Stories about events in 1959

Pete breaks out

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on June 12th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Not satisfied with losing my shirt on the Oranim Zabar dance group, I somehow got in touch with Pete Seeger’s manager. Pete was essentially an underground act by now. I told him I had put together enough money to reserve a weekend at Orchestra Hall, and would be Pete take a chance on playing. To my surprise, almost 7,500 people came out to see him in three nights. Here’s what Pete Seeger had to say when I asked him what it was like when he noticed things were starting to open up.

“Well, it happened slowly. It didn‘t happen overnight. I could see it slowly building. I would say that after the Korean War ended, every week things were just slightly better. The further the Korean War faded into the past, the less the red scare had people running.

“I’d done the preparatory work. I had sung at chiidren’s camps, and then I’d sung at private schools, and now I was going to colleges, as these kids from the summer camps and the private schools were getting me to sing at their colleges. At Oberlin in 53 I sang for about a hundred and fifty or two hundred people. In 54 I sang for seven or eight hundred people. In 55 I sang in their biggest auditorium, for about twelve hundred people. And by the end of the fifties I was even singing in the state colleges. lt’s the old case of finding a wedge, you know, and enlarging it. And finally I could sing in an auditorium like Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and these kids had graduated, and they brought their friends. And one thing led to another, and next thing you know we had a thing called the folk boom.

“I feIt good, needless to say, because I feIt like I was making at least halfway good music, even though I‘ve been aware that I never had much of a voice, but I could get a crowd singing along, which has been fundamental to what l‘ve been trying to do all my life. Because I’m very much my father‘s child. My father said, “Music listened to is not as important as music made.“ Some of the people that came to Orchestra Hall had been lefties at some time and now would be called left-liberals; I would call them potential democrats for a future society, people who could see the way the present system was not working. They were trying to see if there was some hope in a rather bad situation. Personally, they were not hungry; personally they were most of them well-housed, well-clothed, as well as well-fed, but they could see the world was in a bad way: the threat of the atom bomb, the threat of the Cold War, and the poverty of the Third World. And they could walk down the street in New York and see the inequalities in this country as well. And while I wasn’t offering any short-term solutions, I was pointing — I was saying, “The solution is somewhere in this direction, not in fascism.” Now, I was probably not as explicit as many people wish I had been, in one way or another, but I think that was purposeful. ln fact, I‘ve often laughed about this: almost all great songs are triumphs of oversimplification.”

American Socialist, R.I.P.

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on February 21st, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The American Socialist folded at the end of 1959. It was a period of declining interest in the socialist movement. Those radicals who had left the Communist Party in revolt had mostly retreated into their personal lives, a few of them going back to work in the movement in a passive sort of way. But there were no new social forces entering the arena. The working class, the students, the black movement — all had yet to be heard from.

Those with unusual perception could see the beginnings of the massive social revolution that the black civil rights movement was beginning to build, but the forces that would be the seed for a new radical movement in America had yet to appear. So our magazine went out of business and American Socialist Club in Chicago dissolved.

Most of us did not give up radical politics in the process. We were just responding to a void in the American left which we were not strong enough to fill. The American Socialist Club was the last organized socialist movement I was ever a member of — not by choice, but because I never again saw an ideological tendency I could identify with and commit myself to at the same level. This may have been a rationalization for all the conflicting pressures that I was now under, as an insider in business who was also an outsider to the system, but it was also the truth.

I identified in my own mind, though, with Louis Boudin, the early radical lawyer (and uncle to civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin). When he left the 1919 convention in which the Socialist Party’s left wing had split off to become the American Communist Party, Boudin was asked if he intended to join the new group. “l didn‘t leave a party of crooks to join a party of imbeciles,” is what he said. I still admire the man for that, for rejecting the pale reformism of social democracy without jumping into the knee—jerk caricature of Bolshevism that aspired to be its alternative.

l suppose history will remember us, to the extent that history remembers the losers at all, for making a significant if limited contribution to the development of socialist thought in America. My friend James Weinstein once told me that Studies on the Left, the seminal New Left discussion center of the 1960s, drew part of its inspiration from The American Socialist, and maybe that is legacy enough.