American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957

By Ellis, Bill | Western Folklore, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957


Ellis, Bill, Western Folklore


American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957. By Richard A. Reuss with JoArme C. Reuss. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000. Pp. xviii + 297, foreword, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth); Labor's Troubadour. By Joe Glazer. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, [2001] 2002. Pp. xvii + 299, preface, acknowledgments, photographs, discography, index. $34.95 cloth, $18.95 paper); Tin Men. By Archie Green. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pp. xv + 203, acknowledgments, prologue, illustrations, photographs, appendix, bibliography, index. $29.95 cloth)

These three fine books deal with laborlore, a vast, esoteric, and mostly neglected body of art created in the context of the blue-collar workplace. The three operate in different ways to recontextualize particular expressions of laborlore in the social issues of the workplace that gave them form. Richard Reuss's book details tensions between the international Communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s and the often unpredictable "folksong" community that grew up around it in America. Joe Glazer picks up the story by discussing his own career as an entertainer for labor and liberal movements from the early 1950s into the 1990s. Archie Green's task is more difficult, for while the general message of labor songs can be understood by outsiders, the folk art of sheet metal communicates in detail only to other craftsmen who can appreciate virtuoso fabrication techniques. All three books offer the folklorist ways to move past a purely aesthetic appreciation of art in order to try to comprehend the social worlds behind the art.

Of the three, American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics is the most conventional work of scholarship and will be of most immediate use to folklorists. A revision and updating of the late Richard A. Reuss's dissertation, it addresses relations between the American Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s and the central figures of the folk revival movement, a wide range of Anglo- and African-American artists that included (among others) Alan Lomax, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Lead Belly. These artists have been amply treated elsewhere, but the value of Reuss's account is in its extensive direct interviews with principals, along with previously unpublished letters and print ephemera.

Reuss does not whitewash the Communist associations and activities of what he terms "the Lomax performers"-nor is there any need to, for the leaders of the American Communist Party did not understand what Lomax's circle was trying to do with vernacular music and so missed the opportunity to use their creations as propaganda. In their turn, the revivalists "had little or no consciousness of theoretical debates on culture in the international communist movement" (271). Valuing the clever and tuneful over the orthodox, they transcended arcane political discussion. This intellectual disconnect protected the Lomax performers from the devastating promote-and-purge cycles at the international level that by turns produced and persecuted innovative high artists like Shostakovich. At the same time, the Lomax performers' artistic talent opened the way to a huge popular market for their socially conscious music.

Reuss's book gives a clear and objective view of the revivalist movement, valuing its contribution to the American musical scene while conceding the limitations of its political vision. The conspicuous shift of the Almanac Singers in 1941 from vehement war protesters to equally vehement war supporters is handled especially well. The book is readable and appropriately witty in handling the Lomax artists' sometimes muddled politics and personal foibles. Few of their famous songs are quoted, however, doubtless due to the expense of copyright clearances. (The tendentious and clunky Communist Party lyrics actually provided are in some ways more revealing than the excluded familiar lyrics. …

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