Monday, December 13, 2010

OUT OF THE RED MEGAPHONE: The Modernist Protest Music of a Lost Age


The Modernist Protest Music of a Lost Age

By John Pietaro

While not often recognized in recent times, art in its most fearless could once be found amidst the political actions of the global Communist movement, and in our own nation through the organizing of the Communist Party USA. The Party’s formative years of the 1920s and early ‘30s produced an agitational network of dissident writers, composers, painters, dancers, actors and filmmakers in a way few earlier Left movements could have imagined. Not simply producing artworks for specific campaigns or protests, many of the most dedicated would go on to become professional revolutionaries and walk among the leadership of the Communist International. The cultural workers of the cause produced an art that was as bold as the revolution that seemed within reach in that tumultuous age. A tapestry of free verse poetry and proletarian literature, avant garde street theatre, visual art that bridged the social realist and the surrealist, modern dance of social change, daring documentary film and a school of music composition which founded song by way of the discord and agitated rhythms of modern life. The challenge posed by such a vanguard art would never quite be resolved within the movement, but for a brief period, there seemed to be an unstoppable force which would seek to lead the populace to new levels of intellectualism--albeit of a most intrepid brand.


The revolutionary song has always been called on to inspire and unite in the annals of social and political struggle, however, rarely has it been engineered as the aural aspect of a cultural revolution. Learning from earlier Left movements, particularly the use of song in the organizing of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Party’s cultural brain trust sought a means toward collaboration between its already established poets and a group of sympathetic musicians seeking new inspiration during the latter 1920s period of growth. Working in tandem with young composers, Party cultural leaders Michael Gold and VJ Jerome began to write topical radical lyrics (or to translate those from across the ocean) in an effort to create a musical repertoire for the times. As this idea began to germinate, the Party’s national cultural organization, the John Reed Club, recognized the need to form a subsidiary Music Committee in May of 1931. While the Club, named for John Reed, the revolutionary writer who was one of the CP’s founders, is seen as a specifically literary organization, its mission was to organize artists of every genre. Shortly thereafter the JRC musicians, visual artists, dancers, film and photo artists, etc, branched out into their own affiliated organizations. So was the case with the Music Committee, which by June 14, was fully realized as the Workers Music League. The League was intent on focusing and consolidating all music activity of the Party but also to “formulate a systematic theoretical approach to proletarian music” (Reuss, Richard A, Reuss, Jo Ann C, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957. MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000, page 48). The League included divisions for Communist composers, performing musicians and also music publishers. The WML also produced its own periodical, The Worker Musician. Quickly, very quickly thereafter, the WML established eighteen different branches throughout the major cities, with its flagship office being in New York City, where there was also a more specified Workers Musicians Club. In 1932, with the death of Pierre DeGeyter, composer of “L’Internationale”, the club was so renamed in his honor.

Many of the Pierre DeGeyter Club’s members, even if stemming from a politically progressive background, had begun with no specifically communist interests, but in the Party saw the radical leadership, necessary for the rescue of the nation during the darkest days of the Depression. Charles Seeger stated:

We felt urgency in those days…The social system is going to hell here. Music might be able to do something about it. Let’s see if we can try. We must try. (Charles Seeger quoted in David King Dunway, “Unsung Songs of Protest: The Composers Collective of New York”, New York Folklore 5 (Summer 1979), 2. Source: Lieberman, Robbie, My Song is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1995, page 29).

The movement musicians, largely from affluent or at least professional families, fought for balance in a rapidly changing world, but their music remained a product of the concert hall. With the wealth of radical folksingers that pervaded the movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, one would assume that musicians of protest were always based in the folk idiom. However in the decades before, the US Left’s musicians were initially imbedded in the art music of Europe. Appropriate to their day and ideology, the musicians affiliated with the Workers Music League looked to Paris and Berlin for the vanguard sounds of modernity. The Composers Collective of New York, an outgrowth of this Pierre DeGeyter Club, was founded as the realization of the new music in the service of the people.

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle

The Composers Collective was an ensemble of trained, professional musicians who were on the cutting edge of orchestral and chamber music as each composed in the modern genre: their works reflected the transformative wave of Expressionism and Futurism and realized in atonal and 12-tonal composition. It was the mission of the Collective to create the soundtrack to the social and political revolution they had dedicated themselves to, and it seemed just for the music to be evocative of the tumult. There was no consideration for what would be tuneful or catchy; the language of 20th century music, the Collective believed, was the musical voice of tomorrow---and the movement would have no trouble adapting to it. The repertoire was intended as the clarion call to a new, daring generation of radical intellectuals. It was not long before the Collective, responding to the urgent need to build a cadre of musical warriors, came to host a series educational seminars and programs designed for college campuses, union halls and community centers, as well as producing a series of formal concerts. Soon, they too would publish songbooks and their own magazine, Music Vanguard.

The members of the Collective, brandishing pedigrees from Julliard, Columbia, Harvard and Eastman, included Charles Lewis Seeger (1886-1979, who also served as a music critic for the Daily Worker and also wrote for Music Vanguard, usually as “Carl Sands”), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Henry Cowell (1897-1965), Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), Ruth Crawford (1901-1953), Earl Robinson (1910-1991), Elie Siegmeister (1909-1991) Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961), Lan Adomian (8/29/05), Norman Cazden (1914-1980) and others. Collectively, the group represented most of the nation’s most talented young composers, engaging in bold modernism which rebelled against the musical academic status quo, even if born of its formality. The group championed the works of the German composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), formerly of the German agit-prop troupe Das Rote Sprachrohr (the Red Megaphone), who came to prominence while collaborating with legendary poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht, and offered a music which was at once classical, cabaret and avant garde. Eisler had been one of the top students of Schoenberg, founder of the 12-tone school, but his immersion in the German Communist Party led him to forge a new sound, one which would reach across national borders.

Goals of the Collective included not only the composition of new works, but the performance of this modern, radical repertoire via their own ensemble (the composers alongside performer colleagues). In addition to achieving an artistic apex, the Collective saw their primary objective as performing for and with workers. To this extent, Collective members aided local choruses in the endeavor to create a solid musical-social experience. For the avant gardists, seeking out creative possibilities in revolutionary arts, this meant bringing experimental and modern sounds into the repertoire of such choruses. They had been influenced by the revolutionary choruses of Europe as well as the recently-arrived immigrant groups who sang complex European-based art music in their own language, such as the Freiheit Gesang Gang. The Communist Party’s greatest numbers early on could be found within the so-called “language federations”, thus the cultural practices of same were available to the brash, young Americans who’d found their way into Party circles via the arts.

The Composers Collective created a strong program to introduce music of expansive harmonies, metric and rhythmic complexity, and lengthy melodic statements with dramatic intervallic and dynamic properties to the US working class. As in the music of Hanns Eisler, they saw the need for their music for the masses to be free from bourgeois trappings and both politically and musically demanding. It had to reflect the urgency which spoke of both the social furor in the streets and the heart wrenching deprivation experienced by families across the nation. But in order to do this, their composition needed to include proletarian content as well---in the lyric and intent. As well intentioned as this quest may have been, it was far from successful in its appeal to the intended audience. As Robbie Lieberman wrote,

They expected to use their training to create mass song, to improve upon “The Internationale”, for revolutionary cause. The principal form of proletarian music activity at the time was the revolutionary chorus…Unlike groups in other fields, the collective cannot be criticized for a lack of concern with aesthetics. Ironically, the particular aesthetic mode in which the collective chose to work made its compositions even more inaccessible than were proletarian novels, plays and films. (Lieberman, page 29)

The Communist Party-based cultural groups often intertwined into a winding network of hierarchy, often affiliated directly with Soviet organizations which led in this cultural activism. The Workers Music League was the umbrella group above the Composers Collective of New York. The WML, in 1932, was a section of the Workers Cultural Federation, “the central organization of all music forces connected with the American revolutionary working class movement. Its aim is to coordinate, strengthen, and give both ideological and musical guidance to these forces” (The Red Song Book, NY: Workers Library Publishers, 1932). The WML itself grew out of a 1932 gathering of the Comintern’s cultural officers, with representatives from multiple nations present. Composer Jacob Schaeffer represented the US and he held a staff position within the Moscow-based International Music Bureau for several years.

In 1932 members of the Workers Music League, particularly the leaders of the Composers Collective, in an effort to teach some of the more accessible of the new revolutionary material to others, published The Red Song Book. This collection included twenty-six selections ranging from contemporary works to standards such as “L’Internationale” and “Hold the Fort”, as well as “The Preacher and the Slave” by Joe Hill and “The Soup Song” by Maurice Sugar (1911-1989; Sugar would go on to compose a much more serious labor anthem, “Sit Down!” by mid-decade). Among the newer works were“ The Comintern” by Hanns Eisler and V.J. Jerome , “I.L.D. Song” by songwriter Ella Mae Wiggins (1900-1929; an organizer with the National Textile Workers Union from Gastonia, North Carolina) and several pieces by composers Lan Adomian, Carl Sands (a pseudonym for Charles Seeger) and Jacob Schaefer.

It is notable that though these songs are all presented in music notation, not all would fit into the category of composition---some of the songs were picket line creations that may not have been immortalized beyond that particular strike had it not been for this effort. Of greatest importance was the fact that these songs were intended to be performed by workers at labor actions or meetings. The book opens with a section: Notes for Teaching Mass Songs and it reads—“Gather a group of comrades around you, and teach the songs as follows…” Hints for successful group singing are simply spelled out so that each song would be performed clearly and its lyric understood by all. These selections were not intended to be performed in idle settings.

Music Penetrates Everywhere

It Carries Words With It

It Fixes Them in the Mind

It Engraves Them in the Heart

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle

So began the Workers Music League’s second songbook, The Workers Song Book (NY: Workers Music League, 1934); the members of the League left no doubt in their expectations of their art. In this book’s opening credits, the WML is called “USA Section of International Music Bureau” and this book, clearly, is more focused on art song than its predecessor. The foreword explains that this is a book of compositions by the Composers Collective of New York and the songs are all arranged in a much more formal manner than the Red Song Book had been. “The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die” by L. E. Swift (Ellie Siegmeister) is a feature as is ”Song to the Soldier” with music by Lan Adomian and lyric by noted Communist poet Rose Pastor Stokes. Other stand-out pieces herein are ”Red Soldiers Singing” (music by Adomian, lyrics by Joseph Freeman, an editor of the New Masses) and what is perhaps the strongest selection, “God to the Hungry Child” with a lyric by the great poet Langston Hughes and music by Janet Barnes. Many of these songs are filled with changes of meter and key, as well as advanced harmonies, embracing the art music of Europe while seeking out a truly American voice.

On May 21, 1933 was the first American Workers Music Olympiad, occurring at the City College Auditorium, East 23rd Street at Lexington Avenue, in New York City, which showcased the work of Collective and WML members and an assortment of performing groups presenting music of various cultures. The League had created this event in response to the very bourgeois National Music Week, then in progress. On the program was the Pierre DeGeyter Club Orchestra, Jacob Schaefer’s Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra, (Schaefer’s chorus was also present, offering Yiddish language selections, one of which translates as “Whip a Capitalist!”), the Daily Worker Chorus, IWO children’s choirs, the Balalaika Orchestra from the Soviet Union, Lithuanian, Italian, Yiddish, Finnish, Ukranian and Yugoslav workers choruses hailing from different parts of the New York area. Featured was the series of compositions by the Collective’s members, including Ruth Crawford’s revolutionary songs “Sacco, Vanzetti” and “Chinaman, Laundryman”, which spoke of the harsh conditions Chinese workers were experiencing on a daily basis in the service industry. The finale was a thousand-voice chorus bellowing out stirring songs of revolution. (Tick, Judith, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music, Oxford University Press, 1997, page 193-194)

The May Day issue of the New Masses included the article “Marching With a Song” by Ashley Pettis, which offered a quite fascinating look into the inner workings of revolutionary developments in music then occurring. She applauded the efforts of composers to create music, “which helps to unite and inspire masses of workers”. Pettis continued:

The necessity for this kind of music as a weapon in the class struggle daily becomes more apparent. As in Russia, the idea: ‘We must develop our musical resources for the building of socialism” has made music both a unique power and an integral part of the lives of the people, so we are witnessing in America the gathering together of groups of workers for the making of music which is expressive of their lives and aspirations. Most of these songs have been derived from the revolutionary music of foreign lands, but because of their universal content have served the purpose of inspiring and uniting groups of workers of diverse and far-removed peoples. In addition to the formation of workers' choruses in various cities recently, reports have come in of revolutionary songs improvised by the Negroes in the south, in conjunction with white workers. In New York and many other cities, revolutionary musical organizations are springing up under the name of "Pierre Degeyter Clubs," which are uniting the forces of class-conscious and politically-minded musicians. The functions of these groups are expanding daily through Service Bureaus, so that the activities of our musical craftsmen are becoming indissolubly linked with the lives of the workers in making available the best music to workers' organizations. In New York the Composers' Collective of Pierre Degeyter Club has already done valuable work in the production of a number of mass songs now being sung by workers' choruses.

Beyond simply uniting workers, Pettis’ article then describes the artistic merit of the new, radical concert music, albeit she stressed the need to keep it accessible to the voices of labor and community choirs:

The New Masses feels that the time is ripe for the development of music by the various composers of America for the constantly increasing number of singing workers; a music which is characteristic of them; truly representative of their waking consciousness and growing power; of their determination and hopes. With this in mind Alfred Hayes' poem, Into the Streets May First was sent out to the Composers' Collective of the Pierre Degeyter Club, New York, as well as to a group comprising some of the most accomplished musicians of America. It was originally planned to have a national general contest, but the time was too limited to do so and make a selection for performance and publication by May 1st. At a future date we hope to have a national contest in the production of mass songs…

The piece goes on to describe the high quality of the music sent in, and then breaks down the musical styling and individual qualities of the outstanding selections. After congratulating “Carl Sands” (Seeger) for his Stephan Foster-like contribution, she demonstrates concern for some of the more modernist pieces, but it’s clear that Party cultural circles continued to seek out familiar, worker-oriented statements amenable to mass singing while still embracing the boldness of Modernism:

Certain of the songs, such as those by Adohmyan (Adomian) and "XYZ" have marked excellence in the melodic and rhythmic conception, but from the standpoint of harmonic construction are perhaps too sophisticated and "modern" for singers in workers' groups for whom mass songs are written. It is not that experiments and "revolutionary" musical tendencies are to be discouraged or eliminated in the creation of such songs. But it absolutely necessary at the stage in the creation of the mass songs, to preserve the best of the old traditions, harmonic and melodic, at the same time injecting new life into these old forms so that the most unsophisticated singer may be drawn into the singing – in order that "he who runs" may sing! A completely new and different harmonic structure in songs which have which have "popularity" in the best sense as one of their principle aims, tends to repel. The undesirability of this is obvious. These songs with the addition of a less complex and "static" accompaniment, should prove to be practical and valuable compositions.

For the practical purposes of our contest, the compositions of both Swift (Siegmeister) and Freed were too long. In fact Swift added a quatrain to the Hayes poem, which, when set to music in its entirety was too long for publication in The New Masses. The Swift song possesses a fine, marching swing, and has an interesting combination of "modern" revolutionary harmonic color with a melodic "catchiness" which shows the skill and experience of the composer of the "Scottsboro Song" in the writing of mass songs.

The imposing magnificence and effectiveness of Isadore Freed's score (with piano and drum or tympani accompaniment) mark it apart from all of the other songs entering the contest. It should be made available for every chorus in America. Such a work is both good propaganda and splendid art! Its performance should have an extraordinarily moving and stirring effect upon any audience. The harmonies are bold and flaming in color. Here indeed the "red flag leaps its red!" May we soon hear this composition in public performance…

The ultimate winner of this contest was, of course, Copland. Pettis described the qualities of the work which make it important to the cultural work:

Aaron Copland's composition, published in this issue, is most certainly an interesting and practical example of mass song. Taking everything into consideration, the judges were unanimous in making this selection. It has vigor, directness. Its spirit is identical with that of the poem. The unfamiliar, "experimental" nature of the harmonics which occur occasionally, does not tend to make the unsophisticated singer question. Copland has chosen a musical style of time-honored tradition, but he has imbued it with fresh vitality and meaning. The subtle alteration of harmonies and melodic intervals in progressions of a familiar nature, save it from being relegated to the category of being platitudinous. The harmony structure, which in less skilful hands would have been mere "Pomp and Circumstance," here possesses freshness and newness! Some of the intervals may be somewhat difficult upon a first hearing or singing, but we believe the ear will very readily accustom itself to their sound…(Pettis, Ashley, “Marching With Song”, the New Masses, April, 1934)

On April 29, 1934, the Workers Music League and Composers Collective organized the Second American Workers Music Olympiad, which featured the premiere performance of Copland’s setting of “Into the Streets May First”, performed by an 800-voice chorus, comprised of all of the revolutionary choruses at the event and in the New York City area. The event also boasted an internationalist array of choruses and ensembles and members of the Collective acting as judges in a performance contest.

The Composers Collective, in and out of the League, continued to attempt the creation of an American proletarian music before finally recognizing the limitations in workers’ choruses when challenged with music of advanced harmony. Arthur Berger, a composer who stood as a fellow traveler in the movement who was also deeply involved in modern composition at the time wrote:

Many of us started to feel embarrassed at excluding the masses when we wrote music that they found inaccessible or accessible with difficulty. We need not have been card-carrying Party members, and we had no wish to over throw the American government. We had our infighting as followers of either Leon Trotsky or Joseph Stalin, but during the mid-thirties many of us viewed Socialism in Russia through rose-colored glasses…

Occasionally someone would assume a more active role, as when Aaron Copland wrote a song for the picket line, “Into the Streets May First,” …It is very surprising indeed that a composer who, as everyone knows, soon afterwards developed a manner that was so wide in its appeal and at the same time of such fine workmanship should so miscalculate the musical capacities of a worker on a picket line. (Berger, Arthur. Reflections of An American Composer. CA: University of California, 2002, pp 10-11)

Still, the impact of daring discordant sounds slicing into Marxist vocabulary would not be lost on the Collective’s members, nor would the powerful influence of Hanns Eisler.

Hanns Eisler

An expatriate living in the United States by the mid-1930s, Hanns Eisler’s interactions with the Collective became commonplace and, for a brief moment, it seemed that the goal of an American proletarian repertory would become a reality. Eisler toured the country, performing his material for audiences of workers and intellectuals alike, playing piano with New York baritone Mordecai Bauman (1912-2007) singing the melodies.

Eisler, too, featured prominently in the first recordings produced in this country specifically for Communists and fellow travelers. In 1935 he recorded four of his songs of revolutionary struggle, with vocalist Bauman, for the Timely Records label: “In Praise of Learning”, “Song of the United Front”, “Forward! We’ve Not Forgotten” and “Rise Up (“the Comintern Song”). All except the latter featured lyrics by Brecht; that of “Rise Up” was written by VJ Jerome. The recording ensemble that backed the vocalist and composer was dubbed The New Singers, a workers’ chorus led by Lan Adomian, and its second pianist was Marc Blitzstein. The Eisler material was supplemented by the same group’s recordings of “The Internationale” and Maurice Sugar’s “The Soup Song” (sang here not by Bauman but one Felix Groveman). Responses throughout the Left were highly enthusiastic. Music reviewer Anita Garret wrote in the Daily Worker that these records were the,

…first American phonograph discs to bear working class and revolutionary songs to the masses: These records can play a great role in popularizing working class music through mass organizations, at meetings and mass gatherings. The lack of a phonograph or radio pick-up should in no way deter workers from owning and spreading these songs wherever they may be. (Garret, Anita, the Daily Worker; source: Cohen, Ronald D, and Samuelson, Dave. Songs for Political Action, book within the box set of the same name, issued by Bear Family Records, 1996).

An advertisement from the period of the records’ release states that this set of ‘Workers Songs’ sold for seventy-five cents, for “each double-faced record”. What stands out in this ad, though, are the wonderfully detailed labels on each disc, including evocative illustrations such as marching masses, waving red banners, futuristic looking factory scenes, or a worker’s hand grabbing the wrist of a knife-wielding Nazi. Timely was located at 235 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in the downtown Communist-friendly Greenwich Village area, but the message not confined to New York City. While not ever receiving widespread release, the records became quite popular in the homes of not only Communists, but other progressives, and were carried in Leftist book and record stores across the nation for years. Still, something was missing in the message.

A People’s Music

In this effort to forge a modernist music for the proposed workers’ revolution, the Collective had turned away from the folk forms that had proven successful decades earlier for the organizing campaigns of the Industrial Workers of the World. As the IWW were largely working in rural areas of the American west, the music written by their cultural workers, including the legendary Joe Hill, reflected the songs of the common people—hymns mostly, as well as popular tunes, music compatible to homegrown instruments, chants, barn dances and even whistling while one worked. But the Communist movement, in the Leninist model, strove for higher ground, the model for a proletariat as advanced intellectually as politically. In this respect, Composers Collective writings complained that folk songs were complacent and melancholy in nature, not a militant vehicle, and they could not conceive of the inherent radicalism in the genre. Thus little attention was paid to the entire genre.

But as early as 1933 Michael Gold had already begun to dedicate some of his Daily Worker column, “Change the World!”, to the importance of folk songs, a “people’s music”, and put out the call for, “a Communist Joe Hill”. Commenting on the need, Gold wrote:

Not to see what a step forward it is to find native musicians of the American people turning to revolutionary themes…is to be blind to progress (Gold, Mike, Daily Worker, January 1933).

By the mid-30s Charles Lewis Seeger introduced the folk singer Aunt Mollie Jackson (1880-1960) to other members of The Collective. Jackson, to the ears of these educated New York City musicians, was extremely rustic in her performance and appearance, the voice coarse and the presentation battered. Yet unlike anything they had produced, her songs offered a first-hand account of experiences in the ‘coal wars’ of Kentucky in which she worked as an organizer for the National Miners Union (a Communist alternative to the UMW), and where she was an inspiration for the struggling miners’ fight-back. Jackson had been a stalwart advocate for the Harlan County working class, but was ultimately forced to leave her home at the mortal threat of mine-owners’ thugs. She moved in New York’s Lower East Side, living in poverty, participating in sporadic Left and other folk song events, but her indirect influence spread far beyond her immediate grasp. According to historians Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson, the social circumstances of the time—the Depression as well as fears of fascism abroad---was enough for the nation as a whole to begin to seek out homespun culture, a truly American art in the face of fascist terror. And it soon became championed by academics and policy makers in the Roosevelt White House. It was not long before a growing list of radicals joined in.

The Fall of the American Proletarian Song…

The strong program developed by largely Communist cultural workers which sought to create a modernist, American proletariat music would not survive the Popular Front. In fact, its death-knell would be heard as 1935--the first year of this people’s front movement-- came to a close. In December of that year, New York’s Town Hall played host to a Composers Collective concert which debuted “The Strange Funeral at Braddock”, composed by Elie Siegmeister to a poem by Mike Gold. The piece featured vocalist Mordecai Bauman and Siegmeister’s own piano; the subject matter is the horrible factory death of a steel worker reflecting on his homeland and family in the moments leading up to his demise. Bauman, filled with emotional fervor, offered a powerful voice to the poetry of Gold. The music is befittingly angular, with discordant harmonies, striking rhythmic pouncing and a foreboding, atmospheric chordal accompaniment, often in the form of tone clusters. Bauman could be heard making use of the German ‘sprechtesaang’ style—semi-sang/semi-spoken—in many places. Together with the poetry, it was a fairly perfect version of revolutionary music in the modern concert setting. While the composer’s goals may have been achieved, not so the poet’s: Gold argued against the use of avant techniques in revolutionary music and called openly for a program of folk-oriented music. In 1935 he wrote in the Daily Worker:

I think a new content often demands a new form. But when the new form gets so far ahead of all of us that we can’t understand its content, its time to write letters to the press…The nearest thing we’ve had to Joe Hill’s kind of folk balladry has been from southern mountaineer Communists as Aunt Molly Jackson and the martyred textile weaver Mary Wiggins. (Gold, Michael, Daily Worker, December 1935; source: Cohen, Ronald D, and Dave Samuelson, accompanying book to compact disc collection ‘Songs for Political Action’, Bear Family Records,1996, page 67)

That same year, in response to a directive by the Comintern, the Communist Party had dismantled the John Reed Club and most of its subsidiaries, too, were liquefied. As the international communist movement saw the pressing need to focus on the building of the Popular Front in the face of the rising fascist tide, its cultural programs followed suit and the once-overtly revolutionist groups came to dispense with militant radicalism--and the modernist intensity which accompanied it. Throughout the dissident hubs of America’s cities, a newfound interest in traditional folklore took the lead. Oft-times it was touched by African American forms--blues, jazz--and cabaret songs. Composers so touched by the powerful improvisatory nature of jazz and the vocal stylings of blues singers were successfully drawn in and the results were sometimes brilliant. But university-trained composers often had a hard time adapting to the country, folk and old-time sounds which ultimately dominated music of protest. The steel-stringed acoustic guitar would come to replace the concert grand piano in movement events just as the vernacular of the rural south and inner city industry took precedence over ivy-league repartee. In the throes of the Great Depression, and with the media becoming increasingly intertwined with government, the nation’s lumpen proletariat was either too broken to be moved by advanced harmony—or carefully taught to refute it.

Thus, the Composers Collective, this groundbreaking ensemble of politically dedicated modern classical composers, disbanded one year later. Some of its members, seeking out a more viable means to reach the worker, began to pursue the folk-oriented music that had earlier mystified them. The Collective members who were able to adapt now found their primary influences had moved from the modernists to the folk/protest singers. Others were dispirited enough to confine their creative output to music of a non-political ends, often thrusting themselves further into the ivory tower, far from the tumult below.

Charles Seeger would continue writing music criticism for the Daily Worker (under the nome de plum Carl Sands) and move into an important assignment with the Works Progress Administration and then the Library of Congress Folk Archive, where he worked as a folk-song musicologist. Rapidly, he became enamored with American culture and developed into one of the nation’s first successful folklorists. Incredulous as it may seem in recent years, Seeger managed to avoid the obvious Communist connections to much of his earlier work and rose to the level of government arts administrator within the Roosevelt presidency, an acclaimed scholar of American folk song. Seeger embarked on numerous folk song collecting journeys throughout the south, often with his then teenage son Pete in tow. Later he taught at Yale and also the Ethnomusicology Department of UCLA. Though his impact as a composer of dissonant music would continue to be felt in academic music circles, Seeger never returned to this activity.

Aaron Copland would, of course, achieve international acclaim for his brilliant orchestral works which personified Americana including ‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Billy the Kid’ among many others. Copland remained at the heart of concert music until his death and his music continues to be celebrated as quintessentially patriotic, but never blindly so. He had the visionary sense to carry the spirit of folk forms into his orchestral, choral and chamber compositions while not fully rejecting the modernism which he’d come to learn first while in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger, and then perfected within the flurry of revolutionary activity of the Collective. By the 1940s, Copland became a respected composer of film music, furthering the close association he’d held with important playwrights and actors a decade prior, including those of the Group Theatre. Though Copland experienced some years of oppression during the post-War red scare and was subject to FBI investigation (where, as a gay man and one with Communist associations, was a double threat), he ultimately moved into a position of elder statesman of concert music.

Elie Siegmeister, who’d also come through important studies with Boulanger, would take a similar if less renowned route than Copland. He created a body of work which infused Blues, Jazz and folk forms into the music of the so-called legitimate concert hall. However, during and beyond the Collective’s period, he also held the positions of musical director of both the Manhattan Chorus and the Daily Worker Chorus. Later, his sweeping orchestral pieces would be conducted by Toscanini and presented over the airwaves of major network radio. He also composed for film, received major grants and fellowships, and taught and lectured at noted universities.

Ruth Crawford, the first woman to be granted a Guggenheim Fellowship for music, would marry Seeger and become immersed in folk culture along with him. She toured the Deep South, learning the near lost music that was so provincial that it had not been heard outside of the hamlets it was created in. Crawford often notated the music and indications of performance practice as Seeger recorded it, assuring its continued presence in a rapidly changing world. Sadly, she would not continue her promising career as a composer but would instead be among the first to create a body of work for children, including songs which celebrated cultures of the world, producing several songbooks which have held a lasting importance in classrooms around the nation. Recording she and Seeger made of both her children’s songs and the traditional folk material remain important documents.

Earl Robinson, one of the group’s hardest radicals, had told the others that he simply could not write a mass song until he’d attended his first demonstration; soon, he’d composed an entire repertoire. After the Collective folded, he went on to lead various Communist Party-based vocal ensembles (including the American People’s Chorus) and remained within the circle for some years. Principally, he is recalled as the composer of several songs which have become quite legendary within and beyond the movement. Firstly, “Joe Hill”, written with noted poet Alfred Hayes, which celebrates the labor martyr and carried his legend through generations of activists. His piece “Ballad for the Americans”, with a rather expansive lyric by John La Touche, was premiered on the CBS network by progressive producer-commentator Norman Corwin in 1939 and featured the voice of the legendary Paul Robeson, another deeply relevant figure of Party cultural groups with whom Robinson sometimes toured. The composer also penned “The House I Live In”, most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra (on record and on film), and in the early 1970s his song “Black and White” was a hit by the rock band Three Dog Night.

Lan Adomian, following the dissolution of the Collective volunteered to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, serving in the Spanish Civil War. While hospitalized in Spain, recovering from battle wounds, he composed a song cycle written to the poetry of Miguel Hernandez. This led to a series of other works composed with Spain in mind, particularly after his return to the US, where he resumed his composition career with fervor. He also engaged in the composition of Jewish themed pieces, ultimately composing significant orchestral works for both film and concert hall. In the early 1950s, responding to the oppression of the anti-communist crusade, Adomian moved to Mexico as a means of self-exile, refuting the vicious tactics of the McCarthyites. Later, he would return to the United States and his compositional output included a wide range of orchestral and chamber pieces, works for opera and theatre, solo pieces, cantatas and choral works. Most notable were his series of pieces dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, including ‘The Battle of Terezin’, inspired by the poem ‘The Butterfly’, written by a child victim of the Nazis.

Apart from Copland, perhaps the member of the Composers Collective best recalled is Marc Blitzstein. He would go on to compose the noted musical theatre works The Cradle Will Rock’ and ‘Regina’, among many others. While the latter remains a classic of music theatre, it was the film adaptation of the former which has secured his place in cultural history: Blitzstein’s early work and life were colorfully illustrated in the Tim Robbins film ‘Cradle Will Rock’, which depicted the Right-wing shredding of the WPA Federal Theatre Project and the seeming impossibility of premiering the composer’s musical, ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ as initially planned by the Project. The true story is as fascinating as that which was depicted on screen: while federal authorities closed down the planned venue, the Maxine Elliot Theatre and complacent union bosses ordered their membership to not take part in a rogue production, the cast and musicians paraded through the streets of Manhattan and brought the show to another site, the dark Venice Theatre some twenty blocks south. To a full and quite curious house, Blitzstein performed all parts from a piano onstage, ultimately drawing out the actors and musicians, who, in order to not break union rules and be caught onstage or in the orchestra pit, performed from their seats in different parts of the hall—at the enthusiastic behest of the show’s director, Orson Welles. While the unions were angry with the composer for this wildly independent act, radical Blitzstein remained in ironically good enough standing with them, having joined the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the Dramatists League and Actors Equity all on that some date (June 16, 1937) to secure his right to perform.

Following the powerful outcome of Cradle’s premier, Blitzstein focused his attention on the union organizing campaigns of resort workers in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He began composing the opera, ‘No For An Answer’, a musical depiction of the resort workers’ struggles and nightclub act (!) in 1937. Blitzstein envisioned ‘No’ as a piece between realism and satire, carrying the qualities of both burlesque and tragedy. He made plans with Welles to produce this for the Mercury Theatre in December of 1939, but Welles moved his company, lock stock and barrel, to Hollywood and onto ‘Citizen Kane’ before No could be realized. Blitzstein continued work on the piece but became embroiled in the harsh conflicts of the Hitler-Stalin pact in ’39; Blitzstein was Jewish and struggled for some means to justify this betrayal. That year he premiered some of the songs at a benefit for Spanish Civil War veterans and hunkered down to complete the full opera. It premiered in a semi-staged version (again, with the composer at the piano) featuring Carol Channing in her Broadway debut, on January 5, 1941. (Caldwell-Smith, Gaetana, “Theatre Review: No For An Answer”, Socialist Action magazine, December 2001; and uncredited entry on Marc Blitzstein’s website -

Though Blitzstein became separated from the Communist Party in the 1940s, he was blacklisted after refusing to name names in his HUAC hearing; like several others of the Collective, Blitzstein was homosexual and especially targeted by the zealots. He then focused his attention on the off-Broadway theatre and into the early ‘60s became perhaps the strongest proponent of Brecht’s work, particularly ‘the Threepenny Opera’ which he’d translated and produced in Greenwich Village’s Theatre De Lys.

Of the members of the Composers Collective, only Henry Cowell would remain entrenched in experimental music throughout his career. One could hardly have expected less from the composer who was dubbed an ‘ultra-modernist’ as far back as the nineteen-tens, who had introduced the concept of playing on the strings of the piano and who had reached across cultures to champion world music early on. Cowell, more than the rest, was a hardcore avant gardist, even as he fought for the rights of labor. Of this, an associated progressive composer, Arthur Berger wrote:

Just what the nature of proletariat music should be—not only the worker songs but also the concert music for the masses—was a moot point in the early thirties. One of the leading spokesmen for the proposed genre was ironically one of our most far out composers, the experimentalist Henry Cowell, who had acquired an international reputation in the twenties… It was not too surprising that a modernist like Cowell should become involved in the proletarian cause since his music relied heavily in its choice of content on the vernacular, namely, his Irish heritage of reels and jigs on the one hand, the styles of Eastern music that he explored in his ethnic studies on the other. …His music was not considered forbidding in the way that the music of the “austere” Copland was. Dissonance was by no means the only thing that alienated people from modern music. (Berger, Arthur. Reflections of An American Composer. CA: University of California, 2002, pp 15-16)

The vision for a Communist avant garde would not truly end here, but, particularly in music, most cultural workers in this Popular Front period saw the need for art forms which held distinctly American aesthetic values. The work of the Composers Collective, if shunned in this period, offered inspiration to new generations of composers and performers who saw the need for their art to be as radical as their politics in the years to come.

The Americanization of Communist Song…

As one might expect, the Party’s (and wider Left’s) acceptance of folk song and push toward peoples’ music also saw the Workers Music League transform into the American Music League. The Communist Party leaders saw that a familiar approach to socialist ideals would be able to reach the masses in way that European-fashioned talk of ‘proletariat revolution’ never could. Coming off of a quite revolutionary period, really since the Party’s 1919 founding, Communists needed to develop this new approach not only for the purposes of outreach to workers, but within inner-Party discussions as well; this was not just a policy change, but more of a philosophy change. A 1936 gathering in New York entitled “What is Americanism? A Symposium on Marxism and the American Tradition” explored this notion and the means required to build such a specifically American vision of communism. One of the speakers was theorist Theodore Dreiser who suggested that if “this powerful emotional force of Americanism” will aid in the expected transition from capitalism to socialism, then Party policy should immediately adapt and make specific use of terminology and form seen as commonplace and avoid all connections to foreign associations.

Noted literary critic Newton Arvin also spoke at this event, describing as the essential point of Americanism a “radical democratic and individual secularism”. He added, “Only socialism now promises to make possible a democratic and secular culture in which all individuals may be genuinely free and genuinely human, and far from spelling an abrupt past, it will to this extent be the only conceivable realization of it”. The very ingredient they sought, according to Arvin, was inherent in the essence of an American view of Marxism. (Partisan Review and Anvil 3, April 1936; source: Lieberman, Robbie, My Song is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950, page 40)

In this regard, the American Music League introduced folk-style songs in the English language to both its choruses (including the American People’s Chorus) and its audiences alike, even if initially presenting these in formal, arranged settings. The influence of the AML and similar groups set the stage for the folk revival to come, particularly as more and more familiar US folk songs were introduced into the repertoire. Slowly, the fourth wall of the stage was dissolved and audience members began to sing along at concerts. Then there was no turning back. The Left’s involvement in Popular Front activities both led and complimented the rise of the Americanism which accompanied the Roosevelt Administration’s gains; across the country, people were celebrating their nation with its own music and art, and the Party engaged in this wholeheartedly.

In 1936, song collector Lawrence Gellert, in collaboration with Siegmeister, compiled Negro Songs of Protest, which must have been viewed as a highly dangerous document by the reactionaries of the 1930s. Gellert (brother of noted Communist artist Hugo) who’d been through the south recording African-American musicians for several years, had regularly been publishing articles in the Left press about his findings. The serious desire to understand and partake in the southern tradition of dissent embodied in the Black cultural experience--as opposed to music simply speaking of the mountains and plains—had an unexpected affect. The new focus on African American songs of struggle fortified the drive to organize workers in the region. Robin Kelley wrote of the southern CIO drives of the period in a piece in Hammer and Hoe magazine in the late 1930s:

Rooted in the same gospel past that begat Party songs such as “The Scottsboro Boys” and “We Got a Song”, CIO members added familiar spirituals such as “Hold the Fort” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” to the union’s vast repertoire, frequently altering the lyrics. During the late 1930s SWOC even had its own labor vocal group known as the Bessemer Big Four Quartet. Made up of Black gospel singers who had sung with the West Hyland Jubilee Singers during the 1920s, the Bessemer Big Four Quartet performed at union meetings and was heard occasionally on local radio broadcasts. (Hammer and Hoe, circa late 1930s, unspecified date or author; source: Cohen, Ronald D, and Dave Samuelson, accompanying book to compact disc collection ‘Songs for Political Action’, Bear Family Records,1996)

Not ‘is it good music?’ but ‘what is it good for?’…

An indication of the impact of the Popular Front on radicals and on the Communist Party’s support of President Roosevelt was the fact that Charles Seeger, by 1936, was already an employee of the federal government, director of the Music Unit section of the Resettlement Administration, aiding migrating Southerners as they moved up and out of the Dustbowl. Into the later ‘30s, he became a director of the larger Works Progress Administration’s Music Project where he dispatched cultural field workers to poor communities to establish cultural programs. As part of his instruction to staff, he wrote a boldly collectivist manifesto which declared that music not as an end in itself, but a means to an end. He also advocated strongly for the place of popular and folk music and wrote that the role of a cultural field worker should focus on creating leadership within the communities they worked within, towards the goal of democratic actions via the music:

The Purposes of Music

1) Music, as any art, is not an end in itself but a means to an end.

2) To make music is the essential thing; to listen to it is accessory.

3) Music as a group activity is more important than music as an individual accomplishment.

4) Every person is musical; music can be associated with most human activity, to the advantage to both parties to the association.

5) The musical culture of the nation is, then, to be estimated upon the extent of participation of the whole population rather than upon extent of the virtuosity of as fraction of it.

6) The basis for musical culture is the vernacular of the broad mass of the people—its traditional (often called “folk”) idiom; popular music and professional music are elaborate superstructures built upon the common base.

7) There is no ground for the quarrel between the various idioms and styles, provided proper relationship between them is maintained---pop need not be scorned nor professional music artificially stimulated, nor folk music stamped out or sentimentalized.

8) The point of departure for any worker new to a community should be the tastes and capabilities actually existent in the group; and the direction of the activities introduced should be more toward the development of local leadership than toward dependence upon outside help.

9) The main question then should not be, “is it good music?”, but “what is it good for?”; and if it bids fair to aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action, it must be approved.

10) With these larger ends ever in view, musicians will frequently fid themselves engaged in other kinds of activity, among the other arts; this however, promotes a well-rounded social function in the community. (Seeger, Charles Lewis, “The Purposes of Music”, 1936; source: Seeger, Pete. Where Have All the Flowers Gone. 1993, MA: Sing Out)

1937 saw Timely Records issue a second collection of labor songs, a follow-up to the collection featuring Mordecai Bauman just two years prior. But with the change in cultural focus, the albums seem to have a vast distance between them. Bauman returned, yes, but the vocal group behind him this time was the rather amateur Manhattan Chorus, the membership of which was never identified in any documentation. The discordant harmonies of Eisler were no where to be found here; replacing the Euro-inspired modernist proletariat melodies are quite American sounding tunes which were designed to translate much easier to the worker; and they did (still, it is never explained as to why the chorus on the recordings seemed to stumble over such simple passages). Songs in this collection are “On the Picket Line”, the popular labor anthem “Hold the Fort”, Joe Hill’s “Casey Jones”, Maurice Sugar’s “Sit Down in a medley with “Hand Me My Union Card”, the classic “We Shall Not Be Moved” in a medley with “Join the Union” and Ralph Chaplin’s immortal “Solidarity Forever”.

As before, Elie Siegmeister acted as musical director, but Bauman had made his displeasure known. Like some of his compatriots, he wanted to have a clean, more professional sounding chorus singing with him. But the welcoming quality of the familiar and digestible songs, recorded in a nonplussed style, spoke volumes about the mission of creating a mass singing movement. While it may be odd to hear trained baritone Bauman declamating with care and vibrato such lines as “picket on the picket line”, the album offered the populace songs they could emulate at home---or at the next strike action. On that note, Communist Party functionaries saw the collection as a means of teaching US workers how to sing together toward radical ends. The Daily Worker’s review, as expected, was excellent:

Daily, on picket lines and demonstrations, the songs serve for mass singing. We have heard the records played at demonstrations and at diverse sorts of gatherings. Their effect is prompt and unfailing (McCall, Martin aka Max Margulis, record review, the Daily Worker, April 1937; source: Cohen, Ronald D, and Dave Samuelson, accompanying book to compact disc collection ‘Songs for Political Action’, Bear Family Records,1996, page 12)

1938 brought forth further Communist-associated mass singing opportunities. The Party’s tenth national convention included a section on the program in which Elie Siegmeister conducted a large chorus in folk song performance. From it grew the American Ballad Singers, an ensemble specializing in folk songs. And in this same period, Earl Robinson stood as musical director of the chorus of the Party’s International Workers Order (a workers’ fraternal organization, similar to the Workman’s Circle, which offered health coverage among other things), the IWO People’s Chorus. Its repertoire consisted entirely of folk music and encouraged participation. The Daily Worker wrote:

One of the most exciting manifestations of the growing People’s Front movement is the development of a real people’s culture in every artistic field. (Daily Worker, 1939, specifics unknown; source: ibid, page 13)

The Communist Party had maintained, during the entire Popular Front period, a leading voice in not only its activism but in its role as the primary founding and organizing entity for cultural work collectives. Artists of conscience came to the fellow traveler groups as well as formal CP associations in droves. But the late 1930s was a trying period for the Party as news of the Stalin trials and purges moved out of the realm of hushed disbelief and into the reality of global news broadcasts. Many protest artists who were integral parts of Party-led Popular Front groups such as the League of American Writers, the American People’s Chorus, the New Dance Group and the Workers Film and Photo League, became disenchanted and rapidly departed. Inner-Party turmoil and news of the Moscow Show Trials were enough to wound the Communist Party’s wide-spread cultural programs, but not actually bring about their demise. Still, the decade would end with a crushing blow. What was actually devastating to the Party was the polarizing Hitler-Stalin Pact of ‘39, producing at once overwhelming loss of the CPUSA’s Popular Front clout and the destruction of its alliances. Cultural workers in the ranks, like other members, tried to find rationale for the Soviet pact with the Nazis, an alliance which stood in obvious opposition to Marxist ideals; spiritually broken, most could not reconcile this. Members that remained with the Party did so with a vengeance and a new wave of revolutionary furor became the order of the day, shunning the alliances they’d worked so hard to build. For some Communists, this signaled a return to pre-Popular Front times, in which Communists wore their intense radicalism proudly and could refute the niceties of the past few years. For others, this was a giant step backward and an end to the solidarity, trust and progressive reform--- as well as seeming end to their honorable fight against fascism.

Six Songs for Democracy

During this period, while the Communist Party experienced unrest within its membership and of course on the part of the Popular Front, but it also continued to engage in a form of growth within its arts philosophy. The Spanish Civil War had been a rallying cry for Leftists in all quarters to speak out—or for many, to voluntarily take up arms against the fascists. Cultural workers, too, became involved in this battle of global proportions. It is a testament to the strength of the Party cultural workers in the US that they would engage in a project in honor of the Spanish Civil War during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The record set ‘Six Songs for Democracy’, issued by Keynote Records on July 4, 1940, it featured the brash, unrepentantly radical vocals of Ernst Busch, Berlin theatre singer and a powerful ally of Brecht and Eisler. His politics were matched by those of Brecht and he was forced to leave Berlin along with the rest in the playwright’s circle as the Nazis closed in. His place as the voice in this collection of Spanish Civil War songs is notable.

‘Six Songs for Democracy’ was a collection of international songs of revolution, actually recorded some two years prior, but released one year before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. As is indicated in the liner notes of Erich Weinert, writing then from Barcelona in 1938, this collection of songs was composed on the battlefield, and reproduced here to inspire the fight-back all over:

Whenever, in the history of the world, freedom has arisen against unfreedom, justice against injustice, the spirit of the people’s uprising has been most clearly and splendidly reflected in its songs, which grew upon the soil of righteous indignation. They were written by the poets who sided with the people; and where there were no such poets the people wrote them themselves.

Innumerable songs arose during the war of the Spanish people against its enemies. And Spanish was not their only language; for the soldiers of the International Brigades contributed songs, in their own languages, which lived and became popular songs with the Spaniards.

In this album Ernst Busch has recorded some of the best and most popular songs of the 11th International Brigade, making the recordings under the most difficult circumstances. These records could not be made during times of peace. How often did the recording or manufacture have to be interrupted because Franco’s bombs were crashing down on Barcelona or the supply of electricity cut off!

But that lends these songs a peculiar charm. For they were created in the midst of the battle, on the firing line, as it were. We trust that they will again awaken, in the outside world, some of the fighting spirit, this fire, out of which they were born. (Weinert, Erich, ‘Six Songs for Democracy’ booklet, Keynote Records, 1940)

The songs in the collection are “Los Cuatro Generales” (“The Four Generals”), written to the tune of a Spanish folksong (unknown lyricist); the anthemic “Song of the United Front” by Brecht and Eisler—a big production number here, with Busch powerfully singing the song’s blatantly radical verses in various languages; “Song of the International Brigades” by Erich Weinert and Espinosa-Palacio; “The Thaelmann Column” by Karl Ernst and Peter Daniel; “Hans Beimler” by Ernst Busch to a tune by nineteenth century composer Freidrich Silcher; and “The Peat-Bog Soldiers”, a legendary song of the Borgermoor concentration camp, near Papenburg, Germany, sang by prisoners on a work detail. At the time, the actual composers’ names were unknown, so they go uncredited in this collection. The music was actually written by Rudi Goguel and the words by Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff, in 1933, during their internment. The Nazi guards were initially unaware of the dissent expressed in these lyrics, mistaking the tune for a common work song. The prisoners sang it incessantly, while working grueling hours digging for peat and while marching to and from the bog, with tattered, cold, wet boots and clothing ill-fit for the brutal winter. However, once the Nazis became aware of the true nature of the song, they forbade it. The song was saved when a local shoe maker agreed to smuggle a copy out, hidden within the hollowed heel of a shoe. Among Leftists, this song stands out as one of the most important examples of the power of music as not only a dissident voice, but as a vehicle for survival.

The booklet which accompanied ‘Six Songs for Democracy’ also had an introductory statement by Paul Robeson. He wrote:

Here are the songs recorded during heavy bombardment, by men who were themselves fighting for the “Rights of Man”.

Valiant and heroic was the part played by the International Brigade in the glorious struggle of the Spanish Republic. I was there in the course of that struggle and my faith in man—in the eventual attaining of his freedom—was strengthened a thousand fold. This album helps sustain that faith. It’s a necessity. (Robeson, Paul, ‘Six Songs for Democracy’ booklet, Keynote Records, 1940)


Though many of the composers associated with the Communist Party remained active in the Popular Front period, the folk orientation did not attract academic musicians. Much of the early ‘30s repertoire of the Composers Collective remained shelved as up and coming musicians came into the fold and focused on the more immediate folk sounds. Woody Guthrie would soon take his place as the “Communist Joe Hill” that Michael Gold had called for; groups like the Almanac Singers would morph into the popular conscience.

The irony of the Modern/Folk debate is that the experimental, radical nature of the avant garde touches artists on a visceral level—it brings forth new voices, new visions and can serve as a daring affront to the status quo. The modern forms created the boldest divorce from the status quo yet seen: dark commentaries on real life, coloring well outside of the lines. This was the apex of creativity and the establishment of the New Objectivity within the arts. As the cultural institutions which shunned such artistic boldness were embedded in the bourgeois world, the proponents of modernism should have been natural to revolutionary politics. And yet the movement’s accent on the modern, which advanced the creative visions of the masses even as it advanced art itself, was not continued—not even as secondary to the folk revival, with its automatic appeal. It would appear that there was room for both yet Left music programming became rather singular in scope.

The sound argument that familiar art forms were more digestible to workers was put forth, however, such attempts to rein in artists became a battle better left un-fought. The rigid Party line which became carried out by Messers Jerome and Gold established an intricate national arts structure, yet it also dampened creativity and strained relationships with progressive artists. The Party was in this era a component of a strong Communist International, which was by then firmly in the grip of the Stalin regime. Stalin’s emphasis on ‘socialist realism’ was in fierce opposition to modernist experimentation and it soon became strict policy across all Communist cultural fields. It is arguable that, as a means to quell dissent of any kind, Stalinist art was as bereft of revolution as the US commercial media.

The greatest irony is that during this same “Americanization” period of the Party, an influx of Leftist German expatriates flooded into this nation. These included expressionist painters, experimental film makers, atonal composers and cutting-edge poets and playwrights; the wealth of intellectuals included Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler of course, as well as Kurt Weill, GW Pabst, Fritz Lang and many others who’d earned the highest respect in the movement for so many years. They were welcomed as authorities on the use of art as a weapon in the struggle against fascism, but their local counter-parts by then had no such adulation for their own experimental forays. While gifted cultural workers would continue to flow through Party-affiliated organizations, periodicals and events, over the years, others felt confined and quickly came into conflict with the established order. The debate raged on for several more years but the dye was cast.

One is reminded of the quandary experienced by John Reed, a founder of the American Communist movement. Amidst the fallout of the Russian Revolution he embarked on a cultural mission with the Comintern and quickly came to see the need for an unfettered artistic voice. Reed declared that in the absence of dissent there is no art…there is no revolution.

--First published on the Cultural Worker blog – – 12/13/10

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