May-June 2012

I Hate a Song…

By Ross Altman

When my Editor/Publisher Steve Shapiro suggested I write a column on protest songs of course my first response was to ask, “You mean to tell me I haven’t already?” To my surprise and embarrassment he assured me that I had not, and he thought it was high time. So here goes…and it is dedicated to Steve and Leda


Misogynistic, racist, homophobic, these are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of—Fox News? No; The Tea Party? No again; try traditional folk songs—like When I Was Single, The Days of ’49 and The Lavender Cowboy. There are also anti-Philipino soldier songs, anti-Semitic songs from the Southern Mountains, and many songs celebrating the destruction of the environment (Once More a Lumbering Go) and various forms of wildlife (Buffalo Skinners and Blow Ye Winds In the Morning). And these are just a few of the songs collected by John and Alan Lomax, America’s premiere ballad hunters.

“I hate a song,” wrote Woody Guthrie, “that makes you think you are not any good; I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose, bound to lose, no good for nothing and no good to nobody, because you are either too old or too young, too fat or too slim, too ugly or too this or too that; songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I’m out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work…”

It took the modern folk revival to begin to create a body of folk music that celebrated the rights of women, African-Americans (aside of course from their own Slave Spirituals), Gays and Lesbians, animals and the earth. That is why I have no special brief for traditional songs, and have always gravitated towards the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, as well as Malvina Reynolds and Phil Ochs. It is really the anti-folk songs that appeal to me—written by intellectuals, not “the people.” It took Woody, Pete and Bob to transform folk music into something of intrinsic value.

The first thing one thinks of in connection with protest songs is Phil Ochs definition of them: “A protest song is so specific it can’t be mistaken for bullshit.” Implying, of course, what he thinks of most other songs. There are few pure protest songwriters whose work has become so indelible as not to fade away with the passage of time and changing circumstances from the specific events that may have inspired them.

Joe Hill was the first; Woody Guthrie the second, Pete Seeger the third and Phil Ochs the fourth. Others, preeminently Bob Dylan, quickly came to the conclusion that protest song is a dead-end street, and they no longer wished to be so closely associated with the genre.

I write protest songs because I don’t really know how to write any other kind of song. In a whimsical moment Bob Dylan once said that all songs are protest songs. A song that says, “No, No, No, it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for,” is certainly in that vein.

But at the same time he clearly indicated, after having written the protest songs that ushered in the modern folk era, from Blowing In the Wind, With God On Our Side, and Masters of War to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and The Times, They Are a’ Changing, that he was done with “finger-pointing songs.”

Fat chance. In his ever-changing reinventions of himself through a fifty year recording career, he has never completely abandoned the role of protest singer; adding songs about the death of George Jackson, the frame-up of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter that inspired the movie “Hurricane,” a lament for unions, Union Sundown and a modern classic for hard times, Working Man’s Blues #2. Dylan (of whom my Rabbi said, “Dylan is folk, with an electric guitar”) still speaks for the down and out, even from his mansion in Malibu.

To explain why I no longer sing folk songs without due consideration one need look no further than this World War Two adaptation of an old nursery rhyme; an authentic, died-in-the-wool traditional song about the Holocaust. Though it derives from a well-known source, this is nonetheless a true folk song:

Whistle while you work

Hitler is a jerk

Mussolini bit his weenie

Now it doesn’t work.

Now, here is another song about the Holocaust, one by a known author, Hirsh Glick, and a known translator (myself), that is neither traditional nor folk:

Zog Nit Keynmol

(“Never Say”)

Never say that you were only born to die

Though the lead eclipse the sun in the sky

We can hear it in the distance like a drum

Our marching feet proclaim, “We have come!”

I don’t have time to sing both, so I must choose, and I choose to sing Hirsh Glick’s song—in Yiddish and English.

Here is another traditional song, the genuine article, the real thing, a hymn of unknown authorship, passed on in oral tradition at many an impromptu meeting of the Ku Klux Klan:

There’ll be no distinctions there

There’ll be no distinctions there

We’ll all be white in that heavenly light

And there’ll be no distinctions there.

Now, in contrast, here is a modern song by a known author, also on race relations, which has no claim to being a folk song:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand

How many times must the cannonball fly

Before they’re forever banned

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind.

Once again, I must choose which song I want to sing, and after much deliberation, I go with Bob Dylan’s song, for its humanity, its hope, and its inspirational message that all men are created equal.

Now, consider this little folk gem from John and Alan Lomax’s collection American Ballads and Folk Songs, the same source as for the song that started the folk revival, “Tom Dooley.” This is an authentic traditional song from World War Two:

Damn, damn, damn the Filipinos!

In contrast, compare this flagrant advocacy of world peace, a non-folk song by the known composer Ed McCurdy from Canada:

Last night I had the strangest dream

I never dreamed before

I dreamed the world had all agreed

To put an end to war.

Yet again, when forced to choose, I come down on the side of peace and the artistic expression of a universal longing for an end to war. I hate to admit it, but I prefer Strangest Dream.

Oh, I can already hear the nay-sayers amongst you, those who are committed to the enterprise of folk music, who believe deep in their souls that traditional is best, and who point out that I have deliberately skewed the examples, forgetting that there are many beautiful folk songs as well. What of Barbara Allen? Shenandoah? The Gift to be Simple; what of these, pray tell?

To which I reply, of course the folk have written beautiful songs. After all, they have written over a million, jillion, quadrillion songs. Like 100 trained monkeys at their typewriters, sooner or later one of them may write Hamlet. Out of every million songs, sooner or later, one of the anonymous traditional composers we collectively refer to as “the folk” is going to write Greensleeves.

My point is that James Taylor is going to write a good song maybe every other time, or every third time—his average will probably compare to Ted Williams on a good day. I’ll take my chances with James Taylor.

Bob Dylan is going to hit one out of the park as often as Hank Aaron; I’ll take my chances with Bob Dylan.

And Woody Guthrie is going to get as many hits as Pete Rose; I’ll take my chances with Woody Guthrie.

I sing the best songs I can find; and if some of them happen to be folk, traditional, of unknown authorship, that is all to the good. But that’s not why I sing it. And as to the argument over what is and is not a folk song, frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

OK, as you have seen, I do give a damn, and I am happy to share Michael Cooney’s one line summary of the case: “If you know who wrote it, it’s not a folk song,” the title of an essay he has posted on his website. That is why I ask Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club members of the song they just finished singing, “Who wrote that?” “Does it really matter?” I am sometimes asked in return.

It matters because many if not most of the songs we routinely call folk songs actually do have known authors. Take, for example, the “folk song” one member offered as a perfect example of an authentic folk song, written by Anonymous, Clementine. That is a Gold Rush ballad first published in a charming collection entitled, Put’s Golden Songster. But it is not a folk song in Michael Cooney’s sense—it was written by college glee club director Percy Montrose in 1887, nearly 40 years after the Gold Rush.

In contrast, the real folk song of the Gold Rush, Days of 49, (first published in 1876) is marred by a kind of Huck Finn’s Pap’s racist sensibilities only discoverable in uncensored academic texts of these songs, this one from Richard E. Lingenfelter’s Songs of the American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 558-9:

Since that time how things have changed

In this land of liberty

Darkies didn’t vote nor plead in court

Nor rule this country;

But the Chinese question, the worst of all

In those days did not shine

For the country was right and the boys all white

In the days of ‘49.

You won’t find these verses in Bob Dylan’s recording on Self-Portrait, nor in Tom Paley’s version on Old Tom Moore (the putative narrator of the song). And in all honesty, you won’t find them on my (so far unreleased) recording either. They have quietly disappeared from the historical record, but they should not be forgotten, because they highlight the reason “the folk” ought not to be romanticized by “folk singers” who grew up believing that they were all untutored and unlettered versions of Pete Seeger, who, when he wasn’t marching with Martin Luther King, was cleaning up the Hudson River.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They were more likely to be marching with the Ku Klux Klan, like Pete Seeger’s upstate neighbors did when they threw rocks through his car’s front window at the Peekskill, New York concert in 1949 to protest Paul Robeson’s appearance.

Pete Seeger laid one of those stones in the front panel of his fireplace in his log cabin on the Hudson in Beacon, New York so he wouldn’t forget it. And he wrote the following words on his banjo, to remind others as well: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.

America’s favorite folk singer is far better than the folk he helped elevate to iconic stature. Indeed, he met up with the real folk on August 18, 1955, when he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Pete refused to answer their questions, refused to name names, and was cited for contempt of Congress. Six years later, in 1961, Earl Warren’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict of The People’s House and vacated his conviction.

Pete Seeger, unlike the majority of unfriendly witnesses who refused to name names did not take the 5th Amendment, which protects Americans against self-incrimination. Pete took the 1st Amendment, which guarantees us freedom of speech and association. In his memorable explanation, “The Fifth Amendment says that HUAC had no right to ask me those questions; the First Amendment says they have no right to ask any American those questions, [and here he rose to the heights of eloquence] particularly under duress.”

It was Pete Seeger’s finest hour, and the reason he remains my favorite folk singer, and is still America’s tuning fork.

Happy 93rd Birthday, Pete; may you stay, in Bob Dylan’s words, forever young.

Ross Altman may be reached at

On Pete Seeger’s 93rd birthday, Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 Ross will host a benefit concert for his old friend Pitt Kinsolving, entitled “Pete for Pitt,” at The Talking Stick Coffeehouse in Venice, 1411 Lincoln Blvd, from 8:00 to 10:00 PM. (Donation of $15 requested for Pitt’s relief fund.)

On Sunday, May 20th, Ross will perform his tribute for the Woody Guthrie Centennial at The Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival in Paramount Ranch on the Railroad Stage at 4:30pm.

On Bob Dylan’s 71st birthday, Thursday May 24th Ross and Jill Fenimore host the second annual Bob Dylan Million Dollar Birthday Bash at The Talking Stick Coffeehouse in Venice, 1411 Lincoln Blvd from 7:00 to 10:00pm. $10 donation requested.

And this Tuesday, May 1st, May Day, Ross performs two shows—at 7:30pm he will be at Skylight Books at 1818 N. Vermont in Los Angeles to give a history of May Day as an international workers’ holiday and teach some classic labor songs to the audience, and at 10:30pm he will do a set in the Occupy show at The Un-Urban Coffeehouse at 3301 Pico Blvd in Santa Monica. Both May Day shows are free and open to the public.


All Columns by Ross Altman