The FBI’s War on Folk Music

The anti-communist campaigns of the late 1940s attacked the Left on every front. As beacons of a broad-based cultural radicalism and messengers for change, American folk singers quickly found themselves in the FBI’s crosshairs.

Woody Guthrie. (Wikimedia Commons)

Two stories in Aaron J. Leonard’s The Folk Singers and the Bureau capture the importance of the book. They both, appropriately, involve Woody Guthrie. One of the best-known folk singer-songwriters in modern American history, he was also unlucky enough to have genetically inherited Huntington’s disease. The debilitating condition was not correctly diagnosed until 1952 when Guthrie was forty. By 1950, Guthrie had already begun to lose motor functions, his mood became depressed and anxious, his behavior erratic, and his mind slipped progressively into dementia.

In 1955, an FBI agent tasked with keeping tabs on Guthrie and his affiliation to the Communist Party recommended that, given the folksinger’s rapid deterioration, he be taken off the bureau’s “Security Index.” After all, he would soon be incapacitated, and therefore no longer pose any credible threat. The bureau obliged by removing him from the Security Index, but they kept tabs on him in the Communist Index. “Guthrie, in other words, remained an active candidate for detention as a communist,” writes Leonard, “despite being afflicted with a fatal neurological disease.”

The second story, also relevant to Guthrie’s struggle with Huntington’s disease took place just before his diagnosis. While a patient at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, Guthrie was visited by friends Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman. When his friends asked how he was faring, Guthrie replied:

Oh yeah, the food’s fine. Everything’s okay. Besides, this is the freest place in America. You don’t have to worry about me. I can jump up on the table and shout “I’m a communist!” and all they’ll say is “Oh he’s crazy.” You try doing that anywhere else in America.

There’s more than a bit of Guthrie’s propensity for tall tales and cockeyed humor in this response. It also says a great deal about the pervasive paranoia that McCarthyism had fostered in American political and cultural life.

With his previous two books — Heavy Radicals and A Threat of the First Magnitude, both coauthored with Conor Gallagher — Leonard has proven his ability to craft a compelling story from the records of political repression. Relying mostly on FBI archives and the yield of countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, he has sketched how the state sought to infiltrate and take down the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), the Black Panthers, and once-influential Maoist groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party. As he wrote in Heavy Radicals, “the understanding of how determined, organized resistance and political repression are intimately intertwined, remains a current and relevant problem.”

In focusing on the repression of radical folk musicians in the mid-twentieth century, Leonard adds a new dimension. It is generally acknowledged that the beginnings of the Cold War brought a vicious attempt to bring down the Communist Party, in the process destroying the lives of members and nonmembers alike. But if the best-known symbols of the McCarthyite blacklist like the Hollywood Ten — screenwriters and directors who refused to name names in front of Congress — are well-known, the depth and reach of the war on culture are today less familiar. The fact is that McCarthyism represented a high point in American repression, an attempt on the part of the US government to restrict not just how working people could organize, but the culture they could create and consume.

People’s Songs

Leonard’s brief sketch of the size and influence of the Communist Party during World War II makes clear that for all its flaws — its inveterate Stalinism, its waffling between sectarianism and opportunism, its embrace of the Hitler-Stalin Pact — the CPUSA was the most successful example of a mass workers’ party in American history. Even if, in practice, it functioned more like a social-democratic party than a revolutionary one, by the end of the war, it had a membership of over eighty thousand people and the sympathy of countless others, all of them moved by the party’s valiant organizing and its vivid visions of a workers’ world beyond racism, fascism, and exploitation. As Michael Denning argues in The Cultural Front, the CPUSA and its Popular Front organizations were at the center of a broad social-democratic consensus among American workers.

This in turn put the party in a position to shape what we might call a radical workers’ counterculture. The battle for the socialist vision (whatever that might be) would be waged not just through stump speeches and workplace action but wherever ideas could be exchanged, including in the arts. Radio, record companies, the raw materials of what we today call the culture industries were still relatively new to American life and very much in flux. Left-wing artists rightly saw these media as a unique opportunity to further ingrain their vision into the cultural landscape.

From party members’ point of view, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for such a project in the months directly following the war. Fascism had been defeated in Europe and the New Deal was still going strong. The credibility of official communism in American culture was arguably as high as it had ever been. Party leader Earl Browder had been maneuvered out after his decision to reconstitute the CPUSA into the Communist Political Association in the middle of the war, and his replacement, William Z. Foster, was a hard-liner, reestablishing the party to reflect his own convictions.

The sheer number of artists, writers, and musicians either in or around the CPUSA would seem to reflect that optimism about Communism’s horizon in the United States. The first chapter of Leonard’s book introduces us to many of the singers and artists who earned the FBI’s attention throughout the period. Many of them — Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Lead Belly — are well known. Others — Bess Hawes, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sis Cunningham, Lee Hays — less so. These figures had their counterparts in the worlds of film, literature, and visual art, too.

Artists like Seeger were so confident about the prospects for radical song that he and other comrades formed — with at least the tacit blessing of the party — People’s Songs, an organization intended to promote and distribute radical songs among the working class via broadsheets and bulletins. In some ways, it built on the robust space already provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s Federal Art and Music Projects, and took inspiration from Seeger’s radical, festival-of-the-oppressed vision of a “singing labor movement . . . [with] hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of union choruses. Just as every church has a choir, why not every union?”

Art, no matter what kind or the ideas it expresses, needs physical space and lines of communication to nurture it. Late in the book, Leonard quotes Lee Hays, a founder of People’s Songs, as saying

We lived in a veritable renaissance of art and letters, thanks to the WPA and the various projects. The work of [John] Steinbeck and [Lillian] Hellman and so, so many others was a direct result of socialist thought that was going on all over the world.

Infrastructures of Fear

This was a renaissance cut short. In July of 1947, Walter Steele, managing director of the hard-right National Republic magazine, testified before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He read aloud a quote from CP chairman Foster where he praised “people’s folk songs, their minstrels and ballad singers, their poetry, their theaters, their artistic handicrafts,” and argued for “the importance of art as a social weapon.” To Steele, the quote served as a warning that the Communists were indoctrinating Americans through art, including folk music. Leonard suggests that this was when HUAC and the FBI began to zoom in on folk musicians.

Many of the artists that wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds already had files on them. This was particularly true for Guthrie, Seeger, and other members of the Almanac Singers who, toeing the line of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, had adopted a stridently antiwar stance in the lead up to America’s involvement. After the 1940 passage of the Alien Registration Act, also known as the Smith Act, its first victims were the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party. Not only did the CP refuse to defend them, they openly cheered their prosecution. With sporadic police raids and intimidation against the Communists already taking place in the opening days of the 1940s, such sectarianism was shortsighted, to say the least.

The FBI was well-positioned to exploit weaknesses like these. The files Leonard examines reflect this. In many ways, the FBI’s surveillance served as the scaffolding for McCarthyism’s attacks. This isn’t to say that the Bureau and HUAC were always in perfect sync. Joe McCarthy’s media grandstanding sometimes caused problems for the FBI’s surveillance. The infamous anti-communist publication Counterattack was founded by former FBI agents John Kiernan, Theodore Kirkpatrick, and Kenneth Bierly. The relationship between the publication and the bureau was not always cooperative; the two entities frequently butted heads, and the bureau initially suspected Counterattack of stealing FBI files for the magazine’s own use. Clearly, though, they were on the same side, and the FBI’s own investigations gave clear impetus to more public anti-communist attacks.

For their part, the FBI knew the CPUSA’s pressure points, and the party was rather clumsy in exposing them. Members unwilling to satisfactorily toe the party line were often dispatched with undue acrimony. Their expulsions were sometimes accompanied by public denunciation, leading to bad blood, in turn creating ample opportunity for the Bureau waiting in the wings.

This was how the FBI came to know Harvey Matusow, a former CP member and clerk at the party’s New York bookstore whose ego evidently far outweighed his own principles. Matusow became an informant for the FBI and testified regarding the activities of party members, including Seeger and Hays of the Weavers, as well as many others in and around People’s Songs.

Five years later, Matusow publicly recanted his testimony, but the damage had been done. Matusow provided information for Counterattack’s infamous Red Channels pamphlet, which named and targeted suspected Communists working in the worlds of entertainment and media. The bureau, and the growing network of organized anti-communism, had many more like him willing to help.

A Ruthless Atmosphere

It did not take long for the stifling atmosphere of the Cold War to set in. The Folk Singers and the Bureau frequently returns to the events that aided in nurturing it: the Korean War, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the arrest and imprisonment of leading CPUSA members, with others going underground to avoid prosecution.

Then there was Peekskill. In 1949, a benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress headlined by Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York was attacked not once but twice by members of the American Legion. Though no white hoods were seen, it may as well have been a Klan rally (indeed, membership in the local KKK organization dramatically increased afterward). Rioters burned crosses and effigies of Robeson, assaulted and hurled rocks at attendees and performers, calling them “commies,” “kikes,” and “n*ggers.” Off-duty police officers joined in the violence, and on-duty police refused to intervene. In the aftermath, members of Congress denounced not the rioters, but the Communists and Robeson himself.

This atmosphere helped nurture the blacklist and the FBI’s ability to keep close tabs on much of the People’s Songs crowd. The cumulative effect was to sever many of the most popular radical folk artists from their audiences. In the late 1940s, the Weavers had been one of the most popular acts, playing for sold-out crowds in concert halls across the country. During the first half of the 1950s, they found themselves banned from television and radio appearances, increasingly unable to book concerts throughout the country.

Some artists, like storied song archivist and People’s Songs member Alan Lomax, were forced to flee to England to dodge an appearance in front of HUAC. Others, like Robeson, were denied even that escape by having their passport revoked. Seeger’s uncooperative testimony in front of HUAC garnered him a “contempt of Congress” conviction.

A handful of artists did agree to testify and give information, such as Burl Ives. Ives had collaborated with Seeger, Guthrie, and the Almanac Singers from their antiwar days and had been a founding member of People’s Songs. He was named in Red Channels and cooperated with HUAC. Ives named several other musicians and composers he knew to be in and around the party, none of them particularly well-known. Though he was a pariah among the besieged left for decades after, his singing and acting career quickly rebounded.

Josh White was not so lucky. His treatment by the FBI was truly ruthless, and there is every reason to believe it was due to racism. White was a popular folk, blues, and gospel artist who had appeared in Broadway musicals and on dozens of radio dramas. Close friends with the Roosevelts, he performed at FDR’s third inauguration. After the war’s end, he teamed up with Eleanor to perform a joint speaking and singing tour through Europe. For a black man in Jim Crow America, this amount of fame and acclaim was close to exceptional.

In the summer of 1950, he was named as a “communist fronter” in Red Channels, and he testified in front of Congress that September. The irony is that, during his testimony, White did not name names. Congress didn’t want him to. The aim of White’s appearance, writes Leonard, “was to make clear to the larger population of black people that associating with communists would carry a cost — above and beyond the already onerous cost of being black in the United States.”

The FBI continued to contact him in the months and years following. Leonard cites sources that suggest the FBI had career-ruining dirt on White. Seeger, Robeson, and folksinger Michael Loring have all speculated as much at different points. According to Loring, the bureau had threatened to charge White with violating the Mann Act — essentially accusing him of transporting a white woman over state lines for “immoral purposes” — if he didn’t testify.

Leonard also cites a 1954 FBI file in which it was reported that two New York police detectives were trying to extort a large sum of money from White. A white woman with whom he had had an affair had recently committed suicide. After the detectives found a diary with disparaging remarks about White, they came to him with a simple demand: pay an exorbitant sum or face arrest. Apparently, White had by this point become desperate enough to approach an FBI informant to ask for a loan. The informant opted not to help him, but the incident illustrates the lengths to which the Feds went to keep Josh White under their thumb.

Cultural Foreclosure

With so much destroyed by McCarthyism, one cannot help asking, how might the US cultural landscape look today if not for these anti-Communist attacks?

In 1970, the New York Times interviewed Tex Ritter, actor, cowboy singer, onetime president and founder of the Country Music Association. Ritter was instrumental in ingratiating country music to then president Richard Nixon, helping tailor its conservative image as the music of Nixon’s “silent majority.” In the 1930s, Ritter had lived in New York, attending and even performing at the folk music hootenannies put on by artists and bohemians around the city. Ritter told the Times,

The years I was in New York I became quite well acquainted with the Communists. I knew them. They would listen to ma songs . . . At one time called myself a folk singer. It got to the point there for a few years where it was very difficult to tell where folk music ended and Communism began. So that’s when I quit calling myself a folk singer.

Ritter’s anecdote speaks to the role anti-communism played in shaping so many notions about popular music, in particular the divisions between folk and country. What was called folk was in fact a diverse constellation of regional styles and sounds. Plenty of artists, such as Josh White or Lead Belly, were writings songs across blues and folk genres. Ritter’s own words point to a similar porousness concerning what we now understand as country music. The space for collaboration and exchange was wide, the possibilities for new forms and modes of expression almost endless, lending credence to Lee Hays’s description of “a veritable renaissance of art and letters.”

It was McCarthyist onslaught that helped compartmentalize these various genres into narrower lanes, ultimately narrowing the space for cultural exchange. Folk, country, blues, and gospel were all siphoned into different corners, with distinct sets of rules.

The Communist Party survived the onslaught of the FBI and the blacklist, albeit with greatly diminished numbers and vigor. It wasn’t just the surveillance and repression that did them in. Nikita Khrushchev’s February 1956 speech disavowing the crimes of Stalin sent the global communist movement into disarray. The same went for the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Even as the party reeled from confusion, with members resigning in droves, the repression continued. One month after Khrushchev’s speech, the offices of the Daily Worker were raided by the IRS, claiming the paper hadn’t paid taxes. In 1958, its mounting financial problems finally forced it to cease publication.

By the time Seeger’s contempt of Congress conviction was thrown out in 1962 (he had fought it for five years), he had left the CPUSA. So had Irwin Silber, though that didn’t prevent him from being called in front of HUAC in 1958. Silber had been integral in People’s Songs and People’s Artists, its antecedent. He refused to answer questions about other members’ party affiliations, but by that point, such an issue had become moot. Even CPUSA stalwarts, such as Alan Lomax’s sister Bess and her husband Butch Hawes, both members of the Almanac Singers and cofounders of People’s Songs, were now “taking a leave from the Party.” FBI files on most of the folksingers would continue for some time, but the fact is that their ties to their ideological and political wellspring had been thoroughly severed. So had America’s strongest exemplar of cultural radicalism.

Leonard is sober in his assessment of this, not just in terms of how the party’s flaws often made the FBI’s job easier, but in insisting that this kind of repression was not exceptional in American political life. Despite the party’s often overblown rhetoric about McCarthyism indicating a slide into fascism, America’s conception of democracy has always relied on its deprivations, denials, and the limits to expression. One sees this not only in the treatment of the Communist Party, but of anarchists and suffragettes, of slaves and abolitionists.

It is also evident in the current combination of contemporary anti-communism and its attendant prudishness in regard to culture. A country that inherits the McCarthyite legacy without reckoning with it is bound to be the kind of place where a president can celebrate the assassination of leftists while his son whips up a furor about a French coming-of-age comedy on Netflix. With leaders like these, the prospects for a free and democratic culture remain dim. They will always regard our ideas and art with contempt. We should extend to them the same consideration.