Socio-Political Music Through 1940-1960 Part One: An American Folk Revival Essay

Influenced by Joe Hill’s socio-political stance and approach of sending union messages through his music, the 1940s-1960s produced acts such as The Almanac singers and The Weavers, who continued to fight for social and political change through their music.

The Almanac singers were an American folk group who originated and were based in New York city, founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. As the band’s name describes, the group’s music would discuss current social and political issues, and to listen to their albums is the audio equivalent of looking through a yearbook. Similar to the IWW, The Almanac

Almanac Singers

The Almanac singers: (left to right) Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and Pete Seeger.

singers followed a pro-union philosophy, as well as an anti-war and anti-racism stance. The group wrote their songs from a proletariat point of view; ‘But with a farmer-labour party we could set the people free’, ‘Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do, you got to talk to the workers in the shop with you’. The group were also part of the popular front, an alliance of liberals and left labour workers, and the communist party USA who followed the slogan of ‘Communism is the twentieth century Americanism’. The members of the almanac signers felt that songs could help achieve these goals.

Prior to the group’s formation, war was yet to be declared and rearmament was concluding a decade of unemployment; labour was at its most militant. THE CIO (congress of industrial organisation) which workers first saw as an opportunity for unionism slowly disbanded by the early 1940s due to new unions in the metalworking industries: The United autoworkers, the united steel workers, and the untied electrical workers.

Members of the CIO

The CIO was born as the result of a fundamental dispute with the United States labour movements concerning whether and how to organise industrial workers in 1936, and by 1937 the CIO had gained dramatic success; winning union recognition at general motors corporations (after a forty-four day sit down strike), and the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S steel.  The congress’ initial strategy was to focus its efforts in the steel industry and to build from there, reaching as far as organizing in companies such as Ford, however CIO members faced multiple communist charges, expelled members started to build rival unions, and police brutality heightened in strikes.

In 1937 the CIO attempted to organize textile workers in the southern states, however discovered this to be even more of a challenge; these workers were discouraged as they had already experienced failed organizing drives and defeated strikes, resulting in unionists being blacklisted or worse. In addition, the intense hostility of white workers towards black workers and the conservative political and religious milieu made organising arduous. There were also more eminent unions forming at the time in the south that aggressively focused on the organising of both black and white workers, such as the FTA (the food, tobacco, agricultural, and allied worker union of America) who attained more advancements than the more cautious textile workers organizing committee which was founded by the CIO.

After the death of Philip Murray (the longest serving president of the CIO) discussion of merging the CIO with the AFL (American federation of Labour) began. Most of the critical distinctions that once divided the two organizations had faded since the 1930s, and the opportunity to coalesce the two unions came with many advantages for the CIO; the AFL was twice as large, and the CIO was once again facing internal strife that endangered the union.  Also, at this point in time industry workers were no longer concerned with just industrial unionism, but they also wanted to attain a kind of social reconstruction. It was in this social movement scene that The Almanac singers began to be seen.

Between 1940 and 1941 the founding members of the group began playing together informally. Members Seeger and Guthrie had met at Will Geer’s Grapes of Wrath evening, a benefit for displaced migrant workers in the march of 1940. Later that year, in October, Seeger returned from a Texas and California trip and moved in with Hays and Lampell in a rented New York city apartment, which they called the Almanac House; the place slowly became a crash pad for folk singers such as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as well as a hub for leftist intellectuals.

The group’s first formal gig was in January 1941 at a fund raising benefit for Spanish civil war loyalists at the Jade mountain restaurant in New York city, and in the following month, the group performed at an American youth congress held at Turners Arena in Washington D.C, at which sponsors had requested songs constructed around the slogan ‘Don’t lend or lease our bases’ and ‘Jim crow must go’. Shortly after this the group decided to call themselves The Almanacs as Hays stated that back home in Arkansas, farmers had only two books in their houses: ‘The bible to help ‘em to the next world. The Almanac, to help ‘em through the present world.’

The group’s image played a major role in presenting their political stance; wearing street clothes and performing with old, scratched up guitars, which was such a contrast to the entertainer majority who wore formal, night-club attire. The group also invited the audience to join in on the singing, which really did promote their ideals of true unionism. The group also didn’t limit their performances to just music venues and night-clubs, but they also played at parties, rallies, benefits, and union meetings. On May day of 1941, the group entertained a rally of 20,000 striking transit workers in Madison square garden, where they introduced the song ‘Talking union’.


Draft Registration certificate

The almanacs’ first record release, Songs for John Doe, tackled the Selective training and service act of 1940, the first peacetime draft in U.S history. Recorded through February and March of 1941, the album was issued in the following May. The LP comprised four songs written by Lampell and two by Seeger and Hays that followed the communist party line (after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), urging non-intervention in World war two. Pacifism, activated by abhorrence at the barbarity of World war one, was still strong, and there was widespread non-interventionist sentiment among labour members, as well as among the predominantly right-wing members of the Isolationist America First Committee; Charles Lindbergh, the future U.S 38th president Gerald Ford, and also the anti-communist socialist Norman Thomas. The song was produced by the founder of Keynote records (known for its releasing of folk and protest songs from the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War), Eric Bernay. Bernay, who owned a small record store in Manhattan called The Music Room, was the former business manager of the magazine entitled new masses (an American Marxist magazine). Perhaps because of its contentiousl content, Songs for John Doe was released under the imprint Almanac records; the album attacked big American corporations (such as J.P. Morgan, which is a commercial and investment banking institution, and DuPont, which is an American conglomerate that creates developments in science).

The debut album also criticized President Roosevelt’s unprecedented peacetime draft; ‘I hate war, and so does Eleanor, but we won’t be safe ‘till everybody’s dead’, insinuating that Roosevelt was going to war for J.P. Morgan. In ‘Where have all the flowers gone: a musical Autobiography, Seeger talks of how: ‘Those were the days of Hitler’s aerial blitz of Britain and Stalin’s invasion of Finland. A large section of the American (and English and French) public was still hoping to sic Hitler on Stalin, and let the two rival dictatorships fight it out and leave the democracies alone. Harry Truman, then in the Senate (later succeeding FDR as U.S President), is supposed to have said that we should try to get Hitler and Stalin fighting each other and then help the one that’s losing. Then they’d both finish each other off.’

When Seeger was in the midst of writing his autobiography, Helen Travis, a friend of his from that era, showed how Party members justified the changing line to themselves when she wrote:

‘I remain convinced that it was a phony war at the outset. However, we lefties weren’t hep enough to note how It changed when popular resistance to the German onslaught began in Yugoslavia…before the invasion of the USSR.’

Bess Lomax Hawes, who was twenty at the time and was on-and off again member of the group, writes in her autobiography Sing it pretty (2008), about her attitude towards the pacifist oath that was inspired to her through the brutality of the first World war, and that while she took her oath very seriously, she was caught up in the daily changing events about German atrocities; she and the group found themselves adjusting their material on a regular basis; ‘Every day, it seemed, another once-stable European political reality would fall to the rapidly expanding Nazi armies, and the agonies of the death camps were beginning to reach our ears. The Almanacs, as self-defined commentators, were inevitably affected by the intense national debate between the “warmongers” and the “isolationists” (and the points between). Before every booking we had to decide: were we going to sing some of our hardest-hitting and most eloquent songs, all of which were anti-war, and if we weren’t, what would we sing anyway? … We hoped the next headline would not challenge our entire roster of poetic ideas. Woody Guthrie wrote a song that mournfully stated: “I started out to write a song to the entire population / But no sooner than I got the words down, here come a brand new situation’

On June 22nd 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and attacked communist Russia in operation Barbarossa.  Keynote records promptly destroyed all its inventory of Songs for John Doe. The CIO changed its political stance and was now urging support for Roosevelt and the peacetime draft, prohibiting its members from organising strikes for the duration.

Approaching the United States entry into the second World war, African Americans rejected the call to ‘defend democracy’ against Nazi racism while having to deal with discrimination in all sectors of society and work, especially in the South. Discussions of a march of Washington began to spread. Three days after operation Barbarossa, Roosevelt, under pressure from news of a march, signed Executive order 8802 (the fair employment act) banning racial discrimination by corporations. The racial situation, which had threatened black support for the peacetime draft was now somewhat defused (even though the army still declined to desegregated) and the march was cancelled.


Troops confronting miners on a railroad track

The almanac’s second album, Talking union, also produced by Bernay, was a collection of six labour songs: Union maid (a song about wives supporting their union husbands and becoming involved with unionising themselves), I don’t want your millions, Mister (highlighting other labour union needs other than improved wages, but also improved working conditions), Get thee behind me, Satan (blasting those who were tempted to sell out the union, this song was first sung for the striking ford workers in Detroit in 1941), Union train (music advertising for unions, encouraging workers to join ), Which side are you on? (the story of miners who continued to work during the Harlan county war ‘You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair’), and the eponymous Talking Union (written in 1941 while the Almanac singers were working to organize CIO unions. The song describes the process of starting a union, and common potholes that an organisation faces).

While this album was not anti-Roosevelt it was still criticized in a review by Time magazine, even going as far as accusing the Almanac singers of toeing the Moscow line. Published September 15th 1941, in a column entitled ‘September records’, the review recalled the Almanac’s anti-war album released earlier that year, noting: ‘Their recorded collection Songs for John Doe, ably hewed to the then Moscow line, neatly phonograph-needled J.P. Morgan, E I, du Pont de Nemours and, particularly, war. In June of 2016, TIME magazine again reviewed the group; ‘The three discs of Talking Union, on sale last week under the Keynote label, lay off the isolationist business now that the Russians are laying it on the Germans.’

The two albums that followed Talking union took a political hiatus and the group began working with a new producer, Alan Lomax; Deep sea chanteys and whaling ballads (sea chanteys, as was well known, being Franklin Roosevelt’s favourite kind of song), and Sod-Buster Ballads, which were songs of the pioneers. However, the group quickly returned to political topics within their music after the USA entered the European war after Germany’s post-pearl harbour declaration of war in December of 1941, with a new topical album Dear Mr. President. However, this time, the group seemed to have changed their political stance as this album was in support of the war effort. The title song was a solo piece by Pete Seeger and its lines expressed his lifelong credo:

Now, Mr. President, / We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain’t at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait. //

Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain’t perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not ’cause everything’s perfect, or everything’s right. / No, it’s just the opposite: I’m fightin’ because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew,”/ “You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.”//

So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.

Lomax even played the recording for Eleanor Roosevelt. On January the 21st,1942, Lomax wrote to Guthrie stating: ‘I played the Almanac songs the other day for Mrs. Roosevelt, and she thought that they were swell, and asked for copies for the records. She is playing them for her OCD staff, and I think their fame will be spread abroad. Besides, the News and Special events man from BBC was here, and took a copy of ‘Taking it Easy’ with the intention of getting it played on their network. He promised to…get your permission first. The other night I played the stuff for Bobby Strauss, who is Director of Information for OEM, and he was delighted and said he thought that the thing should be used on a broadcast with the only live talent. Something, I am sure, will come of that. I told him that you all could make a new song about any assigned subject at the drop of a banjo (quoted in R.Cohen,2002). In the same letter he urged that the group, if it were to change its name, choose something more associated with folk music than ‘The Headline Singers’, which Guthrie was contemplating. ‘

In 1942, army intelligence and the FBI determined that the Almanacs and their former anti-draft message from previous albums were still a seditious threat to recruitment and the morale of the war effort among blacks and youth. The FBI had also gone after Billie Holiday, when she sang a pacifist song in the middle of the war, forcing her manager to make her change her repertoire. The group were hounded by hostile reviews, exposure of their communist ties and gained negative coverage in the New York press. ‘We got to sing [the pro-war song, ‘Round and Round Hitler’s Grave’] on January ’42, on a nationwide CBS broadcast, ‘This is war’. But the next day a headline in a major New York newspaper said ‘Commie Singers try to Infiltrate Radio,’ and that was the last job we got.’ The band disbanded later in the year.

In 1945, after the end of the war, Millard Lampell went on to become a successful screenwriter for films and television plays such as: Blind Date (1956), The Adams Chronicles, and Rich Man, Poor man (1976), writing under the pseudonym H. Partnow while blacklisted. The other founding Almanac members Seeger and Hays became President and Executive Secretary of People’s Songs, an organisation with the goal of providing protest music to union activists. People’s songs disbanded in 1948, after the defeat of Wallace. Seeger and Hays, joined by two of Hays’ young friends, Ronnie Gilbert and Gred Hellerman, then began singing together again at fund raising folk dances, with a repertoire geared to international folk music. The new singing group, appearing for a while in 1949 under the rubric, ‘the nameless quartet’, changed their names to The Weavers and went on to achieve great renown.

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