Moe Asch

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Try Saying Something. One of the funny side characters in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis is Mel Novikoff, a record producer running a mom-and-pop label in New York. Half musicologist and half fly-by-night businessman, he is shown fussing behind his cluttered desk and evading poor Llewyn Davis’ attempts to be paid for his work.

There was an actual Mel Novikoff. He was Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records and quite a character. It Still Moves, the 2008 book by Amanda Petrusich, describes Asch as “notoriously irresponsible about paying proper royalties (he repeatedly scrapped with Lead Belly over financial concerns).”

Here’s Asch on a life spent sifting through the profusion of demo tapes he received over the transom:

“Most of them protest about love and stuff like that; I try to tell them, why don’t you use this talent that you have for the people’s use? I am not interested in pro-love or anti-love material.”

His various recording ventures, beginning before World War II, were directed toward using music as a weapon, in the Pop Fronters’ parlance. Petrusich includes a well-known story (disputed by Asch himself): When the young Bob Dylan showed up at Folkways angling for a record contract, Asch turned him down because “he didn’t have anything to say.”

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A Movie About Schactmanites Wouldn’t Be Generally Appealing

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Inside L.D. 2

The Folk Scare. There’s not much that’s political about Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ new movie about a folksinger in the early 1960s. A funny scene down at the Merchant Marine hiring hall has a stray joke about Schactmanites (a fractious faction of Marxists who rejected Stalin’s rule), but that’s about it.

The folksinger Llewyn Davis displays zero interest in being recruited into that obscure sect. For Dave Van Ronk, upon whom Davis is loosely based, politics were more interesting than that (if not quite as interesting as music). As the unofficial “mayor of MacDougal Street”—the title of his 2005 memoir, from which the Coens borrowed—he was an astute observer of what he playfully called “the great American folk scare.”

Van Ronk in doorway with cat

Van Ronk (1936-2002), a rescuer of old jazz, blues, and folk tunes, performed in Greenwich Village starting in 1957, and was a major tastemaker in a local music scene that caught on with college students across the country. He helped the aspiring musicians who flocked to his native New York, including a skinny, 19-year-old Minnesotan named Robert Zimmerman, who showed up in 1961.

By calling it “the great American folk scare,” Van Ronk intimates that musical bohemians and political radicals mixed in his world. Woody Guthrie and other Communist Party members who had launched a folk revival decades earlier were the elder statesmen when people like Van Ronk, and later Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan), came along. The “message” songs sung by the CPers tried to promote the Revolution.

This was odd and amusing to the working-class Irish (with an admixture of Dutch) kid from the outer boroughs who, circa 1950, found music in Washington Square Park. On Sundays, the CPers would be out in force, sitting on the grass with “five-string banjos and nylon-strong guitars in hand, singing what they called ‘people’s songs.’ ” Adds Van Ronk:

“I remember once coming across a covey of them sitting cross-legged around a bespectacled banjoist who struck a dramatic chord and earnestly explained, ‘This is a song the workers sing when they’re oppressed.’ ”

His is not a systematic account, but the reader gathers that he floated through “a loose-knit anarchist group” or two, and the Young People’s Socialist League, before his participation apparently petered out. He describes public demonstrations against the Reds. The American Legion would organize people to picket outside the cabaret venues and concerts of performers identified as communists. These were dark times, says Van Ronk. Because communists were persecuted, he writes,

“I almost sympathized with them: I mean here you are, you’ve spent thirty or forty years of your life peddling poison that you thought was candy—think what that can do to somebody’s head. On the other hand, we could see what was happening in Eastern Europe, and many of us had also had our run-ins with authoritarian, Stalinist die-hards . . .  we knew them for the assholes they were.”

Speaking for himself and others—“we of the non-Communist left, whether we were revolutionary socialists or anarchists or whatever the hell we were calling ourselves that week”—he says that the anticommunists, “however loathsome and psychotic” they were, had “gotten one thing right: the CP was the American arm of Soviet foreign policy, no more, no less. They were stolid organization men.” So “even though we had a certain amount of admiration for the singers who stood up to the Red hunters, when you got right down to it we wanted very little to do with them.”

The film is not very Van Ronk, and this is true in ways beyond the political. He was charming, rugged, a font of musicological chatter. Joel and Ethan Coen have other fish to fry with their irascible yet soulful Welsh-Italian loner, Llewyn Davis. He is played by Oscar Isaac, who sings wonderfully—better than Van Ronk did. Van Ronk was the better guitarist. For interesting perspectives on the movie, see Sean Wilentz here and John Podhoretz here.

Below: On stage in New York City, 1974: Dennis Hopper, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk (right) with Donovan and Dylan

Don, Bobby, and the Pact

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A Friendship Fractured. For the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (see previous post), it was not always easy to toe the Communist Party line. Doing so estranged him from admired friends like Robert Benchley (pictured above, with magazine to which he contributed). The 1939-1941 alliance between the supposedly anti-fascist leader Josef Stalin and the biggest fascist of them all, Adolf Hitler, was “a rather questionable pill to swallow,” wrote Stewart in his autobiography, but “because I trusted the Soviet Union to have the correct Marxist understanding of the situation, I refrained from publicly criticizing the pact.”

Stewart’s By a Stroke of Luck! (1975) is full of tales of Hollywood and, before that, the Algonquin Round Table in New York City. A screen adapter of talent  (The Philadelphia Story, Life with Father), Stewart (1894-1980) was a native Ohioan who made glittering friends in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. He regularly traded barbs at the famed Algonquin Hotel gatherings with Benchley and other writers and humorists. (Stewart describes himself as elegantly attired but inwardly uneasy, ever worried that his jokes wouldn’t go over with the group.)

By the 1930s, Benchley had given up literary journalism for acting, and he and Stewart had budding careers in Hollywood. Stewart, a joiner and Popular Front activist, had a tendency to proselytize: “At my suggestion Bobby [Benchley] started to read the Webbs’ Soviet Russia – A New Civilization and reported after the first few pages that it seemed like it might be a good idea.”

Dialectical materialism didn’t take with Benchley, though, and when the pact arrived, he was incredulous that his friend Don did not reconsider his promotion of the Soviet government and the Bolshevik cause. Stewart caught hell from him, as is recounted in By a Stroke of Luck!:

“All along, since my ‘conversion,’ I had been deeply sure Bobby respected me for my political activities, even though he wasn’t at all interested in them, with the exception of rights for Negroes, about which he felt very strongly, and for which he had once or twice let me use his name on a committee. But now, as he kept pressing me with increasing scorn about the Stalin pact, I felt a horrible gulf opening between us; worse than that, I realized that my confident assumption that he had understood my ‘new life’ and had sympathized with it had been an illusion. I couldn’t answer his questions, other than to plead that Stalin must have had good reasons. ‘What reasons?’ shouted Bobby, and his contempt for me was so violent that I couldn’t answer.”

We’ll close with a passage from a 2005 book by Deborah Martinson:

“Humorist Robert Benchley told the story of one evening finding [Donald Ogden] Stewart at a rich man’s dinner party in Hollywood, waving his caviar-piled cracker and glass of champagne and telling anyone who would listen, ‘Comes the Revolution, none of you will have any of this . . . join us while you can, because we are going to take this away from you.’ “

“I’m Not Going to Fight.”

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Screwball Comedy’s Ephemeral Joke. The movie That Uncertain Feeling, with screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, was released by United Artists on April 20, 1941. An insurance man played by Melvyn Douglas (left) finds out that a concert pianist (Burgess Meredith, right) is dallying with his wife. Douglas confronts his rival. The bourgeois-hating, modernist musician declares: “I’m not going to fight.” Douglas’ sly retort: “No, I know, I understand—you’re an isolationist.” The screenwriter, Stewart, was an isolationist when he wrote that line. He wouldn’t be for long. A communist who accepted Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, Stewart would zigzag when the Party did. The very next month, Hitler broke the pact by invading Russia, and Reds turned gung-ho for U.S. intervention to save the flagship of Marxism-Leninism.

Introduction

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worker standing at capitalism's abyssAlthough it crushed the individual person wherever practiced, communism was admired by artists and intellectuals in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. In 1991, the Soviet Union went out of existence. Yet the music, theater, movies, and fiction of today tell us that political failure is one thing, the annals of culture quite another. America absorbed communism not as an ideology but as an emotion. At this blog we are attuned to that emotion – and we’ll bring you its manifestations from the 1930s to just last week.