Franklin D, listen to me

J. Hoberman

  • Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-53 edited by Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson
    Bear Family Records, DM 390.00, June 1996

The Ephemera of 20th-century popular music have never been more monumental. CDs transform collectors into completists and completists into archivists. Why be content with the Beach Boys’ greatest hits when you can invest in a boxed set, complete with alternate takes, unreleased masters, demo tapes, and radio air checks? Long defunct record labels are catalogued and repackaged as the CD ‘revolution’ churns up all manner of forgotten material. Issued in time for Christmas a few years back, The Beatles: Live at the BBC proved to be their fastest-selling release ever; the Rolling Stones’ BBC tapes are set to follow. Nor is radio the only source. The six-disc Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which first appeared in 1952 as a repackaged collection of rare 78s in the new LP format, and is now reissued on CD, received twice the number of votes of its nearest rival as best release in the Village Voice annual poll of pop music critics.

The Folkways Anthology, edited by the polymath collector, underground film-maker, and beatnik shaman Harry Smith, is arcane, but the critical world has been primed for its reappearance. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good and Greil Marcus’s The Invisible Republic – recent accounts of the curious development of American folk music – both devote considerable space to the Smith collection, making impressive claims on its behalf. Cantwell’s assertion that it was the ‘musical constitution’ and ‘enabling document’ of the Sixties folk revival is echoed and elaborated on by Marcus, who provides the reissued set with a lengthy Introduction: the Anthology was, he writes, the ‘declaration of a weird but clearly recognisable America’.

Bear Family Records’ even more extravagant boxed set, Songs for Political Action – ten CDs nestled like Fabergé eggs in a luxurious royal blue container, complete with a 200-pagc catalogue – is, like the Smith collection, a compilation of rare 78s. Many of the 298 selections were originally released on small, short-lived labels; as the title suggests, most of the material was not recorded primarily for commercial reasons.

With the fanaticism of true collectors, the team responsible for Political Action tracked down elderly performers and retired activists, and excavated the records of the various political campaigns of the Forties, in particular Henry Wallace’s third-party challenge to Truman. That the culture of the Popular Front – the 1936-39 and 1941-47 anti-Fascist, pro-union alliance of liberals, New Dealers and American Stalinists – has been so neglected is thanks not just to Cold War Anti-Communism and the postwar economic boom, but to the triumph of the Trotskyist Partisan Review Modernists, now known as the ‘New York intellectuals’. (In his New Conservative baedeker, The Rise of a Counter-Establishment, the pundit-turned-Clinton-consultant Sidney Blumenthal describes Ronald Reagan as the ultimate expression of Popular Front corniness.)

Yet however bogus or middlebrow the results may have been, the Popular Front generated a popular culture – which was an alternative to Hollywood’s universalising dream factory. The problem was that this culture had also to be politically reliable. Its dreams were regulated. The New Left which emerged in the early Sixties was scornful of its narrow, manufactured mythology even as it built itself on the ruins of the Communist counter-culture.

Michael Denning, in his long interpretative history The Cultural Front, has questioned this disdain. His notion of the culture of the Popular Front embraces sturdy proletarian sagas like Mike Gold’s Jews without Money and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath alongside Modernist novels, such as Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep and Dos Passos’s ‘USA’ trilogy, as well as British anti-Fascist thrillers. Popular Front cinema is not restricted to worthy agitprop like The Spanish Earth but includes much film noir, while finding its ultimate expression in Citizen Kane. Paul Robeson isn’t the only headline performer: he is supported by Billie Holliday and even Duke Ellington.

Indeed, Denning argues that because ‘Pop Frontism’ was less a particular worldview than a set of emotional responses, Elia Kazan can be seen as making ‘Popular Front’ movies such as On the Waterfront or the TVA celebration, Wild River, long after he became persona non grata for the Front’s remaining adherents by providing the House Un-American Activities Committee with the names of his one-time Communist associates.

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