Monthly Archives: February 2008

Music and Resistance

The post-war resistance movement had many strands. For example, the American Communist Party dedicated its work to Labor Union Organizing.

But one important strand was related to music – songs of resistance. Many pioneered this field after the war, but most people would call out Pete Seeger as the leader.

His leadership was ofter felt through an organization he formed in 1945-1946 called “Peoples Songs”. Woodie Guthrie, Burl Ives, and other notables joined him.

Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is a really important piece of music. Written in 1941, recorded in 1951, NPR names it in its Top 100 and says this about it:

NPR on Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

Even more important is “We Shall Overcome” – also cited by NPR as one of the top 100 most important songs:

NPR on "We Shall Overcome

“We Shall Overcome” was the ultimate song of resistance. It began as gospel music that motivated SC tobacco field workers and evolved, with Pete Seeger’s help, into the principle anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

These two songs were picked up by virtually all of the elements of the US resistance movements, most especially the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam resistance. Joan Baez, Joni Michell, and even Bruce Springsteen credit Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger as being a core part of their musical roots.

I might argue that the center of gravity of this particular strand of resistance was the famous Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

It is interesting to me that Peoples Song took a huge risk in 1948 when it bet all of its resources on the campaign of Henry Wallace for President – and Wallace lost. They went bankrupt directly thereafter.

Here is what Wikipedia says:

People’s Songs was an organization founded by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, and others on December 31, 1945, in New York City, to “create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people.”[1] The organization published a quarterly Bulletin from 1946 through 1950, featuring stories, songs and writings of People’s singers members. People’s Songs Bulletin served as a template for folk music magazines to come like Sing Out! and Broadside.

Seeger’s work with the Almanac Singers and trips around the country playing banjo for Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) benefits and other progressive organizations in the 1940s cemented his beliefs that folk music could be an effective force for social change. He conceived creating an organization to better disseminate songs for political action to Labor and other progressive organizations around the country.

The organization was loosely modeled as an American version Great Britain’s Workers Music Association, founded 10 years earlier than People’s Songs.[3] It published out a weekly newsletter with songs, articles, and announcements of Hootenannies and folk dances. It served as a clearing house for progressive entertainers. There were also occasional special issues with relevant songs on an as needed basis geared for specific rallies, strike, and court cases. Soon the booking agency became an offshoot: People’s Artists.

The first People’s Songs convention was held in 1947 in Chicago,[4] and there was a branch in California headed by Mario Casetta, an army friend of Seeger’s from Saipan, who became a key figure in the West Coast folk and world music scene.

In its first year People’s Songs met with success, but this was a trying time for the labor movements in the United States, which had a significant Communist presence since its inception. After World War II, the Communist Party of the United States became much more dogmatic than formerly, and was indifferent to the use of folk music. There was also not much call for new organizing or singing in the streets, as established unions tried to consolidate their gains.

In 1948 it put all its resources into the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, and when that failed everywhere but in New York City, People’s Songs went bankrupt, although its booking agency, People’s Artists, continued for a while. After the financial failure of People’s Songs in 1948, Seeger and Silber put out an interim People’s Songs newsletter and then went on to form the more durable Sing Out! magazine with a similar format.

The Newsletter
“The people are on the march and must have songs to sing. Now in 1946, the truth must reassert itself in many singing voices. There are thousands of unions, people’s organizations, singers and choruses who would gladly use more songs. There are many songwriters, amateur and professional, who are writing these songs. It is clear that there must be an organization to make and send songs of labor and the American people through the land. To do this job we formed People’s Songs. INC We invite your to join us.”

Contributors to People’s Songs Newsletter
People’s Songs contained a lot of written out sheet music, lyrics and tablature. It was an eclectic mix of traditional folk and union songs along with newly written pieces by contemporary folk musicians of the time. Some contributors include the following:

Moe Asch
Anges “Sis” Cunningham,
Tom Glazer
Woody Guthrie
Lee Hays
Waldemar Hille
Zilphia Horton
Burl Ives
Millard Lampell
Pete Seeger
Irwin Silber
Sonny Terry
Josh White