As a network that supports Americana & Roots music, we have a deep respect for the forebearers of the songs we play daily at DittyTV. Musicians have often been messengers of their time—part of the culture and also shaping the culture.
When we ponder folk music, most of us today think of the great folk movement of the 1960s with its cavalcade of characters such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, and so many others taking the spotlight. But in his new book, The Folk Singers and the Bureau, Aaron J. Leonard looks at the previous wave of folk singers and their fractious relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which, at the time, was quite zealous in its attempt to suppress the Communist Party and the spread of its ideology in the United States.
For most of us, while we knew about some vague surveillance of folk artists by the FBI, we may not have understood the extent or exactly who was involved. Leonard uses an immense amount of the FBI’s own files along with various other sources to uncover just how extensive the FBI was watching musicians who they believed to be in the Communist Party or were sympathizers to the cause during a period between 1939 and 1956.
The author also illustrates the complicated relationships of the time. For one, those exploring communism here and support for the proletariat (aka working class Americans) had to reconcile what was happening in the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. For those in the Communist Party USA, believing that workers should own the means of production certainly went against the strong capitalistic foundation that was thriving in this country, which immediately put them at odds with much of their fellow Americans. And then there were the relationships between the singers themselves.
For instance, today we mostly know Burl Ives as the kindly narrator Sam the Snowman from the Rudolph Christmas special, but in the period this book covers, he was a substantial star of stage and screen and caught the ire of many of his colleagues when, after being blacklisted, he cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and agreed to testify in 1952, thus creating a rift between himself and other folk singers who felt betrayed after he named names to save his own career.
As for the other players featured in the book, many names we know: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, for example. But for those of us born decades after this active time in folk music, Leonard introduces us to a host of singers such as Sis Cunningham, Ronnie Gilbert, Millard Lampell, Alan Lomax, Paul Robeson, and Josh White, to name a few.
Like some creative nonfiction, the book does not read like a novel. Instead, Leonard used a host of sources to piece together chronologically what was happening between the singers and the Bureau. The first chapter, for instance, is The Making of Radical Artists (1936-1939). But for those who fall into the middle of a Venn diagram of folks who love music, history, and political science, this book offers a wonderfully researched look into a particular time in our history with a host of characters who helped shape the music we know today.
Though filmed after the period covered in this book, this song by the great Pete Seeger is just one of many examples of why many considered him “radical.”