A BRIEF STUDY OF THE ART AND CULTURE OF
THE SOCIALIST PARTY USA
By John Pietaro
The twentieth century, breaking through the darkness of earlier times, seemed to brim with a certain newness that other eras could not have known. And while it would be decades before the shackles of labor began to loosen, a great promise seemed to be born with the ringing in of 1900. The Socialist Party USA was truly a product of the twentieth century, born under the punches of a ruling class hell-bent on maintaining the status quo. Founded by Eugene V. Debs, already legendary in workers’ lore due to his organizing of the American Railway strike some years before, the Party’s battles against the Robber Barons and their lackeys in government are the stuff that radicals’ dreams are made of. But in addition to the fighting street demonstrations and the mass social reform, beyond the reach of Debs immortal presidential elections, including one from behind federal prison walls where he was sentenced for agitating against the First World War, the Socialist Party also engaged in powerful outreach and agit-prop campaigns with a phalanx of cultural workers, artist-activists whose dedication to the cause of social change was as great as their immersion into the world of creative arts.
The bloody uprisings of the late nineteenth century drew dissident workers together in a way they’d never imagined before, toward the radical notion of an industrial democracy. Leftists of every stripe ranging from social democrats to anarchists attempted to organize workers into unions to fight the cruel culture of oppression existing in the day’s sweatshops, amidst the terrible fallout of a series of panics, recessions and depressions. But with the pain and anguish came rebellion, that which was carried through the ranks not only in speeches and pamphlets but with great fervor by movement poets, singers, painters, composers, playwrights and actors. Recalled among the many labor battles which included cultural workers in the trenches was the 1894 national march led by Jacob Coxey, a mass demonstration demanding hunger relief. An observer of the march was writer L. Frank Baum who, by 1900, would go on to author The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a document filled with progressive political symbolism. More importantly, a teenage Jack London (1876-1916), soon to be affiliated with the fledgling Socialist Party of the USA, was an active participant. Traveling within ‘Coxey’s Army’, Jack London later wrote:
It was circus day when we came to town and every day was circus day, for there were many towns…Every company had its campfire, and around each fire something was doing. The cooks in my company, Company L, were song-and-dance artists and
contributed most of our entertainment. In another part of the encampment the glee club would be singing…We played the local mines with our baseball teams; and we gave them better vaudeville than they’d often had, for there was good talent left in some of the decayed artists of the army. (London, Jack, the Road, NY: McMillan, 1907, page 179)
Coxey’s Army coalesced in Washington DC and created a stir that would not soon be forgotten by the powers that be, with US Army vets parading along with others experiencing homelessness, joblessness and dire poverty in light of the Panic of 1893. The legions that traveled across the miles to converge upon the White House included a wide array of performers, jugglers, musicians, orators and a ramshackle array of others.
However, London left the march prior to reaching there, and instead turned up in Buffalo, New York where he was arrested not for his part in the protests but for vagrancy. His time spent in jail was valuable, however, as he began there to formulate his socio-political views, inspired by the writings of Marx (Gianquitto, Tina, Introductory Notes to The Call of the Wild and White Fang, London, Jack, 2003 edition, Barnes and Noble Classics, page X). Beyond the realm of this singular march, worker-poets began to increase in number, especially within the shadows of inner-city factories.
Labor agitator and leader of the United Railway Union, Eugene V. Debs, forged the Socialist Party but one year into the new century. The Party’s arts endeavors began shortly thereafter. Publisher Charles H. Kerr released the pioneering song book Socialist Songs With Music in 1901. In the introduction, Kerr wrote that this book was the first attempt to publish a collection of Socialist songs intended for the use of Socialists within the United States specifically. He added, “We American Socialists are only beginning to sing”. He clarified that, due to the very uniqueness of this project, more than half of the selections needed to be borrowed from “English comrades”. The titles are laid out in the table of contents much as songs would be listed in a hymnal: by title, but many are also catalogued by their opening sentence (ie-“The Internationale” is listed as both “The International Party” and “Arise, Ye Prisoners of Starvation”). Along that line, it also includes a number of hymns, albeit, those celebrating a rather Christian vision of equality and harmony in the world. It appears to be more connected with the Christian Socialist movement which had been in existence in the US since the 1880s.
That same year a new kind of magazine, the Comrade, was born. It sprang up amidst a number of other Socialist-connected radical periodicals, however this was the only one which specialized in art and literature. Leslie Fishbein wrote that it …
…devoted itself expressly to socialist art and literature, and it was so eclectic that it printed utopian fantasies alongside revolutionary propaganda. During its four years of
existence it did quicken the aesthetic concerns of the socialist movement and create a forum for artists and radicals. (Fishbein, Leslie, Introduction to Art for the Masses, Philadelphia: Temple University, 1988, pp 3-4)
The Comrade lost its cultural core when it was merged with the International Socialist Review, a magazine which like most radical organs of the time, offered little in the way of illustration, creative writing, poetry or reviews. Not until the Masses came upon the scene several years later would the Left have any kind of particularly artistic publication with which to inspire activists and artists to take up a revolutionary cause.
In 1906 Songs of Socialism: for local branch and campaign work, public meetings, labor, fraternal, and religious organizations, social gatherings, and the home was compiled by Harvey Moyer, who was a member of the Christian Socialists (who also led singing at the organization’s 1909 conference in Ohio). Both books were embraced by the Socialist Party and turned up at various Party events including Sunday school. The latter year, the Party also established the Rand School of Social Science, but there seemed to be a limited, at best, commitment to a music program. (Cohen, Ronald D, and Samuelson, Dave, accompanying book to compact disc collection ‘Songs for Political Action’, Bear Family Records, 1996).
Initially, the SP’s arts endeavors were loosely organized, used primarily as outreach for Debs’ presidential campaigns. Cultural workers involved included the much celebrated novelist Jack London and groundbreaking poet and folk song collector Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), among other notable contributors including poet and organizer Vachel Lindsay(1879-1931).
London was born into poverty, raised amidst the docks of Oakland and as a young man found his way to the Alaskan gold rush, that which became paramount to his inspiration as a writer, and of course traveled with Coxey’s Army before that. His most famous book The Call of the Wild was published in 1901, to be followed in the years to come by People of the Abyss, concerning the lives of the destitute, and The Iron Heel, his tale of a mythic fascist-like government. London would stand as a world renowned novelist, including in the Soviet Union where he was seen as the most popular American author. In between the writing of these celebrated books, London was the prolific author of radical pamphlets and articles, often in conjunction with the Socialist Party, of which he became a member shortly after its founding. He published an essay, How I Became a Socialist, while engaging in a flurry of radical activism.
The young Carl Sandburg, was also present for the 1894 march of Coxey’s Army, which he documented. Sandburg also served the Party as a political organizer for the Wisconsin branch as early as 1907 and within a year, became a delegate to national Socialist Party convention and engaged on a speaking tour with Debs’ campaign. Beginning with this period, he also began to write for Socialist and other radical periodicals.
The Red Special…
The entourage on Eugene Debs’ ‘Red Special’ 1912 campaign train was ignited within a flurry of activity, the promise of the new, and expectations of widespread social change. Campaign stops across country produced roaring crowds, and even an enthusiastic press corps, unsure how the Socialist was able to garner so much command, but—hey—it sold papers. Debs was the candidate to watch, and watch him they did. The train included not only the candidate himself, but a bevy of orators, propagandists (today we’d call this his ‘communications staff’) and cultural workers. As we have seen in recent decades with popular Democratic candidates’ appeal to Hollywood, the Debs train carried local celebrities, musicians and even Helen Keller, who presented to massive crowds with the aid of a sign language interpreter. Keller of course was already world-renowned and her continued participation in Socialist Party actions further put the Party in a place of prominence; her later writings on the topic of socialism clarify her importance as a very early activist for those with disabilities as well as the battles for workers rights. Another major attraction on the Red Special was opera singer Amelia Galli-Curci, something of a celebrated grand dame in her time. According to the late Martin Miller, conductor of the Red Special, Galli-Curci was especially effective at spreading solidarity with the Italian immigrant miners in the strings of town the Socialists traveled through (the author’s correspondence with Quinn Brisben, Socialist Party,3/6/02).
The idea that the creative arts could be used for purposes of social change seemingly grew out of the 1910s vision of the bohemian, the artist who questions societal norms and lives on the edge of them, at best. The eccentric painter, the renegade poet, the vagabond musician, the street-theatre actor, the lonesome experimental composer, and the barefoot, black leotard clad dancer. The avant artists at the dawn of the twentieth century were a special breed, for they had the luxury of modernism in which to create. Accompanying the greatly expanded boundaries about their art was the expanse of thought in general: the theories, writings, inventions and speeches of Freud, Marx, Edison, Sanger, et al begat the fledgling fight for women’s rights and the struggle of African-Americans, workers and immigrants. Likewise, ‘Fordism’---assembly line wage slavery---begat the urgency for a movement of workers. And the artistic advancements bubbling in spots like Greenwich Village gave a face to the modern avant garde artist in this time of both futuristic wonderment and industrial bondage.
According to Michael Denning, author of the Cultural Front,
The little renaissance of the 1910s signaled a more sustained connection between the arts communities and the left, between the bohemia of Greenwich Village and the movement cultures of the Debsian Socialist Party and Wobblies.(Denning, Michael, the Cultural Front, NY: Verso, 1997)
The 1910s also saw the growing status of cultural worker Oscar Ameringer (1870-1943), who quickly became an important part of the 1912 Debs entourage. Though Ameringer’s role with the Debs campaign was to lead the band (his family band) which traveled on the campaign train, he was already established as a speaker for the SP, having worked as an organizer for the Knights of Labor prior to his joining the then new Socialist Party in the earliest 1900s. Ameringer, a German immigrant, is a most interesting character, a cultural worker engaging in various arts, often simultaneously. He was a musician (and a member of the American Federation of Musicians most of his life), a photographer, a painter, a prolific writer and labor journal editor as well as a much in-demand orator. By 1907 he’d become leader of the Oklahoma Socialist party and also ran for local office on the SP line on several occasions. His work, in addition to making the case for socialism in the mid-west, would inspire the founding of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union some years later. According to that state’s historical society,
Ameringer synthesized Jeffersonian democratic principles, the frontier individualism of the Homestead Act, and Marxism in order to formulate “Industrial Democracy,” or “Industry of the People, by the People, and for the People.” He was friends with, and an ally of, moderate socialists such as Milwaukee's Victor Berger and more radical socialists such as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Ameringer advocated a tolerant, nonsectarian form of Marxism. (Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/A/AM014.html)
Noted poet Vachel Lindsay, tiring of the inequity and race riots he came to observe, sought solace in the philosophies of the Socialist movement for some years. He not only campaigned for Debs but published a highly powerful poem in 1913, ‘Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket’. The piece spoke of the human failings, the greed, the separation and how we as a people need to “vote against our human nature”. Lindsay’s bold statement within his own medium spoke to the many poets who were moved by radicalism but had been hesitant to take a cultural stand. The talent moving into the Socialist Party and the IWW at this point was of great significance.
The Socialist Decade and the War…
In 1914 Carl Sandburg, now living in Chicago and writing for the Chicago Evening World, allowed his Socialist Party membership to lapse but his acclaimed work of two years later, Chicago Poems would reflect his strong radical stance indeed if not his socialism. A testament to Sandburg’s radicalism is this excerpt written by biographer Philip R. Yanella in his The Other Carl Sandburg, who states that the radical heart of the author continues to be elusive to many and unacknowledged by most Americans:
During the crucial, watershed years surrounding World War I, when the future of American domestic and foreign policy was being shaped and the circumstances of the common people were as much a subject of fierce public debate and confrontation as they were at any moment in American history before or after, this other Sandburg was a profoundly different writer from the Sandburg lionized at mid-century. This other Sandburg believed that America was a faithless monster of a country. From his writing could be drawn no pieties about success through hard work, no civics lesson about the American way of life. He saw no possibility that the conditions in which most Americans then lived could be bettered by liberal reforms such as he would later champion as a New Dealer and Stevenson and Kennedy Democrat. (source-Modern American Poetry: RADICAL SANDBURG http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/sandburg/radical.htm)
Most fascinating, Sandburg’ s philosophy ran along the line of all other great revolutionaries and he often aligned himself later, as we shall seem with the Communist Party. But regardless of label, Carl Sandburg saw the ruination of his people and sought the most dissident turn possible in order to save the US:
He held out only one hope for the country and its ordinary people. If the United States collapsed, the other Sandburg believed at that time, then there would be hope. Massive direct action by workers, class conflict in the form of strikes and crippling general strikes, and, finally, revolution to overthrow capitalism was the way to change the lot of the ordinary people. Rather than renouncing his socialist beliefs and moving on to become a more objective writer, in short, Sandburg became deeply radicalized, was absolutely partisan, moved startlingly leftward. (ibid)
While Jack London remained a life-long socialist, he too left the Socialist Party in th period leading up to the First World War, but he maintained his friendship with IWW ‘Big’ Big Bill Haywood. London’s work was included in some of the Wobblies songbooks, particularly his “What Is a Scab?” piece which continues to be read globally. (Portz, Chuck, Jack London entry, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakis. Chicago: St James Press, 1990, pp 432-433).
Both London and Sandburg of course became celebrated authors who would receive international acclaim beyond their life spans. Both became separated from the Socialist Party at approximately the same time, though Sandburg voiced his opposition to some of the SP members’ saber-rattling as World War One came to a boil. By 1917 Sandburg would come to express a strong interest in the Russian Revolution though he remained an independent activist throughout his life.
Documentation of Socialist Party cultural programming in the post-World War 1 period is scant, however, 1920 saw the publication of the 16-page The Socialist Sunday School Song Book. The Brownsville Socialist Sunday School, the book’s publisher, was in the community of Brownsville, in the eastern section of Brooklyn, which stood as a mecca for the Socialist Party in those years:
In the early twentieth century, Brownsville was a center of socialist activity, including the Brownsville Labor Lyceum. That lecture hall was not only the Socialist Party headquarters but also a political and cultural center for the working-class community providing music, theater, and political education. The Brownsville Labor Lyceum hosted important socialist speakers such as Norman Thomas and A. Philip Randolph…before the 1919 Red Scare, the Brownsville Socialist Sunday School attracted a thousand students weekly. The socialist movement in Brownsville also boasted a cooperative bakery, a bank, a consumer league, and tenant organizations. Thus, Brownsville became an immigrant Mecca in the early twentieth century. (the American Historical Review, December 2002; source: http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/107.5/br_79.html)
The Socialist Sunday School Song Book features cover art of Debs and an inner advertisement for the Young People’s Socialist League’s meetings at the Brownsville Labor Lyceum at 219 Sackman Street, Brooklyn NY every Sunday at 5PM. The book includes a selection of labor-oriented song lyrics (no music), many of which were in the 1901 song book, but also including “The Red Flag”, “The Advancing Proletaire”, “Hymn of Free Russia” and other works indicating a support of the Russian Revolution. In this period, many Socialists maintained support for the new Soviet state and vied for recognition with the Communist International. The rivalry between the CP and SP would only heat up further over the next fifteen years and the damage done by the lack of solidarity clearly played into the hands of the Right-wing. While local and regional attempts at Left enclaves would continue for many more years, and each group would build up its own cultural programs, the ultimate goal of serious social change would be stalled again and again by a CP-SP feud, inner Party fragmentation and a zealously opportunistic Right.
The Rebel Arts Group…
The Socialist Party cultural program would not truly develop until the 1930s’ Popular Front period. The Rebel Arts Group, led by writer and SP officer Samuel H. Friedman (1897-1990), based out of the Party’s Rand School of Socialist Science in the Greenwich Village section of New York City stands as the Party’s strongest opportunity for the development of arts-activism. Rebel Arts’ agenda was largely theatrical, offering a series of radical plays in various New York union halls. But the Group also focused on a wider array of programming:
The Socialist Party’s Rebel Arts Group in New York City sponsored a drama club, a camera club, chess club and a puppet theatre while also broadcasting dramas on radio station WEVD, a station using the initials of Socialist leader Eugene V Debs as its call letters. (Dean, Jodi. Cultural Studies and Political Theory. NY: Cornell University, 2000)
Friedman, a strong activist and editor of the SP organs The New Leader and The Call, in 1935 compiled and edited The Rebel Song Book: Eighty-Seven Socialist and Labor Songs for Voice and Piano (NY: Rand School Press, 1935), assisted by Music Editor Dorothy Bachman, which featured songs that ranged from older IWW-based material (ie-“Solidarity Forever”) to folk songs of various nations to parodies on known melodies. Ironically, though at a point of great rivalry with the Communist Party, several titles included were compositions by known CP members or associates. This song book was a product, perhaps, of the Popular Front and indicates the primary objective of a unified struggle.
Freidman opened the book with a piece of his own poetry, one which championed the unity of workers, citing that the march into battle in this worker agitation is done so while “singing a song”. Clearly Freidman was a Party functionary that understood the importance of culture, particularly in this era in which the Communist Party had already build up its art-activism to the leadership position. The Rebel Song Book remains an important historic document and stands as a powerful reminder of the breadth of the Socialist Party during its own second stage. It bears a closer examination.
“The International” is the song book’s initial piece of music, seen here in a piano score and with English lyrics. However, as is customary, Freidman included lyric translations in the original French, as well as German, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Finnish and Yiddish, clarifying a good cross-section of the immigrant groups within the Depression-era radical sphere. This is followed with the IWW-related “Hold the Fort”, credited here only English Hymn. The third number is entitled “We’re Marching, O Comrades” credited to Hanns Eisler (see below), though above his name is written “Comintern”, referring to the song of the same name. This is the Eisler melody published three years earlier in a Communist Party song book, however it’s initial lyric, written by CP cultural leader VJ Jerome (see below), has been replaced with an anonymously written poem, perhaps Freidman’s. It is a decidedly revolutionary lyric, calling out to workers and farmers to “shut down field and foundry”, among other powerfully militant statements. Likewise, “The Revolution” by poet Arturo Giovannitti (see below) and composer Herman Epstein, calls for an arising of oppressed workers and farmers. Profoundly, Giovannitti concludes his piece by declaring that after such a rebellious action, “peace shall reign forever! And it shall be called the revolution”.
The song book includes many we would now see as standard fare, such as “The Red Flag” and “Solidarity Forever”, both already seen as international labor anthems, but it also includes “Come, Rally Youth” which was dedicated to the Young People’s Socialist League and written on a German folk song. A piece that is well known to protestors throughout the US, “We Shall Not Be Moved” contains some lyrics which are specific to the Socialist movement, including “the arm and torch will lead us” and “build the Socialist Party”, thereby adding to the historic value of its inclusion. While credited as a Pentecostal hymn, it of course includes none of the song’s original religious lyrics and is said to have been arranged by music editor Dorothy Bachman. Another SP-specific reference is the inclusion of the “Anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union”, a powerful union at the time that was firmly entrenched in the Socialist Party. Further, the inclusion of the “Workmen’s Circle Hymn” speaks to the SP’s strong connection to that fraternal labor organization.
In line with the inherent Socialist message, the book is all-inclusive, often arming old music with new, radical lyrics including a Druid war song and folk songs from most nations, hymns and spirituals alongside, IWW songs, global socialist anthems and work songs specific to one or another nationality. These sit nicely across from songs specific to noted strikes of the day, including the moving “No More Slaves” from Danville West Virginia, written over the tune of the church song “Jesus Saves”. Freidman even opened the pages of his book to “The Hand and the Hammer” by Platon Brownoff, a theme of the Socialist Labor Party. Flipping through the song book’s pages, Sis Cunningham’s “March of the Hungry Men” jumps out immediately. Its one of her better, yet lesser-known works, but it’s her CP membership (see below) which speaks to the reality of the united front within the Popular Front. Cunningham is represented via the inclusion of two more of her melodies, yet in the Rebel Song Book there seems to be little evidence of the CIO-led sit-down strikes then already occurring. While “The Soup Song” is included, only the melody (“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) is referenced; there is no mention of lyricist Maurice Sugar, closely aligned with the Communist Party throughout the 1930s. However, by and large, this Socialist song book remains a relevant document to radical arts.
The same year of Rebel Song Book’s publication, Friedman also produced a monthly periodical called ARISE: Socialist and Labor Cultural Magazine. It is interesting to see some of the pre-publicity for this magazine as it offers much insight into the Socialist Party’s hopes for a radical cultural organization within its sponsorship, as well as the wider view of the Left on the arts as a source of organizing power: “ARISE wields the weapon of art for the toiling masses along the whole cultural front—graphic arts, photography, literature, the drama, the dance, music, criticism. One dollar will bring you ARISE for a year. Now is the time to subscribe –to become a part of the movement to provide a means of expression for artists in all fields who are awake to reality”. Unfortunately, the SP’s cultural worker program never seems to have had great development beyond the 1930s-40s and their own historical documents offer nearly no information on it. Apparently, the Rebel Arts Group was active into the 1950s, but documentation on this is largely unavailable.
The issue with a lack of documentation of the Socialist Party’s cultural programming would indicate a limited scope, regardless of the work of Friedman. The Trostskyite author and theorist George Novack, in an article criticizing the Communist Party’s shifting ‘party lines’ (sectarian to Popular Front) and the “deference to Stalinist authority…augmented by the awe with which they regarded the Soviet Union…”, also made strong statements about the SP’s lack of connection to artists of the day. Though Novack cited in his article, and expressed absolute support for the Socialist Party in, the case of a 1934 riot at Madison Square Garden when members of the Communist Party stormed an SP event, he offers only criticism of the Socialists lack of radical artists and other intellectuals within the ranks. However, he specifically aims his barbs at the Old Guard leadership of the SP, offering some interest in the possibilities for a new cultural program under Norman Thomas:
As the radical intellectuals traveled along the road to the left, they passed by the Socialist camp without stopping. It had nothing to give them. Since the 1921 split under the regime of the Old Guard, American socialism had been thoroughly drained of all political and intellectual vitality. Possessed of all the defects and none of the powers of European social democracy, it had grown senile before it reached maturity. This negative attitude of the radical intellectuals towards the socialist party has on the whole been maintained up to now. Only recently Norman Thomas publicly bemoaned the fact that the Stalinists had completely captured “the cultural front”. The communist movement constituted the main center of attraction for the radicals…
Since 1921, the Socialist party has remained in a state of intellectual sterility. With insignificant exceptions, it exerted no influence upon the living cultural movement nor attracted any important group of radical intellectuals to its banner. The Old Guard, obsessed by the single idea of combating the ideas and the influence of the communists, had no further use for theoretical investigation; they were quite content with the moth-eaten social-democracy they had absorbed in their youth. The world-shaking experiences of the Russian revolution and the ensuing events made not the least dent upon their consciousness. The feeble flickers of intellectual life displayed here and there within Socialist circles beyond the precincts of the Rand School were fed by such doctrinaires as Laidler, who simply regurgitated for American consumption the platitudes of English Fabianism.
With the changes which have recently taken place within the Socialist party, there will undoubtedly be a tendency for radical intellectuals to be drawn towards it. However, the theoretical weakness of the Socialist party, the absence of a vigorous intellectual life, and its lack of a cultural apparatus equal to that of the Stalinists definitely lessen its attractive power. One of the main tasks of the left wing in the Socialist party should be the systematic encouragement of theoretical work in order to raise the theoretical level of the party; to draw closer those radical intellectuals who have broken with Stalinism, and thereby prepare to combat the false ideas of Stalinism on the cultural as well as the political front. (George Novack “American Intellectuals and the Crisis”, New International, Volume III Number 1, February 1936, pp.23-27, and Volume III Number 3, June 1936, pp.83-86; source: Marxist Internet Archive - http://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/1936/02/x01.htm)
While Samuel Friedman’s cultural contributions to the movement are the focus of this study, his name largely evokes his non-arts activism with and about the Socialist Party. He stood as an almost perennial candidate for political office on the SP line beginning with the 1940s, on both local and national levels.
A strong cultural worker associated with the Socialist Party in this era was Elizabeth Morgan, a highly accomplished musician from rural North Carolina who performed and taught songs of social change. Her upbringing brought her to the awareness that music designed for political change must be digestible, familiar to those she was trying to reach. Morgan, though a trained musician, tended to perform and collect folk-oriented music more often than not. And she used it within her cultural work regularly. But Morgan’s scope spread out further: she also ran for public office—Ohio Congressman-at-Large—on the Socialist ticket. This brilliant multi-instrumentalist (piano, violin, viola, recorder, organ and xylophone) collected many workers’ songs and in her book Socialist and Labor Songs of the 1930s, which she completed in 1958 but for which she could find no publisher. Nearly forty years later, it would finally be published posthumously. The book includes an auto-biographical statement she composed in 1964 which spoke of Morgan’s activism and how she developed her Socialist arts school:
The person who got me started with Socialist music activity was Caroline Urie…an early teacher of Montessori…at Hull House in Chicago…Eleanor Smith was there making music and these women had been very much interested in music as an expression of the struggle for better living conditions…A Socialist leader, Karl Pauli, was one of the people who happened to come to our house when I was singing some of the material and was so moved by it that he urged me to sing for conventions and various gatherings. Sam Friedman was very helpful too…I found that the United States had a very rich literature of what might be called socially conscious music, probably the richest and most varied of any country in the world. (Morgan, Elizabeth, Socialist and Labor Songs of the 1930s. Chicago: Charles H Kerr, 1997)
The ILGWU and Culture…
As 1937 drew to a close, the very first labor movement show would hit the Broadway stage. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), a strongly Socialist Party-related union, had a noted cultural program. The union’s leadership, correctly, saw that their members—largely sewing machine operators and pressers—worked long, strenuous hours and were in need of cultural programming. The mainly immigrant workers also needed educational opportunities to advance their career opportunities in this country, hence the ILG commonly incorporated educational opportunities into their cultural programs.
The International president, David Dubinsky strongly supported such measures and this was echoed by the union’s many local presidents. Among them was Luigi Antonini, president of ILGWU’s Local 89 (the Italian Dressmakers Union) and noted Socialist internationalist. Antonini, an in-demand speaker due to his rousing radical statements and boldly anti-fascist exclamations, saw his local of mostly Italian immigrant workers engage in numerous dances, concerts, educational programs and social opportunities. To the hard-working membership, these opportunities for group singing, dinner-and-dance evenings and other community events fortified them for the next rally or job action Antonini would call on them for. Further, the union’s Local 22 developed the nation’s first ongoing cultural union program, with opportunities for its membership to engage in a wide variety of arts endeavors. Within several years, Local 22 cold boast of its relationship with directors of the major arts museums and concert halls in New York. Its programming was so influential that it launched the start of a whole new generation of many worker-artists
From its very inception the ILGWU has had a deep and abiding connection with artists and with the arts. The Union supported artistic and cultural expressions during its earliest years as dressmakers (originally blouse and skirt workers) embraced opportunities to hear great music, poetry and other artistic forms. That support for creative endeavors continued over time and persists to this very day, as the union stands with only a few others, stressing not only the importance of feeding the body, but feeding the soul as well... Drama, classical music and art are among the areas the ILGWU pioneered programs for its members. (Labor Arts’ online excellent exhibit on the history if the ILGWU, “The ILGWU: Social Unionism in Action”, http://www.laborarts.org/exhibits/ilgwu/culture/index.cfm)
The ILG engaged its membership in wide array of cultural programming, including offering tickets to symphony concerts and other music and theatre events, as well as developing a strong connection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not only would the membership have the chance to see great works of art, but also take tutelage with one of the members of its board. Further, ILG established a vacation center for its members, Unity House, in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. There, exhausted textile workers who’d never before had the chance to go away on a vacation enjoyed time away from the job. It was a year-round resort which featured skiing as well as swimming and horseback riding. Dubinsky was sure to also include cultural opportunities at Unity House and the walls were adorned with the brilliant paintings of artists such as Diego Rivera, Ansel Adams, Ralph Fasanella,l Ben Shawn and others. Entertainment included the African-American choir led by Hall Johnson. The small town in which the site once stood (in its place now is a large arts center, appropriately enough) has since been named for the ILG’s resort; this is how relevant Unity House was.
But of even greater importance was the union’s foray into the Broadway stage. For ILGWU members, composer-lyricist Harold Rome created ‘Pins and Needles’, a production offering humorous (and serious) imagery of the day-to-day goings on in the needle trades. But like much of labor at the time, the songs include a biting radicalism which poked fun at the boss and the status quo. ‘Pins and Needles’ opened on November 27, 1937 at the Labor Stage Theatre, but did amazingly well for an independent production—it was deemed the 1930s’ longest-running musical on Broadway. Within one year it was transferred to Broadway’s Windsor Theatre where it ran for several years. It was also called on for a command performance at the White House, where President and Mrs Roosevelt were said to have been charmed by the show. ‘Pins and Needles’ featured actual workers in singing, dancing and acting parts—who often played to packed houses on weekends but needed to rush back to the shop early Monday morning. Rome’s songs included “Sitting on Your Status Quo, “Not Cricket to Picket”, “Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl”, and the rather legendary “Doing the Reactionary”. And “The Harmony Boys” allowed progressives a chance to laugh at the likes of Father Coughlin, the viciously Rightist priest who espoused angry, pointed, fascistic sentiments over his daily wide-spread radio broadcasts. Here he was depicted in a song and dance routine with two other reactionary faces of the time.
In 1939, commenting on the show’s second anniversary, Time magazine wrote:
New Pins and Needles (music & lyrics by Harold J. Rome; produced by Labor Stage, Inc.). Two years ago this week Pins and Needles opened, almost clandestinely, on Broadway. The basters and buttonhole makers of David Dubinsky's I.L.G.W.U. were merely out for a romp; they ended by setting a record. By its second birthday Pins and Needles had played 865 Broadway performances; longest previous run for a musical show was Irene, with 670. Every girl in the cast now sports a fur coat with a union label.(Time Magazine, December 4, 1939; source: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,762961,00.html)
The Socialist Party’s cultural activism in the 1940s was maintained by Friedman and the Rand School of Social Science. As before, concert and workshops were sponsored by the Party and the ILGWU too continued its work in this area. However, the coming of the McCarthy period damaged the SP, already smaller in numbers than the rival Communist Party, in a manner which may be less obvious to those students of history who have examined only the Communists’ oppression by the forces of reaction. By the late 1940s, with the Cold War moving in like an icy blast, all things progressive became suspect. Even if the Socialist Party had fought to distinguish itself from the then Stalinist stronghold over the CP, the invisible hand of US repression materialized to clamp down on the Norman Thomas-led SP as well. No one was safe and the series of rabid attacks by both conservative politicians and corporate powers saw the Left turn on itself and eat its young in a mad scramble of divisiveness.
Into the Cold…
The first decade of the Cold War saw little to no prominent engagement by Socialist Party cultural workers. By 1959, the Young People’s Socialist League published the Socialist Song Book, edited by Oscar Edelman, which in later editions came to include a series of ‘freedom songs’ along with the more standard labor songs. The book’s Introduction informs us that:
This collection of radical songs has been in preparation on and off now for a number of years. It was originally intended as one of the usual mimeographed songsheets the socialist movement produces from time to time, which people can pick when the singing starts at a party or after a meeting, I later decided to include many of the “Ballads for Sectarians” that had never seen print, and in particular a selection of songs from the skits that the “YSL Players” produced during the five years before the Young Socialist League united with the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth section of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, and publisher of this book…
The socialist movement has always been a singing movement, as have the movements for social justice that preceded it. Whenever masses of people have moved forward to fight against oppression, they have sung songs to give them courage and inspiration. In our day of super sophistication, these heroic songs, at first blush, are likely to strike a newcomer (or worn out ex) as pretentious, over-emotional and phony. For emotional commitment to a political ideal (or any ideal, for that matter) in these time of prosperity, smug complacency, and “adjustment” takes on the appearance of an emotional disorder.
The socialist movement has a long and honorable tradition, and these songs are a part of that tradition. There is little in the America at mid-century to give one a sense of history, and it is perhaps for this reason that the songs that millions have had on their lips when fighting and dying for human freedom and dignity have such an other-worldly ring to us. These songs from the worldwide struggles and the aspirations of many generations can impart a flavor of that historic continuity and tradition, particularly to the young people who are now entering the socialist movement. (Fleishman, Owen, Introduction, the Socialist Songbook, Young People’s Socialist League, 1959; source: http://www.hengstrom.net/songbook/intro.html)
One can also gain some insight into the bitter rivalry that usually went on between the Socialist and Communist parties in the pre- and post-Popular Front years from this song book’s Introduction:
…many of our satirical barbs are aimed at the Communists. Perhaps the most famous of these is the song “Our Line’s Been Changed Again”, written after Hitler double-crossed Stalin by invading Russia in June, 194l, ending the honeymoon days of the Hitler-Stalin Pact during which the Foreign Minister of the USSR, Motolotov, had stated, “Fascism is a matter of taste.”…
There are very few songs here from the famous “People’s Song Book”, known to so many folk songsters, put out by the “non-political” “People’s Artists”, which has always been friendly to the political line of the Communist Party. These songs, some of which are excellent, are readily available while many of those from the socialist current are not.
But the importance of the Young People’s Socialist League was also clarified:
The songs from the YSL and earlier skits are by no means complete. I had only a partial collection, and selected my favorites from these. The bulk of the YSL songs were written by Priscilla Cheneweth; the “Mikado and the Mechayeh” skit is due to me. Some of the recent satires were written by Roy Berkeley, and have appeared in the “Boss’ Songbook”…
The Socialist Song Book, ultimately, was all-inclusive of the SP’s philosophy and the table of contents indicates a wide range of radical songs. The first section is made up of ‘Radical and labor Songs’ and ranges from IWW standards to Spanish Civil War-era pieces and even “The Comintern”. The next section is ‘Sectarian and Satirical Songs’ which offers some of the harsh feeling between the ranks of the SP and CP: “The Ballad of Pete Seeger”, “Communists’ International” , “Old Bolsheviks Song”, “Friend of the Czar”, “the Good Old Party Line”, a satire written to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel” called “the Daily Worker Song”, and “of course “That Trotskyite Mammy of Mine”. One could only imagine how a record album of some of these would have sold among the ruling class! The rest of this song book is broken up over sections for more traditional folk songs and, by 1964, freedom songs. The book also contains an ad for interest youth to join the YPSL by writing to their national office at 1182 Broadway, Room 402, New York, NY.
The late Rob Tucker, a long-time Socialist Party member spoke several years ago of that song book as well as the general state of SP arts endeavors in the 1950s and 60s:
In 1957 after we merged with Independent Socialist League (a Trotskyist offshoot headed by Max Shachtman, Hal Draper and Mike Harrington), Owen Fleishman put out a YPSL songbook, including many radical songs, also a fine batch of “sectarian” songs from the former ISL, many of them extremely funny. On those days, Party meetings usually involved singing, especially social gatherings…Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan’s mentor and in his own right a notable composer and performer…was in the SP when I knew him, and later in the Trots, and after the 70s wasn’t in any left organization but continued to be emphatically a man of the left. (the author’s correspondence with Rob Tucker, 3/1/02)
Socialist Party activist and cultural worker, Quinn Brisben, a poet, who joined the SP in 1959, was also deeply entrenched in the struggle for civil rights. Many examples of his poetry and other writings, often with a focus on equality, have been published in the Socialist as well as the Nation, the Progressive, Monthly Review and in several volumes of his won publishing. He spoke of some of the noted activists in that movement (who had varying levels of connection to the SP):
The late Bayard Rustin had a voice that cold have made him a career as a concert singer. The civil rights movement was full of great singers like Bernice Reagon and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harry Belafonte was a principal support of the King family for many years. (the author’s correspondence with Quinn Brisben, 3/6/02)
Though many of its members were busy in freedom rides and other civil rights activism, the Socialist Party ceased to exist for a period in the 1960s before re-forming. The splintering that ensued by the late ‘60s did little for the cause of solidarity. The Party’s 1960s period saw major upheavals and also the infusion of new blood, including such important figures as Michael Harrington and David McReynolds, but no particular growth in the cultural sphere. When recently asked about the SP’s cultural endeavors in this period, noted peace activist David McReynolds explained:
The SP didn’t have any major cultural activities that I can recall during the sixties, etc. We – at least our youth that I was once a part of in Los Angeles, and I think this would have applied also to the East Coast – inherited the folk music traditions that Pete Seeger and others had done so much to revive. We had those on 78 and LP’s. We all knew the old Spanish Civil War songs, and in the 60’s we were just beginning to learn the Civil
Rights songs. But the problem is that the powerful Socialist Party of the thirties had been dimmed by the War (which simply overwhelmed all of us), and we didn’t emerge in 1945 as anything more than a ghost of what we had been.
So (pardon me for rambling, but it may help stir others to argue and give you more material!) while I remember the fifties and sixties as very much a time of singing when we were together, usually a bit tipsy, all the old labor songs, Spanish Civil War songs, and then the Civil Rights songs, I don’t think these were unique to us – I think the CP folks sang them as well and I assume the Trotskyists. I know we did. “The Workers Flag”, “There Once Was a Union Maid”, “Three Insurgent Generals”, etc. etc. etc. (And of course the International, although no two people ever agreed on the last verse!). Sure, we used the IWW songs. The songbook by Sam Friedman was a treasure trove and I hope it can be brought back by someone in the SP. We sang, we loved singing, but I cannot think of special cultural projects in the period you refer to.(from the author’s correspondence with David McReynolds, New York NY, 10/4/09)
McReynolds also spoke of his experiences with the Socialist Party’s cultural director of the 1930s and ‘40s, Samuel Friedman. He stated that Friedman had not engaged in any arts programming by the time he’d come to know him. McReynolds offered information about Friedman as he recalled him, including his fierce determination and acerbic sense of humor:
Sam was generous with beggars – always gave them something. He was passionate about Israel (but then those were different days). He was an internationalist. He was deeply in love with his wife, Mary, a Roman Catholic – who kept a kosher kitchen for Sam, a secular Jew.
He had a slightly nasty streak when he disagreed with you – when Rina Garst and I had formed the defense committee for Vern Davidson when he got a three year term for draft resistance in the Korean War, Sam would deliberately mispronounce Rina’s name- as “Garsnick”.
And once, so many years ago, when he was here in my little apt. on the Lower East side, which seemed to hold more people then than it does now, I had handed Sam a glass of scotch – knowing he didn’t drink. Unhappily the late Don Anderson (who died of alcoholism, ironically) said “watch out Sam, that isn’t ginger ale”. Don was joking, but Sam sniffed and we never found out what would have happened. While he went with the dreadful SDUSA crowd after the 1972 split he rejoiced in embarrassing them at the end of SDUSA events by saying “Now let’s close the meeting with ‘the International’”, which he would begin singing. Needless to say, Shachtman and his crew were trying to leave all this behind and were furious.
Sam ran for Vice President at least once, back in the days when the SP still had a certain name. I’ve no idea at all what got Sam involved in Rebel Arts- this is material buried in the 30’s and 40’s, before I was old enough to have any politics.
His politics were right wing social democratic, but he was truly a mensch, which I understood even during our political divisions. Now let’s face it, at 79 almost all those I knew then have died, and I came to NYC as a stranger. (from the author’s correspondence with David McReynolds, New York City, 5/8/09).
Nationally, the Socialist Party, in this period, continued to suffer from the losses of the Red Scare and the replenishment of conservatism. But it also fell upon its own sword; the SP’s internal eruptions continued to plague it. Still, regionally, the SP had many strong points. While the Party’s formal cultural programming was, by then, greatly diminished, many SP members continued to sing the songs that were as much a part of their tradition as it was the Communist Party’s or IWW’s. One such performer was Joe Brisben, a musician from Iowa City who regularly performs in the Midwest on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and harmonica. The brother of SP poet Quinn Brisben, Joe had been an intermittent member of the Party since the early 1960s and was asked to perform for a latter-day convention:
I have been to only two SP conventions, 1963 in Washington, DC, at which there was no singing, and sometime in the early 1980s in Iowa City/Coralville at which I played guitar and led singing. We sang the usual, “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Quinn had me learn “Monkey Ward Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me,” which we sang in honor of some elderly gentleman who participated in the Montgomery Ward strike in the 1930s. There were about forty people in attendance and the reception was a good one. (from the author’s correspondence with Joe Brisben, 10/4/09)
Joe spoke of performing many protest songs over the years and when asked about which ones are particular to the Socialist Party he said that he “all of the usual suspects”, played any of the standards, regardless of affiliation.
The SP seems to have been thriving in Texas, although that state was then firmly associated with oil magnates on evening television dramas in the ‘80s. It was the city of Austin which gave us Jam Cadre, a unique band that performed original a very original music of rebellion. Seemingly influenced by the far-off Downtown improv scene of New York’s Lower East Side as much as electronic music, free jazz and trippy jamming, the band created a their own voice among protest musicians. Its membership included Robert Lewis, John Witham, Michael Ambrose, Karen Pittman, Kirk McIntosh and Cleveland Maxwell, largely artists who were active members of the local Socialist Party. Steve Rossignol described the band this way:
The Austin Local of the Socialist Party had its own band in 80’s, Jam Cadre, which would play at obscure venues, made a beer commercial, played at SP-TX benefits, and produced three cassettes. They were active from about 1983 till about 1988. They produced three cassettes in that period of time—‘Reproduce at Will’, ‘Good Tomatoes’, and ‘Big Bucks to This Address’. Mostly it was a jam band, but there were several songs of political note, including “Antennae Farm”, a play for free airwave; “Trade Your Labor”, a tome of the barter system as opposed to the current system, and some like that. The music was avant garde, with hints of jazz and heavy metal, percussions from industrial sources such as hub-caps, and the like. (from the author’s correspondence with Steve Rossignol, 10/20/09)
One of Jam Cadre’s leader, Robert Lewis (aka Robert Stikmanz), is also a writer who has had several books published. One of them, Prelude to a Change of Mind, included a Foreword by one Michael Ambrose who described Jam Cadre this way:
The wail of a tenor sax, the thump of a bass, the gnashing of synth keyboards and guitars, the metronomic rhythm of a drum machine augmented by random whackings of old Ford hubcaps, cast off electrical junction boxes and miscellaneous resounding found stuff… (Ambrose, Michael, Foreward to Prelude to a Change of Mind by Stikmanz, Robert, Austin: Dalton, 2007, page i)
While the band seems to have been more in the mold of Captain Beefheart than Joe Hill, they were clearly a part of any number of SP events. The August issue of the Lone Star Socialist offered a report about a May Day event sponsored by the Texas Socialist Party (SPTX) in which members of Jam Cadre performed an odd mix of songs—originals with biting lyrics—and presumably their usual improvisational repertoire. The article humorously states that:
…the band erupted in sectarian struggle over whether they were a jazz band, jam band, a jazz-jam band or a jam-jazz band. Factionalism abounded. (Maxwell, Cleveland, “Red Flag Over Texas”, Lone Star Socialist, August 1, 1987, page 5).
Leaflets for a benefit for 1988 Socialist Party presidential candidate Willa Kenoyer (whose running mate was Ron Ehrenreich) states that the event will include “multi-dimensional entertainment” by Jam Cadre (dubbed “the true band”). The event was entitled “Jammin’ for a Livable Future”.
The Socialist Party’s cultural leader, Sam Friedman died in 1990. His obituary in the New York Times offers details on his radical unionism and his important place in the civil rights movement, but never addressed his arts-activism. The piece, did, however, clarify that he usually earned his living as a writer:
He had been an editor for Women's Wear Daily, a high school social science teacher and a fund raiser for the United Jewish Appeal. But it was into the small Socialist Party and the journals The New Leader and The Call that Mr. Friedman poured more of his passion, his wife, Mary Friedman, said. (Golden, Tim, obituary of Samuel H. Friedman, New York Times, March 19, 1990)
Perhaps more importantly, the obit clarified than Friedman’s writing became enmeshed with his radicalism early on: during his senior year at New York’s City College, he was suspended for writing an editorial in defense of pacifism; this was 1917 and in direct violation of the Espionage Act. Friedman was a fearless cultural worker early on.
Late Self Portraits…
Socialist Party official and cultural worker Quinn Brisben in 2008 released his third book of poetry since the decade began. Late Self Portraits features cover art by his wife Andrea Brisben which is rather reminiscent of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover—a photograph of the poet is set at center and he is surrounded with collage imagery including Frieda Kahlo, Van Gogh, DaVinci, Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and other artistic genii Brisben had to have been deeply moved by. The works inside offer the reader a whirlwind visit with some of these characters as well as some painstaking depictions of the aging Brisben’s health complications and looks back over a rich life. In some ways this collection stands as an allegory for an aging movement, one born of the revolutionary promise of the twentieth century yet fighting for its very life in times of deathly challenge. But like Brisben, the movement continues.
Brisben’s style is exciting, daring, colorful. With simplicity, it draws the reader in. In it one can see the radical poets of days of yore, regardless as to which side of the Party fence one sat.
I Saw This, his 2006 effort, offers free verse intermingled with rhyme, but it’s the rhythm that gets you. Brisben’s use of rhythm dances over the pages in bold exclamation, damning war, damning warriors and damning the machinations of those who create the war economy. And the first of this triptych, the Significance of Frontier collects his poems spanning 1966 and the year of the book’s publication; Brisben was certain to include works in their which tear into the anger, the guilt, the vexing numbness of 9/11. This is powerful poetry of dissent and human expression.
Currently, the Socialist Party maintains an arts philosophy if not an actual program. The official website states:
Arts and Culture
The Socialist Party believes that art is an integral part of daily life, and should not be treated as a commodity produced by the activity of an elite group. All members of society should have ample opportunities for participation in art and cultural activities.
1. We support the formation of collectives, arts centers and schools, independent media, theaters and festivals to advance such cultural endeavors as music, poetry, prose, drama, dance, storytelling, visual art, and videography.
2. We support guaranteed incomes and grants for artists and performers.
3. We support making schools and workplaces available as cultural centers
4. We call for full funding of community and school arts programs for people of all ages.
5. We call for full funding to keep libraries, museums, cultural centers, and historic sites open and accessible to all.
6. We call for the preservation of literature, art, music, dance, oral traditions, and audio and video recordings that have arisen out of people's experiences: young and old, of all nationalities and colors, sexual preferences, working, un- and under-employed, and disabled.
7. We support the autonomy of artists of color, women artists, and disabled artists in their creative work.
8. We support the right of artists to join and form unions to protect their labor rights and to form collectives to advance common artistic visions.