Strumming Along with Dylan and Seeger

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By Robert E. Cohen

Folk music seems to be on people’s minds right now. It is even at the movies. Who would have thought the folkies would be so “of the moment”—but then, as often happens, things have a way of being altered in the retelling. As a student of history and also somebody who was there, let me add my two cents, starting with my take on Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Musically speaking, I was impressed. The Coen Brothers turned to T Bone Burnett, the musician, arranger and soundtrack master, as they did for their interesting 2000 movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This time out, Burnett has put together a brilliant collection of songs reflecting a part (but only a part) of the folk revival of the 1960s. These are beautifully performed by Oscar Isaac, who plays the main character. Granted, the movie is not supposed to be a documentary of the folk revival in all its richness as well as its mishugas. But what got lost in translation was the way we worked together, and the way the songs we sang were received by audiences from the tiny coves of Greenwich Village to the hootenanny-wide concerts, from college campuses to Carnegie Hall.

Llewyn Davis comes across as a bit of a depresso, a wandering-within-himself wanderer. He had once served in the merchant marine and now can’t get back in, through some Coen-esque comic complications that are mostly his own fault. He seems clueless about the world he is in. For me and those who were there with me, this did not really ring true. As Happy Traum, my friend and 1960s band-mate, said, this was a more innocent time than the Coen Brothers would have you think. Although God knows the 20th century was already the parent of monstrous offspring, we young-uns in the 1960s were still more naive and dreamy than one can say of young folks now who live mostly in cyberspace and seem to know everything instantly, if not sooner, and don’t seem to believe in much of anything.

Three-quarters of the way into this film, I found myself getting restless and in need of something—a roaring crowd? A folk group? A turn toward success? But this is a go-it-alone deal from the Coen Brothers, which makes it comparable to Gabriel Byrne’s solitary journey as a wayward gangster in their 1990 movie Miller’s Crossing. Llewyn Davis had been part of a promising folk duo but his buddy is gone from the scene, a suicide. When someone tries to sing along with Llewyn (a funny scene with uptown liberals who have him over for dinner) he reacts with horror. Sad to say, watching Inside Llewyn Davis was like encountering a stray cat that continues on its way despite your attempts to pet it. (Felines are in fact a major plot element but I won’t spoil it for you.)

The film ends—this one is not a spoiler—with a wide shot of an actor playing Bob Dylan, sitting under the cabaret lights, tuning his guitar and then singing Fare Thee Well, the Dylan adaptation of an old Irish tune called Leaving of Liverpool. The pang of recognition there was palpable. My group, the New World Singers, used to invite Dylan on stage to perform with us on that and other songs, at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Its soaring melody, and the lyrical verses Dylan added, still move me. Happy Traum put it well once again when he said the appearance in the Village of this 19-year-old Minnesotan really was the end for many of us folkies on the same playing field. It was a little like being a fledgling playwright in Elizabethan England when Will Shakespeare showed up with quill pen in hand. Oy vey!

The solitary approach taken in Inside Llewyn Davis points toward the subjective and individualistic part of the singer-songwriter phenomenon (to which Dylan, of course, made a major contribution). One has to respect the filmmakers’ right to take this approach, but nonetheless it gives short shrift to the causes we championed with our songs: civil rights, peace, unions. Sure, for some, it was just about “me,” but for many of us it was political. Naively political, as I say, but that urge to look forward to a fairer, brighter day really was reflected in the songs we sang and where we sang them.

Dylan mainly sang about love, once in a while going out to embrace a cause but those songs were some of his poorest. He himself acknowledged that it’s hard to come up with something good when you’re consciously using music as a weapon, as the Pop Fronters say. Dylan’s 2004 memoir has a passage on the labor movement anthem Joe Hill by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes, wherein he observes:

“Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they don’t know is there. The song ‘Joe Hill’ doesn’t even come close, but if there ever was someone who could inspire a song, it was him. Joe had the light in his eyes.”

The people who reflexively talk of Dylan’s selling his soul for fame elevate Masters of War and such like above his better work. “My stuff was songs, not sermons,” he told Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes. He rankled under the image of “the archbishop of anarchy” that some wanted him to be. Those of us who saw the young performer up close could feel the passion that this charismatic musician put into Fare Thee Well–it was just as powerful as the indignation that antiwar activists vented when they sang the more accusatory Dylan songs.

Gil Turner, Happy Traum, Delores Dixon, Bob Cohen

Gil Turner, Happy Traum, Delores Dixon, Bob Cohen

Of course, one of the “cause” songs was sheer poetry. Another band-mate of mine, Delores (Dee) Dixon, tells the story of how her singing of No More Auction Block for Me, a pre-Civil War freedom song written by slaves, inspired Bob’s melody for the work he is perhaps best known for, Blowin’ in the Wind. He sang this song to us in the rat-filled basement of Gerde’s right after finishing it. The New World Singers learned it on the spot, went upstairs to the stage, and performed it. We were also the first to put Blowin’ in the Wind on vinyl. Our recording has Delores soloing the first line of the famous chorus. The album was released by Folkways and on it are the liner notes Bob wrote for us. (And true to form, the Folkways impresario Moe Asch failed to pass on to us a cent of what the album earned!)

The arguments over whether Bob Dylan was a sermonizer, or ever wanted to be one, or “lost his soul” by quitting being one, may never end. In contrast, when people disagree about Pete Seeger, the one thing that no one disputes is his earnest desire to use music for the delivery of a message. I even helped Seeger deliver it in the Freedom Summer of 1964.

I’d been in Mississippi the previous year, when my Manhattan roommate, Bob Moses, wanted us to go down and teach young black folks their own gospel songs which had been turned into freedom songs. In this way they could better participate in the voter-registration drive. The follow-up visit to Mississippi, this time without my band-mates, was my small part of the much chronicled effort to advance the civil rights movement by starting up Freedom Schools.

In my old, red Oldsmobile—you could sit in the back, it’s just there was no floor—I ferried musicians around to the Freedom Schools. Including Pete Seeger—or, as young women called him back in the day, “Pete’s eager!” There he was, stretched out in the back of the car, wondering what songs of his the folks down South would know. Trini Lopez had just made a hit out of If I Had a Hammer by Lee Hays of the Weavers, and so Pete sang that to the school kids, and he sang his great African folk tale, Abiyoyo.

My mentor and one-time hero of beloved memory, who died last month, leaves a mixed legacy.

First, the good stuff. From him I learned the rich, humorous, plaintive, and energetic musical repertoire of Americans and of people all over the world. My overriding mental picture is of Pete cajoling people to sing sitting under his Adam’s apple at Carnegie Hall or at a hootenanny on the upper west side of the city where he and I were born, New York. As a performer he always used humor. He’d say, “If you sing a wrong note, call it harmony!” His banjo was like a magic wand that could get even the grouchy to exhale a rousing chorus, be it We Shall Overcome or She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain When She Comes, both of which were based on black gospel songs.

I first heard Pete as I was growing up in the 1950s. He was a fixture at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, the K-through-12 I attended that prides itself on being the city’s very first progressive school. Charity Bailey, our music teacher (see below), had filled us for years with the songs of railroad workers, sailors, farmers, and prisoners—from Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill to The Midnight Special. So did guest players at our assemblies, one of whom was Pete. The musical education we soaked up was a far cry from Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, and Home Sweet Home. Not that I deprecate, or ever did, the old-fashioned, passionate love songs that were more in the musical mainstream. The American song book is a house of many mansions.

Charity Bailey, teacher of Bob Cohen

While at the LREI, I formed a small group with Peter Eliscu (son of the Tin Pan Alley lyricist Edward Eliscu). The selection process is lost in the mists of time, but somehow or other, in 1955, our group was chosen to take the stage at Carnegie Hall and sing with Pete Seeger. Cohen, Eliscu, and company performed a lovely Ecuadoran song about a horse (Mi Caballo Blanco) but also lost in the mist is what it was we sang with Seeger. No doubt he was his usual infectious self.

What I did not recognize at the time was that music and politics were a heady brew. I did not recognize, either, that my community’s, my school’s, my family’s, and Pete Seeger’s worship of figures like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung (and Americans like Earl Browder) was misguided. The first on that list called us useful idiots and right he was. Some of my elders, but only some, reached their “Kronstadt”—their moment of disillusionment with communism—and the same was true of my peers. Some, but only some, made the decision to break away and think for themselves. The famous sociologist Daniel Bell quipped that “Kronstadt was my Kronstadt,” meaning that the Revolution’s earliest scandalous incident—the Red Army’s bloody suppression of the sailors’ mutiny against the Soviet government in 1921—was enough to show that the bloom was off the Bolshevik rose. My Kronstadt came when I was 17, in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev revealed the horrors of Stalin’s dictatorship.

For Pete it seemed to take a much longer time. A half century after Stalin’s death he wrote a sad-mad blues about Uncle Joseph. He visited the Soviet Union a number of times. Toward the end of his life, well after that nation had collapsed, he remarked to my high school buddy, Ron Radosh, that maybe when he was there he should have gone to see the Gulags. (As if they would have let him; likelier he would have been brought to some Terezin-like Potemkin village set up to impress gullible visitors, as happened in 1944 when the American Vice President Henry Wallace visited the mines at Kolyma where he concluded that all the slaves were just hard working, happy-go-lucky Russians.)

My own further learning took place when I went to prison and learned from the very loving aid of Rabbi Aryeh Alpern and Rabbi Jonathan Eichhorn. I learned that to worship human beings and their utopian intentions was not only a sin, but could be very dangerous. I started to learn the beauties and truths of Judaism, and where blind faith can lead.

Public figures like Pete and his comrade Paul Robeson, the great bass singer and actor, touted the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise—the future for all the world. That they (we) were horribly mistaken is now obvious. What is not so plain is what they and their artistic colleagues might have done to alter even in a miniscule way the slaughter of so many innocents. Perhaps nothing—but had they stood on stages all over the West, and with their great popularity, described what was really happening behind the Iron Curtain, read the poems and essays of the dissenters, called for protests as they did against the U.S. government in the Cold War, might even a madman like Joseph Stalin and his henchmen have been deterred even a bit? Even for the sparing of one life? In 1952, Robeson knew that the Jewish communist poet Itzik Feffer was going to be murdered—but said nothing because, as he told his son upon returning from the USSR, he wasn’t going to give Capitalist America the satisfaction.

It all gets very complicated when you bring in the musical angle. The Left’s worship of communism so often took the form of hatred of America—but this was mixed up with a love of “the people” and an attention to American music that produced a folk revival that caught on. Not in the sense of rushing to the barricades to fight the capitalists, to be sure. But bourgeois Americans were singing the songs of coalminers and wind-lashed sailors. They (and I) were getting a sense of a wider world as brought to us by Seeger and his group, the Weavers, which sang everything from Israeli army songs (Tzena, Tzena) to Raghaputi (a Hindi hymn song from India pleading for peace between Muslims and Hindus).

From the Weavers I also learned an early pioneer Israeli song, Artza Alinu. (Wonderful renditions of it, all around the world, include the Yiddish folklorist Ruth Rubin, and another by a chorus of Korean men and women.) It’s not clear that they or anyone else who had Stalin up on a pedestal realized that, in turning against Israel, they were emulating that least-favorite figure, Leon Trotsky, who took the side of the Arabs against the early Jewish pioneers. A worship of “the masses” and “the workers” can lead one astray. It did Pete, for his sympathy for the Palestinians drove him to extremes. He refused to enter the Israeli part of Jerusalem. His biographer, David King Dunaway, says that he once punched a hole through a wall in anger at what he said the Israelis had done to the Palestinians. Yes, of course, there is much to criticize on both sides, but again we see the effect of blind faith that refuses to register gray areas, complications, contradictions—that refuses to admit the self-destructive faults of those one is championing. 

There remained some things we agreed on through the years. The very last time I saw Pete, he was in his nineties. He sang for an organization I helped found called Save Them Now—a group to help ex-cons with housing and educational opportunities. He sang with a strong voice, including his greatest self-written song, Turn, Turn, Turn. As you may know, the melody’s his, but he got help with the lyrics from the Biblical sage Kohelet (in Greek: Ecclesiastes).  -Qoh.3- These words were dear to my Dad’s heart. Reciting them while riding in the back seat of the hearse as I rode to his burial, I was joined by my family, and the moment was one of joy and love.

So, Pete—so long, it’s been good to know you. Good to learn from you—from your insight into folks’ yetzer tov (the good, loving part of people) but also your blindness to the yetzer harah (the evil of which man is capable). I’d like to think that, had your long life been just a bit longer, you would have joined Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina (Pussy Riot) in the tour they made through the United States after being released from prison by the (Raz)Putin dictator. The freedom, the spirit of joy, that you brought to so many and instilled so deeply in me is still needed all around the world.⌘

The folklorist and song collector Robert E. Cohen was the director of the Mississippi Caravan of Music during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He has been a lecturer at Bard College and is currently the Cantor at Temple Emanuel, Kingston, New York. Coverage of his reunion with Delores Dixon of the New World Singers can be found here.

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Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 1.45.13 PMEditor’s note: If you quote from this February 2014 essay, please cite Mr. Cohen and mention paintingtheculturered.com.

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