Stories told in October, 2010

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.

Crazies

This story takes place in 1968. It was told on October 23rd, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

After 1968 it was becoming harder and harder to combine politics with my business life. It was getting more dangerous too, as the crazies took over the movement. Dick Gassen, who worked for me through January 1968, recalls that Rennie asked him for the plans to the Amphitheatre. Dick told me about it and I went crazy and said absolutely not. I was not interested in getting my business blown out by lunatics.

The civil rights movement had won great victories, which came about because of the rioting in the cities, but they were often more form than substance. Black and white, like rich and poor in the old saying, were both free to sleep under bridges. African-Americans had achieved the right to the same degradation that poor whites had always had.

In the end, for all their demonstrations and moratoriums, the antiwar radicals failed to make a connection with the mass of Americans. My own feeling was it was because they had failed to develop a comprehensive view of society and project a class analysis. In spite of some radical posturing, these movements never achieved any real commonality of purpose.

They were petulant young rebels who were angry that the Kennedys were not listening to them full-time. Part of their problem as radicals was they always had a relationship with the state department and the CIA, and they never broke ties with establishment figures. They seemed to think they should have some sort of entrée into a Kennedy administration. They met with them at a higher level than just adversaries negotiating. But at the same time they were being swept leftward by the antiwar movement.

Isserman has popularized the theory that it was a series of misunderstandings between SDS and Harrington and Howe, personal mistakes each group made, that determined that they didn’t quite understand each other, and history would have been different if there had been a fusion of the section of the old left that was intellectually led by Howe and Harrington – the “Other America” crowd – and the SDS. But at that time SDS was being swept leftward, and Harrington and Howe were being swept rightward.

The younger people had a kinship with the UAW and the social democrats, but that was disrupted by life, by major social events, and they were swept leftward, which speaks well for them, whether that was their intention or not. Today they are trying to pass themselves off as moderate social democrats, and claiming they were not trying to change the system so much as to modify some of its more grievous deficiencies, and the greatest deficiency they could identify was that nobody was listening to them, or not enough. That is the new wisdom that has come out of the whole group.

Missionaries

This story takes place in 1965. It was told on October 16th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The last formal contact I had with the Socialist Workers Party was when George Novack came to see me on a Sunday morning right after I got married. They’d heard l was raking it in; I had no objection to that. He was doing the missionary thing.

I’ve used the same technique. ln my SWP days, when I was very young, I used to go out to Michigan City to see an optometrist who had somehow become a sympathizer. We would paint a thrilling picture of what was going in the steel union and so on. You interpreted history for the person in a way that would make them want to give you some money.

I also knew that when the movement was on a roll, money chased the movement. When the movement was under attack, on the other hand, money, like everything else, was scarce. Don’t ever blame the demise of the radical movement on the fact that the ruling class has more money. When you were riding the tide of history, money was not a problem; there was always some out there. During the height of the movement against the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement, money was pissed away all over the place.

The favored approach during drought periods, though, was that of the missionary coming to gather in the lapsed faithful who, having fallen away, needed an inside report on what was going on. You would be full of glad tidings, to which only a few were privy, about the great things that were happening and all the new converts being found. Of course the single aim was to get some dough, but you offered all sorts of entree to the most exciting radical circles.

After Novack had gone on for a time, I started interjecting my own views, which were rather sharply defined by then. I had not regressed back to SWP politics; in fact, by that time I had read Trotsky for myself, and had some ideas of my own.

Novack stopped and looked at me in surprise. “l didn’t know you were still interested in politics, Frank.” I said, “George, I didn’t leave socialism, I just left the SWP.”

Chicago 1968

This story takes place in 1968. It was told on October 8th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Far be it from me to defend Richard Daley, but the truth is that the only thing that saved our movement from being totally discredited at the 1968 convention was the brutality of the Chicago cops and the stupidity and overreaction of Daley and Lyndon Johnson.

I had a full summer program booked that year, except for the weeks of the convention. I had arranged to bring Harry Belafonte into the Auditorium the week before the convention. When we set it up, nobody anticipated the kind of excitement that was going to take place. The booking was set probably six months ahead. I think Harry was on tour that summer and he liked the idea. He probably thought he was going to participate in some of the platform hearings; I don’t know. I thought we would get some business from the advance delegates and it was all fine.

By that time it was a week before the convention opened and Chicago was already a semi-poIice state. All sorts of threats were flying in every direction. Bobby Kennedy had been shot in June, but there was no sense that Armageddon was going to come to Chicago. My sense later on was that people had been warned to stay away, and if the cops had not provoked a riot, the whole thing that the Yippies organized would have been a sideshow, and anybody else’s attempt to intervene would have been incidental. I think it was Daley’s arrogance and ignorance that created this massive confrontation in which they beat the shit out of everybody in sight. And obviously the insanity of the establishment, given the lack of any cohesive movement by that time, just created its own mirror insanity in the resistance movement.

Harry did his concert series the week before the convention. The last night, Harry made a short speech deploring the violence that was taking place in Chicago. I’d sold half the main floor that night to Israel Bonds, and they were hysterical. I thought it was quite courageous, because Harry was really the greatest of the Jewish folksingers.

The net result of the events was that people dropped out and stopped fighting back. There was still moral outrage, but what really ended the war, without taking anything away from the peace movement, was that the Vietnamese were not going to give up and were defeating us militarily. And the soldiers had had enough and were starting to shoot the officers.