Stories about events in 1958

Lou and the Gateway Singers

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on September 10th, 2011 by Frank.  1 Comment

The year before Lou Gottlieb died, I went up to Occidental, California and spent a day with him. Lou had been one of the founding members of the Gateway Singers. We’d become friends later on, during his career with the Limeliters. We shared a radical history and a certain outsider’s perspective on the things we were doing. Here are some of the things he remembered, in his own words.

The California Labor School was the headquarters of People’s Songs, an organization Pete Seeger started that had local chapters everywhere. I met Jerry Walters and Barbara Dane and Jimmy Wood there, and we started the Gateway Singers. The Gateway Singers used to be called the “Re-Weavers” when we first got started, because I just took down all their tunes and transposed them into keys that the Gateway Singers could sing in.

The minute we got Elmer Lee the thing started to sound really good. First of all, she’s the greatest rapper the world has ever known. I mean, she could really get an audience going. If you’d make a little funny, she’d crack up. And that’s apt to give you delusions of success if you‘re a nascent comic, you know, and you’ve got a laugh meter like that standing right there. And, of course, she had a magnificent contralto voice that was really dependable — a lot of singers have got about two good weeks out of four, you know. It had no great personality, but for an ensemble group it was magnificent. You could put her anywhere. You could put her on lead, you could double the lead on the outside, you could put her above the lead and it would be right. You could not misuse that voice.

I remember one night, the Hungry i was so crowded people were sitting on the stage. We’d been working there about two years, seven nights a week, minimum three shows a night, sometimes five on Saturdays. And some guy made some kind of a nasty racist remark about Elmer Lee. It was during the last number. I came up to him, and later I thought, “Did I kick him in the head? Or did I not?” I was doing pretty good with the booze. I thought I had kicked him in the head, because his face was right there and it ran through my mind that I would just destroy his face for this vile ridiculous racist remark, you know, about a girl that was about as straight as you could get. And I really didn’t know.

That‘s when I thought l‘d better quit. lt’s gin mill-itis. You know, you cannot stay in a gin mill seven nights a week, month after month, and not get crazy, because everybody there is drunk.

But generally speaking the reaction in San Francisco was okay. Even Ralph K. Davies, who was the moneybags for the Democratic party for twenty years — he’s got a hospital named after him in San Francisco — he was the number one Elmer Lee Thomas fan in the city. And Harry Bridges was there two or three nights a week. Everybody came. I mean everybody.

On my own

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on June 1st, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Albert Grossman and I drifted apart after about a year. Albert knew, although he never asked about it, that the Gateway Singers wanted nothing to do with him, and he knew I would give up my relationship with him to manage the Gateway Singers if I had to make a choice. Al, not one to force a decison or provoke a confrontation, never brought it to a head. When he became more successful he had other people to do that sort of thing for him, but with me he just let things slide until the relationship more or less faded away.

When Albert decided to move to New York to embark on his meteoric career, he casually asked me if I wanted to come along. I thought about it. I said no. I wanted to create my own little world for myself, and I was aware that I could only do that if I stayed in Chicago. I think I understood at some level, even if I hadn’t really thought it out, that I could get away with what I was doing — being the insider who was really on the outside, or vice versa — only as long as I could completely control my own circumstances. I also didn‘t want to be involved with Albert any more. I was well aware of his talent for developing performers and his uncanny ability to pick out trends in American society. But he was not the kind of person I wanted to partner with.


This story takes place in 1958. It was told on December 12th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I left Hyde Park and moved uptown to 11 East Superior, into the apartment that Hugh Hefner had operated out of when he set up Playboy. I got the place from Alan Ribback, who had been Albert Grossman’s partner in the Gate of Horn. We were right across the street from the Archdiocese. It was very convenient, but it further removed me from my friends and from my roots, and put me deeper into that show-business milieu that I never could completely feel a part of.

This was still a game to me. It was fun to play and I certainly was eager to explore, but I never really accepted its values, and I always thought of myself as a socialist who was only doing part-time duty here.

I never hid my politics. I never advertised them either, but I always said, when the press would ask, that I had worked in the steel mill. I knew that my best defense was honesty: if everyone knew everything, there was nothing anybody could expose me on.

Even though I had abdicated from active left politics, my friends were all radicals (if perhaps more middle-class radicals than before). My business associates, in the main, were absolutely not. I lived in two worlds, and the bigger the business got, the sharper the contradiction got. At what point have you crossed the line? I was in a fun business, but I was not too naive to realize it was a business, and that even presenting Pete Seeger did not get me a ticket to heaven. I was not doing socialist or communist work, I was making a living. A fairly comfortable one, by this time, but a living.

In a certain sense I was more acceptable to the left as a businessman than I had been as an activist. As early as 1958, I remember a dinner for the American Socialist at the Essex Community Church to celebrate the magazine’s fifth anniversary. There was a crowd of about a hundred and seventy, which was very big in those days. William Appleman Williams spoke, and Ernie deMaio, the district director of the United Electrical workers, was the chairman. Everybody was kidding me about my new station in life, but I was also being treated as a bit of a celebrity.

I certainly didn’t turn it away, but it did bother me a bit. It was a measure of how deeply bourgeois values had permeated the radical movement – how far we had fallen from the time of Eugene Debs — that my success under capitalism was treated as some kind of accomplishment that all could celebrate. It was as if one of theirs had made it.

I thought I might have been much more comfortable as a working class hero, which I’d never managed to become, than as a petit-bourgeois celebrity. It stuck in my mind that the honest longshoreman or the honest steelworker or the honest professional revolutionary is the one the radical movement ought to be emulating, not somebody who becomes a celebrity in bourgeois society. But we’re never immune to the world we live in.

Little Boxes

This story takes place in 1958. It was told on October 30th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

A few months after my debacle with the Israeli dancers, I had put together enough money to reserve a weekend at Orchestra Hall, where I intended to get back on my feet by doing a concert with Pete Seeger. To my surprise, almost 7,500 people came out to see him in three nights — an incredible turnout. Pete’s own manager was surprised. There was no reason for it, that he could see.

But folk music was booming. Nobody had suspected that the Kingston Trio’s doleful “Tom Dooley” would jump out the way it did. Of course, the Gateway Singers had broken that ground years before; why hadn’t they had the first big hit? But that was sour grapes. You couldn’t deny that the Kingston Trio had a sound that transferred better to vinyl. And there was the timing: a couple of years had made an enormous difference in what the public was ready to listen to.

What was happening, I think, was the end of the most extreme aspects of the cold war. The thaw had come to Chicago, and artists like Pete could openly play to broad audiences again.

The courts were beginning to issue some favorable decisions in cases against Communist Party members under the Smith Act, and Senator Joe McCarthy himself had been destroyed in the Army hearings. We watched the establishment reel McCarthy in almost overnight, as if a consensus had suddenly developed that he had to go, and the wheels of the establishment news machine did a job on him like he never expected. The witch hunt, by now, had fulfilled its purpose: isolate the radicals, destroy the Communist Party, bring the labor movement into the establishment and institutionalize it, and put strict limits on the range of acceptable dissent in America. McCarthyism had been so successful it was finally becoming counterproductive. Its effects lingered much longer, in various forms, but McCarthy as an individual was broken, and that had set in motion the intellectual and ideological destruction of the classical witch-hunt.

That glasnost-like trend was what Pete connected with when I first produced his concerts in Chicago. At first it was mainly the revolt of a section of the middle class that had been silenced, petrified by the witch hunt and the cold war, and repelled by the intellectual lethargy of the Eisenhower years.

Folk music also benefited from the emerging sympathy with the beginnings of the black liberation movement, which was then essentially integrationist. I thought Josh White’s work was much more authentic than the “contemporary” stuff. It was urban blues with a commercial tinge, while Pete’s material popularized the old white folk traditions.

Pete personified an integrity that people found attractive on every level. Of course, we leftists regarded him as our own troubadour (even if I thought I detected a certain political myopia in him at times), but many more people were happy to ignore the political aspect of his work; they were comfortable with the other things that he was talking about.

These people were wide open to Kennedy-style illusions about some amorphous “better world,” and they were deeply moved by songs like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes all the same,” a put-down of tract housing. Like a lot of the “contemporary folk” material of the time, it seemed to me to have an elitist tone to it. Tract housing, after all, was the first and often the only housing people could afford.