Last Word on “Llewyn”

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O Brother! Why Bother? The latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books has a masterful essay by the critic Martha Bayles. It’s framed by discussion of the Coen Brothers movie so often mentioned on this site. But this is more than a movie review. Bayles covers allied subjects—1930s folk music, 1960s folk music, figures like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger, folk’s relation to the blues, the perennial debate about authenticity—and places them in the context of commerce and entertainment in America.

Bayles Excerpts

On the Communist Party then—

The party in 1935 “made it once again permissible to use any music that might further a Popular Front against Nazi Germany. Unintentionally, the Popular Front turned out to have a salutary effect on American music, including several strains of commercial music tied to the Capitalist economic machine.”

On the singer-songwriters now—mostly drek! finally someone has said it!

“The folk revival nurtured the rise of the singer-songwriter, to be sure. But people like Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, and Bob Dylan were so steeped in the tradition, their best work sounds as though it has been around forever. This is less true today, when most ‘folk songs’ are just as melodically and lyrically impoverished as most pop songs.”

The Liberals, I — Bruce Bliven

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Here at Painting the Culture Red, a major part of our mission is to explore what liberals thought of the Soviet Union. Opinion on the Left was not monolithic. (Future posts will make this clear.) But let’s start with liberals who viewed that nation and its leader as democracy’s best hope.

The New Republic has given us a leg up on this. The February 3 issue retrieves an item “From the Stacks” by Bruce Bliven (1889-1977), one of the magazine’s longest serving editors.

Bliven led the flagship publication of Progressivism from 1930 to 1945. According to the current New Republic editors, Bliven’s “most egregious misstep” was “his sympathy for the Soviet Union.” That Stalin had set about publicly disgracing and killing his rivals was known to the world. The bloody purges “should have been a cue to renounce the USSR,” they write, “but much of the American left was not ready to assimilate that horrific reality.”

Here was somebody ready, at any rate, to complain to the dictator personally. In an open letter to Stalin, Bliven “scrounged for any scrap of logic that might excuse his hero, and endeavored to give the great comrade some heartfelt advice.”

Bliven to Stalin, March 1938:

The cables from Moscow tell us that fresh purges and additional trials are contemplated. I take it for granted that your heart sinks at this prospect, as do those of millions of other persons throughout the world. . . . What I now urge upon you is a revision of your policy . . .

In his 1970 memoir, Bliven said that he and the New Republic’s resident economist, George Soule, “were unforgivably slow to realize what was happening.”

Moe Asch

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envelope to Asch

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.”

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.’ “