A Chronicler of People's Songs

A Chronicler of People's Songs

No two ways about it: if you listen to American music, then your life has been affected by Irwin Silber. He wasn’t a musician or artist. There are few, if any, recordings of “his” songs to be heard. Silber’s place was as a journalist and publisher. But no fewer than two generations of folk musicians knew his name. Silber’s life’s work--which came to a definitive end on August 8th after he succumbed to Alzheimer’s--forged a link between those two eras and well beyond.

Writer Ethan Young, in an obituary for the Portside website, points out that Silber’s greatest contributions were a key part of “the critical cultural expression that broke barriers throughout the country and the world.” As the doldrums of the ‘50s gave way to the upheavals of the ‘60s, Silber’s passionate and unrelenting journalism provided that generation’s most provocative folk artists--from Dylan to Ochs--with something of a road-map.

Born in 1925 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Silber was by all accounts a red from an early age. By the time he reached grade school, the Great Depression was in full swing. Entire neighborhoods were joining the Communist Party (CP), and Silber was among them.

As a teenager he was a regular counselor at the Worker’s Children’s Camp (or “Wo-Chi-Ca”) and encountering the likes of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and other established musicians of the radical left. This was a time of profound shifts in the American mainstream. At the start of the 1930s, the notion of “popular music” was along the lines of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and other watered-down versions of jazz or swing that were a pale comparison to their origins. By the end of the decade, as American workers put their interests on the map like never before, as solidarity and union became household words, so did the musical atmosphere move decidedly in a more genuinely popular direction.

It was this atmosphere in which Silber came of age. When he graduated from Brooklyn College at the age of 19, he was part of the American Folksay Group, a group of square dancers and folk-singers specializing in left-wing square dance calls (hard to picture, yes, but worth it if you can imagine the fear such calls might instill in Toby Keith or any of today’s other conservative country hardliners).

Silber’s place wasn’t onstage, however. At the end of World War II, he found himself working for People’s Songs, a collective of songwriters run out of Seeger’s New York home for the purpose of providing an explicitly left-wing cultural space. “Silber was so devoted,” says author Joe Klein, “that, within a year, he was handed the job of executive secretary and was running the place.”

People’s Songs at first seemed destined for greatness. The year after the war’s end had seen the biggest strike wave in American history. In 1948, the group threw itself, along with most of the Communist-affiliated left, behind the Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Wallace came in fourth (behind the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond), and the coming years would see the left isolated and hounded. People’s Songs, under the increasing pressures of McCarthyism and financial troubles, folded in 1950.

That same year, Silber, along with Seeger and folklorist Alan Lomax, founded the “little magazine” Sing Out! The first issue hit the stands in May, and printed across its front cover was, in essence, the magazine’s mission encapsulated in Seeger’s now-legendary “Hammer Song”:

“If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land”

Silber’s often-strident sense of authenticity was plainly reflected in the pages of Sing Out! and in his column “Fan the Flames.” Commercialization was strictly seen as the enemy, and reviews were sometimes considered overly-harsh--even by readers sympathetic to the rag’s goals. But this outlook is also what enabled Sing Out! to become such a well-respected publication; its acumen for authenticity and politics made it the first music magazine to publish the lyrics to Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” along with many other modern classics.

In the next decade, groups like the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels would find popularity delivering what author Mike Marqusee describes as “easy-listening arrangements of old folk tunes.” Though these kinds of groups were by many accounts inferior, they nonetheless opened the door for the songs that brought depth and meaning to the turbulent ‘60s. As Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and others began to emerge from the heady milieu of civil rights and anti-war protests, Sing Out! provided them with an outlet that championed their work.

For his part, Silber never missed an opportunity to turn music into a focal point of agitation. In 1963, ABC announced the launch of a folk-oriented variety show called “Hootenanny,” he demanded that the network lift its blacklisting of Seeger. After all, Silber reasoned, if the show hoped to even have the chance at authenticity, then they would need the support of folk’s most influential artist. When ABC refused, Silber urged other artists to boycott the show.

In a 2002 interview, he noted that "[A]fter the '50's, politics was really resurging in a big way. And the left--the new left... was developing a whole new sense of politics." And though age and past might tie him closely to the “old left," Silber recognized the shift that was taking place both politically and culturally. He had left the CP in 1955 (which hadn’t stopped him from getting called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee three years later), and quickly embraced the movements for Black liberation and against the Vietnam War. Clearly, Silber was an exception to the rule of “don’t trust anyone over 30.”

This forward-thinking ethos could easily stir controversy. In 1965, Silber was one of the most prominent critics to lambaste Dylan’s infamous “electric” performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival:

“You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob--and I’m worried about it. I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way.”

Word is that Dylan didn’t dig was Silber had to say. An ongoing theory is that the writer was the target of “Positively Fourth Street.”

Years later, some would interpret this letter as a kind of abject folk puritanism, as if Silber’s radicalism was a kind of digging one’s heels in against the innovations that electricity was bringing to music. That wasn’t the case. Silber's objections came not from Dylan’s embrace of the electric guitar, but rather what he took as the singer turning his back on the growing and increasingly radical movements:

“[E]lectricity was not really the defining point. At least it wasn't to most of us at Sing Out! ... I mean, here was a guy who'd come along after I'd spent close to twenty years doing this stuff. And he was the most exciting person I'd heard since Woody Guthrie. And he combined a great artistic feel with a political sense that was poetic, that moved people. And now, to find him turning his back on it... well, I really felt bad about that. But that was my view of it.”

In fact, those who are able to scour the pages of Sing Out! in those days can clearly see that what set the publication apart wasn’t its narrow, wooden conception of folk but the breadth of music that it covered. This included the phenomenon of “folk-rock” as personified not just by Dylan, but the Byrds, the Fugs, Crosby Stills and Nash and countless other acts that sought to blend the soul of folk with the energy of rock.

“I never thought about music that way in terms of a category... But it's one of the problems with categories in music. Sometimes they're helpful if you treat them in a very limited way. But once you use them as a definition that is used to say whether a particular piece should be considered in that category or not, it's a total contradiction.”

It’s easily forgotten today, with a music industry more closely resembling an impenetrable fortress, that the formative decades of American popular music were profoundly ecumenical and fluid. Not so much separated jazz from blues from folk from rock and so on. Silber’s understanding of this is only highlighted by his ongoing collaboration with wife Barbara Dane--not only a fellow revolutionary, but an accomplished singer in her own right who easily moved between the genres of blues, folk and jazz.

Silber’s output wasn’t just limited to the pages of magazines. The 1960s saw a flurry of painstakingly researched books hit the shelves. Taken together, they’re nothing less than a chronicle of people’s songs: Songs of the Civil War (1960), The Great Atlantic and Pacific Songbook (1965), Songs of the Great American West (1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), We Shall Overcome (1963), The Vietnam Songbook (1969).

In 1967, Silber parted ways with Sing Out! and became the cultural editor for the Guardian, a radical weekly edited our of NYC. In 1970, an editorial shakeup at the paper led it to align with China and place Silber in the position of executive editor. Like much of the new left of that era, Silber took up Maoism and sought to reach out to support the liberation movements gestating in the Third World. The same year he became the Guardian’s editor, he and Barbara Dane founded the Paredon label, which focused on recording and capturing songs from liberation movements around the world.

Silber never lost his faith in fundamental and radical social change. After the Soviet Bloc fell in the revolutions of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he penned the book Socialism: What Went Wrong? The book attempted to make sense of the collapse of “really existing socialism.” And while he rightfully questioned many of the Stalino-Maoist perversions of Marxism, he remained resolute that another world free from the horrors of capitalism was both necessary and possible.

Moreover, Silber seemed convinced that glimpses of that world resided around every corner. His final book, published in 2003, was Press Box Red, a biography of Daily Worker sports editor Lester Rodney.

Irwin Silber’s legacy lies in the notion that underneath all of the distortions of profit-driven entertainment, there was a culture organically connected to people’s daily struggles for freedom and dignity. And though it might remain hidden at the darkest moments, covered up by repression or censorship, it never really dies. No matter the country, continent or era, that remains true. If Silber’s words found resonance among people across these gaps, then it speaks to how inextinguishable this spark remains.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com) and write a column of the same name for the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice and the International Socialist Review.

He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.