Odessa that Gypsy, Greek and Romanian music merged into the frehlekhs and other manifestations of the Jewish dance music which eventually became known as Klezmer. 

Since Bob Dylan’s grandmother came from Odessa, there is a certain element of irony here. At the very moment that all of the Jewish banjo pickers were emerging from the rubble of the folk movement which Dylan helped destroy, dusting off their grandparents’ 78 records, Bob Dylan became a Christian. Dylan was baptized in May 1980 and went on to release three Christian albums which revitalized his career, allowing him to reach a whole new audience. Spitz, displaying the animus against Christianity one has come to expect of Jews, claims that “Dylan fans were shocked and bewildered by this newest transformation” and gives some indication that Dylan’s conversion was one more instance of a Jewish performer adopting an alien ethnic stage identity. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was Al Jolson putting on the religious version of black face. At this point it seems as if Dylan’s conversion was sincere, but it is not clear whether Dylan plans to perdure in the faith. Life on the road destroyed his marriage, so it is unlikely that it will help him lead a life worthy of a Christian.

The question is, however, largely irrelevant to our central concern here, which is ethnic music. Dylan got his wish. He became as big as Elvis, and in doing so he became a fixture in the music industry, which meant he got cut off from the fertile soil of ethnic music. This is important because all music is ultimately ethnic. Ralph Vaughan Williams makes a convincing case for that point in his book National Music. “True style,” according to Hubert Parry, is always ethnic, because it comes “not from the individual but from the products of crowds of fellow-workers who sift and try again till they have found the thing that suits their native taste. . . Style is ultimately national.”

In this regard, Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, was a folk musician because he was typically German, and “it was the tradition of his own country which inspired him.” Just as Bach spoke a particular language, German, he spoke a particular musical language as well, one that was also German, one which manifested “a deep love for the spiritual values of Teutonism, as exemplified in the Lutheran religion and the great choral melodies which were one of the outward and visible signs of that spirit.” Just as Bach spoke German every day of his life, he also listened to, performed, and composed German music, virtually from the day he was born to the day he died. Great musical achievement like Bach’s can only come out of a homogeneous ethnic environment.  If musical culture is like a wave, then Bach would most certainly be the crest of that wave.

Yet the crest can’t exist without the water underneath it. Similarly, Bach himself, was only able to produce his fugues, his Passions, his cantatas, because there had preceded him generations of smaller composers, specimens of the despised class of “local musicians” who had no other ambition than to provide worthily and with dignity the music required of them: craftsmen perhaps rather than conscious artists. Thus there spread among the quiet and unambitious people of northern [sic] Germany a habit, so to speak, of music, the desire to make it part of their daily life, and it was into this atmosphere that John Sebastian Bach was born.

The fallacy of our age—and in this regard, Vaughan Williams was 30 years ahead of his time—is that “the genius springs from nowhere, defies all rules, acknowledges no musical ancestry, and is beholden to no tradition.” Vaughan Williams could not have had Bob Dylan in mind when he wrote this, but he could not have described his career more accurately either. The lesson of Vaughan Williams’ book is that musical deracination has consequences every bit as destructive as musical rootedness is salutary. Just as Bedrich Smetana helped bring the Czech nation into being when he ennobled the Bohemian folk songs, so Bob Dylan seduced an entire generation by leading them off into the wasteland of deracinated Dionysian music.

A further irony is that the music which began by asking everyone to “give peace a chance,” would eventually lead to war, as Radosh’s memoir would make clear. Vaughan Williams was prescient enough to see that too—the rise of neocon global imperialism from rootless Dionysian music, over a half a century before it happened. According to Vaughan Williams, who got the idea from George Trevelyan, “the ideal would be for every nation to be different and at peace,’ but “what we are tending towards is to be all alike and at war.” Call it the paradox of globalism, if you will: colorless cosmopolitanism leads to war: “we can get our music from Germany, our painting from France, our jokes from America and our dancing from Russia. Has this brought us peace? Does not this colourless cosmopolitanism bring in its train wars, such as our isolated forefathers never dreamed of?” When it became clear that MTV culture was Jewish revolutionary activity, whose purpose was to destroy their culture and enslave them through feminism and sexual liberation, the Muslims reacted violently. When it became clear that the Muslims were not going to accept MTV culture
peaceably, the neoconservatives decided to impose it on them by military force.


The antidote to colorless cosmopolitanism and the wars it breeds is ethnic music. It was ironically the Jews, the quintessential rootless cosmopolitans, who discovered this truth in the ‘80s when they rediscovered Klezmer, the musical heritage of their parents. Henry Sapoznik was a typical New York Jewish banjo picker teaching that instrument at Jay Ungar’s Appalachian music camp in the Catskills in the early ‘80s. “As was so often the case in the New York folk music scene,” Sapoznik tells us, “the vast majority of the participants—teacher and students alike—were Jewish.” 

Sapoznik then started listening to “the YIVO [the New York Yiddish Cultural Center] collection of 78s,” which opened up to him “the music of my forbears, the passionate and unfettered first American klezmorim.” Following in the same tradition the Jewish communists pioneered in the ‘30s, Sapoznik in 1984 organized a summer camp, where Jews could learn and play Klezmer music and speak Yiddish. What followed was a phenomenally successful process of re-ethnicization,  one that could be imitated by other groups—the Irish, for example—in America as well. Henry Sapoznik, Bob Dylan and Ron Radosh are three banjo- (or guitar-) picking Jews who followed three significant cultural trajectories when folk music exploded in mid-air like the Challenger shuttle in the late ‘70s. Of the three, the one chosen by Radosh is the most dangerous because it is purest manifestation of the fatal attraction the revolutionary Jew has for messianic politics.

Ethnic music will only function as an antidote to globalism if people can break through the crust of commercial music and MTV music industry culture and make some significant contact with it, and that can only happen if they put down their headsets and start making that music themselves.

Vaughan Williams proposed a five-year ban on German music in England. We can propose something similar: a five year ban on recorded music, because recorded music is like spectator sports, an oxymoron of sorts, which leads to passivity and control, as well as bad music, broken families, and neocon-inspired wars in Iraq. “What I want to see in England,” Vaughan Williams tells us,  “is everybody making music—however badly. Gustav Holst used to say that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing badly.” It is better to play “The Kesh Jig” badly than listen to an exquisite recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because “even at some immediate sacrifice of good we must develop our own culture to suit our own needs.” What I want to see is the same thing in America—everyone playing ethnic music—even if they play it badly— in the new ethnic America freed from the bad dream of global hegemony,
E. Michael Jones

AFTERWORD: The quote is taken from Ron Radosh's website and the clip is from an interview by Bob Dylan.


Ron also believes in the need to defend Israel, and many of his columns deal with the war against Israel and the fight against its enemies.

When he’s not working or writing, he and his wife take care of their six grandchildren. His other big hobby is folk, country and bluegrass music (Ron plays a 5-string banjo and guitar).