RELECTIONS ON “RETORT” AND WOODSTOCK NY
"He painted eyes on me and I painted lips on him," Grace Greenwood said of Noguchi. 1929 Maverick Festival. Photo: Coursens Studio. (http://www.upstatediary.com/maverick/)
During one of our pilgrimages to the hallowed land of Woodstock NY, my wife Laurie and I were perusing the Readers’ Quarry, a local used bookstore, where I was seeking out old left-wing journals. It’s my only vice.
As I thumbed through a vintage “Partisan Review”, the proprietor alerted me to a couple of issues of “Retort” that had just come in. Certain I must be aware of the magazine—as well as its history in Woodstock--she beamed while carefully taking them out of the glass case up front. “Wow”, I said wearing an embarrassed half-smile. “Retort”? No, I’m not familiar with it”. As she handed me the two beautifully preserved issues, both from 1947, I realized that her cocked eyebrow was not undeserved.
“Retort” was an anarchist journal of politics and the arts, with an accent on the latter. The magazine was founded by writer, anarchist, anti-war activist and traditional jazz enthusiast Holley Cantine, a Woodstock native. In his time as a writer, he’d completed at least two plays, several books and countless essays. The Anarchist Library website stated in a 2010 article ‘The Life of Holley Cantine’: ...every May Day Holley insisted on attending the annual celebration of this neglected holiday. The event he went to was organized by the Libertarian Book Club in New York City. At the event Cantine busted out his trombone and serenaded other attendees with solo renditions of favorites like “The Internationale” and “Solidarity Forever”. He also played in a band called The Woodchuck Hollow Brass and Woodwind Choir. As strange as it might sound, this group was quite particular in what it chose to rehearse and perform: German hunting calls and American patriotic music. That was their specialty.
Holley Cantine was soon joined by the radical poet Dachine Rainer and they resided and worked in a Cantine’s hand-built cabin in Bearsville, a hamlet within the Town of Woodstock, just up the road from Woodstock Village. The pair were married and raised a daughter along with some profound literature. Cantine was drawn back to the area, and Rainer to it, in the wake of a great artistic migration there which had actually begun at the dawn of the 20th century with the arts and crafts movement but rapidly grew into a call for the moderns by the ‘20s and ‘30s. But the migration to Woodstock really never ceased. Many of the most important US artists over the past century spent at least a period of time in the village or its surrounding hills, not the least of which was Hart Crane, Helen Hayes, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Cage, Rockwell Kent, Charles Mingus, George Bellows, Henry Cowell, Jimi Hendrix, Doris Lee, Ed Sanders (ex of the Fugs) among so many more. This most famous little village can also boast the Byrdcliffe Guild, its theatre and studios (1903—and still an institution), the Arts Students League (1906), the Maverick Artists’ Colony and concert hall (1915; the summer concert series is ongoing), Woodstock Playhouse (1937 till the present) and other organizations which helped to alter the course of creativity from this little corner upstate.
Woodstock’s first few decades as the colony of the arts provided common ground for both folk art and the shock of the new. Represented were the visual arts genres deemed Hudson River, Ashcan, Expressionist, Cubist and beyond. The area also offered advances in literature and poetry, a wealth of music ranging from folk songs through orchestral works, as well as a variety of theatre, ballet and modern dance. As early as 1915, the first “Woodstock Festival” occurred—it was a fundraiser for the site of the Maverick, founded by renegade poet and naturalist Hervey White who’d helped create Bydrcliffe but then rebelled against its orderliness. His annual fests were veritable celebrations fusing amphitheater performance to costumed pageantry, carnivals, feasts and presumably reckless abandon. White was fond of staging art exhibits in the natural splendor, within the forest which framed his colony, living, in every sense of the word, off of the land.
The roots of the hippie movement can be traced to places like Woodstock with its history of communes and so youth culture found some creative allies up there. By the mid-‘60s, a series of experiential happenings known as the Sound-Outs brought the avant garde into rock-n-roll, the drug culture and the open air. These festivals, really an outgrowth of Hervey White’s that engaged a new generation of experimentalists, were ultimately inspired by the irresistible vibes of this place. Bob Fass of WBAI-FM served as host of the Sound-Outs and his legendary radio show always had access to cutting-edge performers, especially those of the counter culture. He offers a full explanation in the book The Roots of Woodstock, but in short order, stated: “The festivals were open-air affairs held on Pan Copeland’s farm in West Saugerties, NY. Some of the acts associated with the Sound-Outs include Ellen McIlwaine’s Fear Itself, the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band, Tim Hardin, Don McLean, Scott Fagan, Frank Wakefield, and Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys” He added that macro-biotic food was available, clarifying that sharing and embracing the land was all a part of the experience. “Hudson Valley” magazine also weighed in on the topic: “The Sound Outs were a series of impromptu concerts held on a farm between Saugerties and Woodstock. The first one, on Labor Day weekend 1967, included performers Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Junior Wells, Billy Batson, and Major Wiley”. Also in town at the time were the Blues Magoos, Artie and Happy Traum, the Children of God and many more singer-songwriters and bands. It was a busy scene—and all of this predating the big festival so named for this place!
The prime mover for Woodstock as a hook for radical artists of the early ‘60s was Bob Dylan. For a couple of summers he’d lived in a room above the old Café Espresso; legend has it that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was composed in those quarters. A couple of years later, Dylan purchased a large house up in Byrdcliffe, overlooking Woodstock village, and the Band had taken up in “Big Pink” a couple of miles over in West Saugerties. Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident occurred in the winding dirt roads of Ohayo Mountain. Bearsville has its own special history: some 20 years after Cantine and Rainer moved in, it became the home of the noted folk music manager Albert Grossman (who represented Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and then Dylan, among many more) and there he put up a number of his representees including the Band before moving Paul Butterfield and his crew in.
And of course all of this action and the increasing popularity of the Sound-Outs had Woodstock plotted out as the original site for the legendary ‘3 Days of Peace and Music’ which, due to its magnitude, was ultimately moved to the farmland of Max Yasgur some miles and a county over. But not holding “Woodstock” at Woodstock didn’t slow the creative input into the village. A wealth of jazz musicians set up home there in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s including Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso whom, in the company of Ornette Coleman, founded the Creative Music Studio which spawned countless careers in this daring genre of post-modern jazz, free improv, world music and new composition. By the 1970s, the great jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, both Miles Davis alumni, had taken up residence in Woodstock—and stayed.
The folkies, rockers, blues singers, hippies and runaways kept arriving too, often fruitlessly seeking some remnant of the big festival, but then staying on and adding to the magic in some way. A few of the wonderful characters remain in town including the beloved Richochet and the quite mythic Grandpa Woodstock, previously seen in the company of his lady Esther, Village Green perennials. The area’s reputation for genteel tolerance was disaffected when the Tinker Street home Grandpa and Esther have shared since the 1990s was raided by Ulster County narcs a couple of years ago; the terms of his probation forced him to move out so he spends summers under the Woodstock skies and winters in warmer climates. For all of its deeper meaning and empowering visions, the drug culture of the original hippie period also arrived with some very damaging aspects including diminishing health, impoverishment, homelessness and a few mind-blowing trips of no return. And at times, reliance on such substances has little to do with culture and was bound in visceral wounds and an unshakable loneliness. This stark reality led to the formation of the social service agency Family of Woodstock. Family’s office is still there on Rock City Road and it has branched out into other areas of the mid-Hudson Valley, offering counseling and assistance to many broken, addicted and disaffected individuals. True to form, its mission is one of acceptance but also striving toward health and accomplishment.
In the later ‘70s Todd Rundgren built his Utopia Studio just behind Albert Grossman’s compound. In those years, performances proliferated in venues such as the legendary Joyous Lake and Levon Helm’s place (the site of his later Midnight Rambles) as well as the Colony Café among others. The rockers, jazz artists, blues singers, folkies and bluegrass musicians were joined by an influx of reggae bands. But not all of the nightlife was led by artists seeking higher truths---dance clubs that featured disco and flowing cocaine brought in a gold rush of big money and bigger spending. But the boom, like all such fast grabs for profit, wouldn’t last. As is well-known among Woodstock lore, Rundgren experienced a harrowing break-in late one night in 1980 as he was mixing tracks. He found himself at gun-point and was tied up by the thieves and burglarized of much expensive equipment. He packed up what remained and left town rapidly. Some say he took the music with him.
At this point it would be impossible to separate Woodstock from the arts but this little village and town is also the home of considerable revolutionary philosophy and historic uprisings too. Over many generations, struggles for peace, equality and environmentalism, among other issues dear to the left have been central. These probably date back prior to the Down Rent Wars of 1845, rebellions of farmers in opposition to vampiric tax increases—but the Woodstock Women in Black have held their weekly silent vigils each Saturday since George W Bush’s first saber-rattling, and have no reason to stop any time soon. The area’s been a draw for free thinkers, socialists, communists, pacifists, and anarchists of every stripe. Naturally, the creative community have almost always been deeply enmeshed with those residents of radical politics and this can be traced at least to Ralph Whitehead’s arrival as he began to build the Byrdcliffe colony at the dawn of the 20th century. He’d based his vision of a shared space on his own socialist philosophy and this inherent leftism has been an active part of much of the Woodstock experience, particularly among artists.
Today there are fewer performance venues but those present are beloved and many quality series have seen the light, so to speak. Utopia Studio was transformed into the Bearsville Theatre around 2008, a premier concert venue. Another building of the Grossman compound has for decades been occupied by the local independent radio station, WDST-FM Radio Woodstock. The station has won major accolades for its programming and also its sense of community and embrace of the area’s progressive values. There are special annual events like the Woodstock Film Festival, Reggae Festival, Guitar Festival and Goddess Festival. The Woodstock Writers organization also hosts events, primarily a celebrated Woodstock Writers Festival too. This writer will modestly add that he was also the organizer and producer of a number of events on various Woodstock stages in the 2005-10 period, including the Woodstock Woody Guthrie Festival and the Woodstock Phil Fest, the latter in tribute to Phil Ochs. And the very town square, the Village Green, is the site of several concerts each year as well as weekly drum circles. There are several excellent art galleries, a museum run by the Byrdcliffe Guild/Woodstock Artists Association and a quite renowned Center for Photography (built on the site of what was Café Espresso) as well as the wonderful Woodstock Music Shop, record stores, great bookstores including the Golden Notebook (and the Readers’ Quarry, where this essay actually began), rock-n-roll nostalgia shops, a variety of inns and eateries, a historic community center—the site of an annual Dr. King honor and the area’s public access studio, and an awe-inspiring artists’ cemetery. This most famous little village’s sounds, sites, readings, and productions, along with its progressive politicos and radial activists, continues to thrive.
But back to “Retort”.
According to Alf Evars, Woodstock’s official historian, the first issue was released in June, 1942 at the behest of Holley Cantine. At that point its message sat on the fence of a pacifist ideal, angling its ire toward government of any kind let alone involvement in any war (even the “good” one). Five years later, with the inclusion of the noted Dachine Rainer, the journal had claimed its “Anarchist Quarterly” subtitle. And with the rightward turn of the nation, Woodstockers found reasonable wisdom in its pages. Rainer was a close associate of e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden and many other celebrated modernist poets—including Ezra Pound during his darkest days (though her politics sharply differed from his). Born in Manhattan, 1921, but a world traveler, she was reared toward radical thought as a child, acutely aware of the Sacco and Vanzetti case as it happened in real time. By 1944, she would become a published author with a piece in the magazine “Politics”, edited by Dwight McDonald who’d already been acknowledged as a journalist and editor of note within left circles. In tandem with Cantine, she would found and edit radical literary magazines “The Wasp” and “Prison Etiquette” in addition to “Retort”. Rainer maintained a life of outspoken activism and also wrote novels and collections of poetry of considerable note. She outlived Cantine by some years and spent later decades traveling from New York to Europe, walking always within the ranks of the leading writers of her time. Rainer ultimately settled in London where she’d remain until her 2000 passing.
While Rainer’s legacy is not bound to “Retort”, it remains a considerable facet among the accomplishments of both she and Cantine. The Anarchist Library website, in writing on “Retort”, went so far as to state that it’s, “a superb example of what an independent and radical publication could be. Mixing book reviews with long essays and thoughtful editorials, poetry and personal experiences, Retort is still a great read”. Here-here.
So this brings me back to this particular Woodstock visit and the two issues of focus here…
“Retort” Vol 3, Number 4, Spring 1947 – The cover of each issue of “Retort” displays, in a professional journal manner, highlights of what’s to come within. This particular number boasts a gun-metal gray cover featuring “The New Russian Resistance” by Canine and Rainer as well as “Anti-Bolshevist Communism in Germany” (by Paul Mattick) and “Art in the Desert” (George Woodcock) as well as some other pieces. The inside cover includes ads for back issues of this title (“50 cents per copy”) as well as two others: “Now”, a British anarchist journal edited by Woodcock with George Orwell among the contributing writers, and a downtown New York mag called “Resistance!” (“formerly “Why?”).
The title page of this issue of “Retort” offers credits for the joint editors and the statement, “RETORT is hand-set and hand-printed by the editors”. The small print at the bottom lists the address as simply Bearsville NY and clarifies that single copies sold for 40 cents, subscriptions $1.50 per year for four issues. Interestingly, it clarifies that “Retort” does not pay for contributed articles. Of course this was a highly grass-roots effort but it’s odd that writers on the left would decide up front that they wouldn’t pay creatives, even as writers and others in the arts had been struggling for recognition as cultural workers for decades.
The opening piece is the editorial which kicks off a series entitled “Anti-Third World War”; this installment is dedicated to the anti-Stalinist movement in left circles which had been present throughout the post-Lenin years but made a resurgence in the aftermath of WW2. There is also a follow-up to this piece, furthering the anti-Stalin argument and a last editorial which focuses on May Day 1947 (in New York, not Red Square), speaking to the bureaucracy within the Communist and Socialist parties as well as smaller splinter organizations amidst the marches and other celebratory gatherings. The authors mock the big midtown parade and rally, though it was 50,000 strong, for the presence of American flags, Sousa march music and “the slogans, now taken out of packing boxes, much like last year’s Christmas decorations”. The author went on to add that the meeting held by the SP was akin to a wake, but also stated that, “it was impossible to attend all of the gatherings since each little party and sect had its own ceremony”.
It is ironic that Cantine, a true supporter of May Day traditions and most certainly the author of this critique, would denounce the legitimacy of the mass NYC parade and cite the use of brass bands and Sousa marches considering his own musical involvement in the events where he was among the performers. But his pointed criticisms raise even further questions. In the time of this writing, 2016, radicals continue to long for a period when left organizations and labor marched together in mass marches and rallies of these huge proportions, and there was still energy for numerous other, more revolutionary May Day events. Perhaps this editorial’s most vexing feature is the continued fracturing of the US left in the face of the growing right-wing threat in Washington. During the summer prior to this piece’s publication, “The Hollywood Reporter” outed prominent screenwriters and directors as communists and the barrage continued into October of ’47 when the first HUAC hearings would damn the Hollywood 10 as traitors. Hindsight may be 20/20 but we now recognize how the left’s divide only led to the rise of the right.
This issue of “Retort” continues on with “Anti-Bolshevist Communism in Germany” before moving into some articles on the arts. Guest writer George Woodcock offers “Arts in the Desert”, a piece, curiously enough, about the state of culture in his native UK. He cites some musical advances due to the availability of record players and names a few modern composers (Tippet, Brittan) but maintains that the excitement remains on the old classical and baroque masters. He briefly reviews ballet (nothing on modern dance), and somehow uses the moment to make some disturbing anti-gay slurs. How wrong it seems for a progressive essayist and historian to refer to male dancers as “queens” and then go on to explain that while he is not a “queer baiter”, he feels that the lack of acceptance of gay lifestyles has created in this community “an exaggerated reaction” which gives ballet “an unhealthy nature”.
Woodcock goes on in his overview of the British arts scene by stating that “the theatre proper is at a standstill” and writes similarly of English film. While the true ‘kitchen sink’ British realism was a few years away, its roots could be found in other realist movements which were very strong in Europe in the post-War years, including “It Always Rains On Sunday”, a Brit production of 1947. The reviewer seems fully unaware of this.
Woodcock remains as passionless about the state of literature, giving a bit of a nod to poets including Dylan Thomas, but, he states, he is hopeful that young writers “may produce something better than the ‘Marxist’ writing of a previous generation”. The outlook, he offers is not very bright.
The magazine next gives us free-verse poetry by Dachine Rainer, a piece for Rilke, and then moves into a letters-to-the-editor section, ‘Retorting’. The first letter is by the noted Dwight Macdonald who soundly criticizes the editors for their negative review of Orwell in an earlier issue, referring to it as “unjustified abuse”. Dachine Rainer snaps back with a defensive er, uh, retort which reminds Macdonald that he’d apparently printed some anti-Orwell sentiment in his “Partisan Review” not long before!
The magazine next features a detailed look at a magazine under the editorial watch of Macdonald, “Politics”. The reviewer was careful to remind readers that Macdonald had begun his literary career as a Marxist before moving wholehearted into the Trotskyist movement and that over the course of several issues, the political and philosophical viewpoint wavered in a questionable manner.
Before closing, “Retort” Vol 3 No 4 gives brief reviews of new recordings which, happily range from modern (Copland, Dvorak, Prokofiev, Stravinsky) to classical orchestral and chamber works to folk songs. As to the latter, John Jacob Niles, the most celebrated of the concert folksingers of the day, is hit hard by the reviewer when “he melodramatically hams and sobs” his way through a collection called ‘Early American Carols’.
Special mention must be made of the inside back cover of this issue, which includes an ad for a Motive Book Shop in Waco Texas, where Henry Miller’s ‘Murder the Murderer’ was available for $1.25 and a free copy of ‘The Southern Temper’ by Judson Crews was included too. Just beneath this was an advertisement for a Four Seasons Book Shop then located in Greenwich Village; its spring catalog included Kafka, Cocteau, DH Lawrence, and more, as well as EM Forster’s ‘Aspects of the Novel’.
So what of my other find, “Retort” Vol 4 No 1 of Autumn 1947? First, off, this issue’s cover is in a dark blood red, quite striking. The featured articles include “The New Russian Resistance”, another classic anti-Stalinist article by the editorial couple, and two arts pieces as well as reviews and poetry.
A short, stunning Yeats poem, “Great Day” fills the space at the end of the lead article and offers a rather Orwellian look at the after-effects of revolution. It is followed by a Cantine essay, “Art: Play and Its Perversions” which analyzes the plight of the artist in capitalist society rather eloquently. A proper poetry section fills the center of the volume, with works by British poets George Sims and Alex Comfort, followed by a Rainer piece and then selections by Pearl Bond, Jackson Mac Low and Martin Dworkin, none of whom were familiar to me upon first reading. The issue then moves to a hefty article on Bakunin by Michael Grieg and then a series of book and brief record reviews. Just before the end of this issue, the inside back cover sports a pair of ads of note: the first is an appeal by the editors for readers to send a parcel of food or clothing to poor families in Germany—and for those unable to afford both this mailing and a renewal of a subscription, “Retort” offers a free renewal to those who give to this cause. And it’s followed by the announcement of a “new theoretical magazine devoted to the international movement of democratic socialism—Modern Review”.
As I closed the crimson cover and plotted out a space for these two historic volumes on my shelf of revolutionary literature, I thought back to the time and place in which these two magazines were written and distributed from. Cantine and Rainer should be recalled as authentic members of Woodstock’s radical arts history. But they also should be viewed as independent anarchist cultural voices in the frenetic period that bridged the push leftward and the abject reaction to it. Even as a vicious, single-minded mission to silence radicals boiled over in film studios, government offices and corporate palaces, “Retort” offered its own brand of fight-back from a Bearsville cabin, largely untouched by the tumult that would last for decades.
Retort, Spring 1947, Vol 3, Number 3. Bearsville NY
Retort, Autumn 1947, Vol 4, Number 1. Bearsville NY
Evars, Alf. Woodstock: History of An American Town, NY: 1987
It Happened in Woodstock, NY: 1972
David McDonald’s excellent documentary “Woodstock: You Can’t Get to There From Here”