January-February 2015

Rewriting Folk Music History:

The Soviet Union Takes the USA to Court

By Ross Altman, PhD


USSR: Uncle Sam, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

UNCLE SAM: I thought you were Godless; but of course we are not; so yes, I do.

USSR: Good, now you have accused the Soviet Union under Communism of a number of crimes, including rewriting history, revisionism, and erasing names from the history books to suit our political ideology; is that not true?

USA: Absolutely; it was common for both Lenin and Stalin to simply erase the names of anyone they disagreed with; or to send author Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the Gulags, human rights activist Sakharov to prison, or folk singer Alexander Galich into exile.” Effectively, they became non-persons in their own land.

USSR: And of course this never happened in the USA?

USA: Of course not.

USSR: Are you sure?

USA: Quite!

USSR: Then can you tell me who Walter O’Brian was?

USA: Never heard of the gentleman; who was he?

Charlie and the MTAUSSR: Have you heard the MTA Song? It was a hit for the Kingston Trio.

USA: Of course; ‘let me tell you a story ‘bout a man named Charlie, the “man who never returned.’” But the “O’Brian” in that song was named George, not Walter:

‘Vote for George O’Brian, and get Charlie off the MTA.’”

USSR: That’s because Coral Records reacted to the anti-communist hysteria surrounding the original recording by Will Holt which led to protests from Red Channels—the leader of the witch hunt against folk singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Sam Hinton—which labeled Walter O’Brian, the Progressive Party candidate for mayor in Boston, for whom the song was written by Bess Lomax Hawes and Jackie Steiner, a communist. Coral Records re-edited the track to take the name “Walter” out and it eventually got replaced with the entirely fictional “George O’Brian.” The Kingston Trio knew the background to the story and decided then and there when recording the song that “We didn’t want to end up like the Weavers, celebrated and blacklisted.”

So the Kingston Trio went along to get along. They became a collegiate non-political alternative to the folk tradition as practiced by Pete and Woody, Leadbelly and the Weavers—folk music defanged and emasculated. How were you different from us?

USA: Well, maybe we had some problems during the “Red Scare,” but that’s just one atypical example. And Walter O’Brian was a minor figure on the political landscape.

Paul Robeson - football player
Paul Robeson.

USSR: You want a major figure? Then tell me who was the All-American football player from Rutgers in 1917 and 1918.

USA: We don’t honestly know; there seem to be a couple of lines missing from the record books for those years.

USSR: That’s because the champion Rutgers’ football player who twice made All-American in 1917 and 1918 was Paul Robeson, whom you blacklisted for being “sympathetic to the Soviet Union.” His books and records were taken off the shelves, and his name erased from the sports record books. He was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar in addition to being a great athlete. And his role as Othello in the longest-running play in Broadway history was again erased from the record books. Paul Robeson became a non-person in his own land. So how were the USSR and the USA so different? We really had more in common than not. You erased your dissidents from history; we erased ours.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger.

USA: Maybe the difference is we learned from our mistakes. Fast forward to 1968 and another victim of blacklisting—folk singer Pete Seeger—was invited on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to sing a song critical of the US government’s War in Vietnam—Waist Deep In the Big Muddy. On national television he described the President of the United States as “a big fool.” How did you treat your folk singers?

USSR: Mea Culpa! Alexander Galich—our bard singer was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1971 for criticizing the regime in his songs. He went into exile three years later and died under suspicious circumstances that some believed was an official assassination—an electrocution that happened at home from a faulty wire socket. Nonetheless, we are not proud that the Soviet Bob Dylan became a stranger in his own land. We do have a lot to be ashamed of when it comes to mistreatment of our artists. But like Paul Robeson in your country, Galich has now been honored posthumously and restored to his rightful place in Russian history.

Alexander Galich
Alexander Galich.

USA: And what about the Jews? Galich was important to us because he among precious few others bore witness to the Holocaust in his music.

Vern Partlow
Vern Partlow.

USSR: Here again we have much to apologize for; your greatest Jewish folk singer Theodore Bikel made an underground trip to the USSR to help smuggle out the Samizdat [underground songs] of Soviet Jewish artists and have them translated and recorded in America; it became an international cause célèbre for which history can only be grateful.

But as long as we’re telling tales out of school, maybe you can own up to what happened to people’s songwriter Vern Partlow and folk singer Sam Hinton, who recorded for a major label—Decca Records—until he too was blacklisted. Partlow’s song Talking Old Man Atom—a satirical talking blues sermon on the atom bomb—was banned from the airwaves and both he and recording artist Sam Hinton were blacklisted; n’est-ce pas?

USA: It was actually worse than that. Everyone associated with that song was punished in some way. Our most famous western singing group The Sons of the Pioneers recorded it and RCA Victor Records—our most influential record company at the time—voluntarily censured it themselves by recalling it after some protest over its message of peace made the newspapers. They didn’t even wait for the government to act—effectively banning the song from the source; a cowardly lion if there ever was one.

Vern Partlow was fired from his job as a reporter for having written the song; he was subpoenaed by HUAC and blacklisted and never worked as a newspaperman again, this after writing the popular ode to reporters—Newspapermen Meet Such Interesting People. Sam Hinton too was blacklisted and fired by Decca Records and finally wound up making a living as a marine biologist. The fish didn’t care about his politics.

Itzik Feffer
Itzik Feffer.

USSR: Maybe there’s a lesson there for all of us. But before this trial is over we have one more witness to examine; calling to the stand, the ghost of Tony Kraber!

USA: Who’s he?

USSR: Our point exactly; one more great artist who became a non-person in his own land. Perhaps you have heard of the American patriot who destroyed him; film director Elia Kazan?

USA: Oh, of course, everyone knows who Elia Kazan was—a great director who was honored for Lifetime Achievement by the American Film Institute for making such movies as On the Waterfront. But again, who was Tony Kraber?

USSR: A cowboy singer and actor who worked in the Actor’s Theatre under Kazan. More to the point, he was one of the people Kazan fingered as a communist when he testified and named names for the House Committee On Un-American Activities. As a direct result of Kazan’s informing (which he shamelessly ennobled by creating Marlon Brando in the role of a heroic informer in his follow-up movie) Tony Kraber never worked in Hollywood again, and his one record of cowboy songs—which included the early and prophetic cowboy and gay rights classic The Lavender Cowboy—was never followed up. Elia Kazan destroyed a young artist’s career while his went on to fame and glory. So who were the oppressors and destroyers of dissent—the USSR or the USA?

USA: It looks like we both have a lot to learn about the value of dissent in a free society. But before this trial ends we would like to make our closing arguments. Calling the attorney for the prosecution—Andrei Sakharov, speaking from a Moscow prison:

Sakharov: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, and Your Honor; had it not been for Amnesty International no one would know my name. They brought a bright light into my prison cell and let me speak for the thousands of Soviet artists, Jews, dissidents and human rights activists who risked their freedom and their very lives to be heard beyond the Iron Curtain. Jewish poets were murdered under Stalin on The Night of Murdered Poets, August 12, 1952, even as Germany under Hitler had its Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass, on November 9 and 10, 1938.

Soviet folk singers were silenced under Breshnev and Yeltsin and even today under Putin the girl band Pussy Riot was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for “hooliganism,” a Soviet era reverse euphemism if you will, for protest and dissent. If you truly believe in freedom you will exonerate and pardon all of the Soviet artists going back to Itzik Feffer, one of the 13 poets condemned to death in 1952 and later on Alexander Solzhenitsyn—author of the primary document the Gulag Archipelago that will force future generations to remember the worst crimes of communism that they not be repeated. The prosecution rests.

USSR: The defense calls Chicago labor leader and organizer of the American Railway Union Eugene Victor Debs, attorney for the defense, inmate # 9653 speaking from Federal Prison in Atlanta, Georgia, 1920, where he was sentenced to ten years for violating the Sedition Act for speaking out against World War I, and where confined to his cell he ran for President on the Socialist ticket, the only citizen ever to do so from prison, and amassed a million votes:

Debs: Your Honor, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Here is what I learned while serving my sentence for protesting the First World War: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Eugene V. Debs

“As a great American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, will one day proclaim, the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And as a great American dissident singer, Phil Ochs, will one day sing:

Yet she's only as rich as the poorest of her poor

Only as free as the padlocked prison door

Only as strong as our love for this land

Only as tall as we stand

This is a land full of power and glory

Beauty that words cannot recall

Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom

Her glory shall rest on us all

(Power and the Glory, Phil Ochs)

The defense rests.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com


All Columns by Ross Altman