1.1 Politicizing the Singing Hero, pp 4-12.
Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero.”
The singing hero aims to raise social consciousness, but singing is not a method of direct action, and it should not be judged as such. The music of the singing hero does, however, prepare those attracted to it to accept new ideas. Singing is not in itself a solution to the problems addressed within the political music community, but music can be a catalyst to social action.
There is a traceable tradition of musicians influencing their audiences toward social consciousness and action through their songs, through their spoken and written words, and through their examples of action. Agricultural unions in the late nineteenth century used broadsides, traditional songs, and songbooks. The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or Wobblies) used known popular and traditional songs, encouraged union members to write songs (the most famous or infamous being Joe Hill), and produced the Little Red Songbook. Between World Wars small groups (mainly in New York City, like the Composers’ Collective) attempted to influence working people with music, but the influence was mainly on the theory of music and labor among a small group of intellectuals until some (the Almanac Singers, for example) began using traditional music, which was more familiar to the people. Immediately following World War II, Pete Seeger gathered together people he had known from pre-War involvement with folk music and left-wing political organizations to form People’s Songs. They sang folk and popular songs and made new songs to fit perceived needs. They launched the first wide-scale use of songs to influence people toward political consciousness—using the Bulletin, broadsides, singing tours, songbooks, and records—and this became the model for later political song organizations. After People’s Songs folded many of its members kept at their work of reviving both folk music and liberal politics, despite blacklisting and governmental interference. Mainly through the efforts of these people, a revival (of both sorts) did occur. The revival marks the parting of ways for those interested in keeping themselves removed from commercial means and those willing to use any means necessary to reach large numbers of people. The trend was away from using old songs toward using the musicians’ own compositions. They reached audiences through festivals, songbooks, newspapers, and through records, radio, television, coffee houses, and concerts. Political emphasis also changed—some stuck to the Old Left line, some embraced the New Left, and still others refused any politics but anarchy; from these roots grew diverse branches.
The legends of the singing heroes are politicized in that Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen have come to represent (willingly or not) political movements of varying degrees of organization—in each of these cases a Left-leaning political movement. Many other heroes can be justified a place in the company of these five; they should be recognized as singing heroes, but these five have been the most widely influential.
Of the singing heroes, Joe Hill and Pete Seeger have left the fullest record of their theories on songs as a political weapon. Joe Hill defended his use of humorous songs as subversive weapons in this letter to the editor of Solidarity, 29 November 1914, written from jail:
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; and I maintain that if a person can put a few cold. common sense facts into a song, and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.
There is one thing that is necessary in order to hold the old members and to get the would-be members interested in the class struggle and that is entertainment (Foner 1965: 16).
Joe Hill was a theoretician who had a chance while in jail with little more to do than write songs, to expound on his ideas about music and the class struggle. Pete Seeger is one who quite often has the chance to expound on his theories as he explains to audiences his theory of song as weapon, as with college students in Ford Hall Forum, Boston.
All the arts have been used not only to change society but to preserve society. . . . And today I think anybody who thinks that the arts should be “just entertainment” is demeaning the purpose of art in life. Now this doesn’t mean that art is all political, someone once said, “Art is a weapon in political progress.” Well it’s true; maybe it is. But a bread knife is a weapon; it also cuts bread. . . . And my own opinion is that art at its best has this dual role of lifting us out of our troubles and also helping us solve them (Seeger, 1968: side 3).
In his regular Sing Out! column, “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.,” Pete Seeger wrote on The Theory of Cultural Guerilla Tactics, comparing his difficult music career with resistance to Nazis during World War II.
It may seem a far-fetched comparison, but for many years I figured I pursued a theory of cultural guerrilla tactics. I could not hold a steady job on a single radio or TV station. But I could appear as a guest on a thousand and one disc jockey shows, say a few words while they played a few records. I could not hold down a job at the average college or university but I could appear to sing some songs, and then be on my way. I kept as home base this one sector of our society which refused most courageously to knuckle under to the witch hunters: the college students. Now, I figure, most of my job is done. The young people who have learned songs from me area taking them to thousands of places where I myself could never go. . . . each has an important job. Like fireflies they light up the night (Seeger 1961b: 60).
Like the other singing heroes, Bob Dylan embraced a radical sort of patriotism not for the sake of rebellious difference but because of the fundamental flaws he wished to avoid in the mainstream society. Dylan first found politics through music; his radical stance, his advocacy of causes and organizations, was an act of solidarity with his hero Woody Guthrie rather than a personal imperative. His stance was also an act of solidarity, though he loved to deny it, with his generation in a politically turbulent time. Ray Coleman reported Dylan’s unequivocal opinion of politics in Melody Maker, 1965.
No politics. It would be just impossible for me to stand up and be associated with any political party. They are all crap—every single one of them is crap. They all think they are better than the next one. Huh. It’s ok for someone who wants to be in a political party, but not me. They stand up there trying to tell me what’s bad and what ought to be done. They’ve got a commodity to sell and that commodity is themselves. Politics is just a commercial bandwagon (1965b: 11).
When Bob Dylan accepted the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC) Tom Paine Award on 13 December 1963, he gave what turned out to be a very controversial speech as he denounced ties with any cause.
I wish I could have been here in the 1930s like my first idol—use to have an idol, Woody Guthrie, who came in the 1930s. But it sure changed in the time Woody’s been here and the time I’ve been here. It’s not that easy anymore. People seem to have more fears. . . (Shelton 1986: 200).
About that night, Dylan told The New Yorker in 1964:
I was supposed to be. . . a nice cat. I was supposed to say, “I appreciate your award and I’m a great singer and I’m a great believer in liberals, and you buy my records and I’ll support your cause.” But I didn’t so I wasn’t accepted that night. That’s the cause of a lot of those chains I was talking about—people wanting to be alone. . . (Shelton 1986: 203).
Dylan himself admitted, “I’m not an activist. I am not politically inclined.” But not being specifically cause oriented does not preclude a commitment. “I’m for people, people who are suffering” (Shelton 1986: 448).
Bruce Springsteen may have started his musical career as a rock and roll guitar rebel, but along his road, he acquired the political and musical sensibilities of the singing hero. First clues that he was a Dylan heir appeared as soon as he himself appeared, but evidence of Springsteen as a mature singing hero appeared in the early 1980s when he sang and spoke out more often on the hardships of lives of people he encountered.
He played Arizona State University on November 5, 1980, the night after Ronald Reagan’s wipeout of Jimmy Carter. “I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” Bruce told the crowd. “But I thought it was pretty terrifying.” Then he smashed into “Badlands.” That was all he said, but it was far more than he’d ever risked before. And while some of the change was just due to current events, Bruce’s ability to see Reagan as a bogeyman wasn’t all there was to it. Bruce Springsteen himself was changing (Marsh 1987: 29).
Bruce Springsteen’s changes have made him more willing to offer such pithy political advice as “Don’t vote for that fuckin’ Bush.”
Each singing hero has this story of politicization. With Springsteen’s gradually more apparent willingness to work for political and social causes, organizations attempted to enlist him. He was treated “as if the explicitly polemical utility of his works was their only salient characteristic (which is not true politically, much less artistically). It was feeling himself roped in by such agit-prop demagoguery that had driven Bob Dylan away from leftists in 1965” (Marsh 1987: 375). Simply by their desire to be associated with Springsteen, high-level politicians flaunted their ignorance of his real message.
The evolution of Bruce Springsteen from pre-political to politicized singing hero was complete when he found an appropriate cause. He did not forget how near he had come to Vietnam, and he was well aware of those who went. He wanted to better their situation; help them get recognition for doing what he and so many others had just escaped. “Having thought about the veterans, having read about them. . . . Bruce decided that he wanted to help. He asked Jon Landau to locate a Vietnam veterans organization and find out what kind of help might be provided.” Bobby Muller, the leader of Vietnam Veterans of America, says “Without Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veterans movement” (Marsh 1987: 68, 75).
At a VA benefit in 1981, “Bruce also turned a corner that night. Not so much because he’s come out and made a political statement, or even because he’s spoken his mind so clearly about a complex issue and been understood. It was because he’d made his dream tangible.” His dream was to make his music useful; “when I did that benefit for you guys was the first time I got to do that,” he told Muller (Marsh 1987: 75, 74). In promoting a specific cause that touched a sensitive spot of his own, Bruce Springsteen used his music to begin to heal wounds—his and the veterans. The music and commitment wind together until there is no longer any distinction.
The political importance of the actions of singing heroes is implied by reactions of the political establishment. Some Wobblies were taken political prisoners. Some fold singers appeared before Congressional hearings—Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and others. FBI agents followed John Lennon as well as other popular singers—Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs among them. The image of the Singing Hero is inherently political.
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Lori Taylor, “The Politicized American Legend of the Singing Hero: Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.” M.A. thesis, American Civilization. The George Washington University, 1990.