Fellow Traveler: An American Folk Revival Essay

The second red scare was a epidemic of paranoia that spread through all states of America; a seven year period of moral panic and political witch hunts under the era of McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy encouraged heavy right wing political correctness through anonymous and unfounded accusations of treason and subversion. While America first supported these political witch hunts, wanting to fight the threat of communism (as there were actual soviet union spies in the US, such as Rudolf Abel, at the time; soviet union spies and informatives were able to shock the USA in 1949 with the news that, it too, had an atomic bomb) the people soon realised that McCarthy’s dog search contradicted, flouted and voided the political rights provided for every citizen U.S constitution. Even President Truman wrote ‘In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.’

Pete Seeger at the House Un-American Activites committee

Pete Seeger

The first amendment in the bill of rights is freedom of religion, speech, and the press, however artists such as Pete Seeger who published works such as New masses and columns for CPUSA, soon found themselves blacklisted from jobs and venues. A musician by trade, Seeger found supporting and constant work difficult, through his time with the Almanac singers and the Weavers, denying him of his right to life.

A fellow traveller was one that was suspected of ‘un-american’ behaviour. This ranged from being an actual communist to being a civil rights activist. There were five different types of fellow traveller that McCarthy believed there to be:

  • The card-carrying communist, who is a member of the American communist party
  • The underground communist, who hides his/hers membership in the communist party
  • The communist sympathizer, who is a potential communist because he/she holds communist political views
  • The fellow traveller, who is someone who is sympathetic to communism but is neither an influential advocate of communism, nor a potential communist
  • The ‘Dupe’ is a man/woman who obviously is not a communist, or a potential communist, but whose politics enable communist subversion, e.g a prominent religious leader who advocates pacifism or civil rights for minority groups (racial religious etc.), and who opposes red baiting as an ‘illegal abridgement of the citizens’ civil and political rights.

Red baiting was the act of accusing, denouncing, attacking and/or persecuting individuals or groups as communists, socialists, anarchists, or showing sympathy towards those movements. Those who faced red-baiting soon also found themselves registered to a blacklist; Hollywood blacklist denied employment to screen writers, actors, directors, musicians, and other American entertainment professionals. McCarthy even stretched far enough to accuse members of the army of communist activity, broadcasted live on the American Broadcasting Company network. April 1954 highlighted the end of McCarthy’s broken record, summarised by Joseph Welch’s rebuke ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’


Senator Joseph McCarthy

The search for fellow travellers began at McCarthy’s Ohio county republican women’s club’s speech, in which he declared he possessed a list of 205 communist spies working in the department of the interior. The media went wild; McCarthy had hit a nerve, relations between the soviet union and the USA were poor and everyone was trying for the position of most anti-communist.

Unions, civil rights, women’s rights, and eco rights were flagged as un-american behaviour, which effected nearly every folk artist singing from the struggles of the working class. Following the threat of the Hollywood blacklist many artists began to rebrand themselves and their sound, Pete Seeger founded The Weavers who began to sing more songs about relationships then his work with the Almanac singers, and Lena Horne began to disenchant from Hollwoof during the 50s and increased her focus on her nightclub career.  However some other artists, such as Paul Robeson, did not stop in their tracks.

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