One night late in 1956, somebody told me an Austrian folk singer named Martha Schlamme was in town. She was playing an engagement at the Gate of Horn, a night club in the basement of the Rice Hotel that catered to folk music fans and other hip people.
So what, I inquired. Well, Martha Schlamme was no communist herself, I was told, but she was one of the all-too-lonely progressive artists trying to speak out for the Communist Party members whose lives were being wrecked by McCarthyism and the blacklist. lf somebody asked her, she might be willing to help the local radicals raise some money with a benefit performance.
One of the American Socialist’s goals was to help other radical groups spread the word. We were active in the Eugene Debs Forum, a freewheeling speakers’ program that had the support of most of the independent radical groups in town. The idea was to talk with everybody who was interested, without worrying about sectarian lines or historical disagreements. Of course, advertising and promotion took money, and like every radical project, the Debs Forum had very little. It was part of my job to help put those funds together.
I knew nothing about folk music and even less about putting on a show. In fact, I don’t think I had ever been a nightclub before I went to the Gate of Horn that night, except for the time my mother took me to see Ronnie Clary sing at the Black Orchid on somebody’s birthday. I took the El train to the Gate of Horn, paid my one dollar at the door, and sat down in the dark to listen.
A thin man was standing on the club’s small stage tuning a guitar. After a minute, a tall, striking blond woman strode onto the stage and took up a position in front of him. She began to sing. “Die Gendanken sang frei,” she sang: “My thoughts are free.” It was a song ordinary people had sung during the peasant wars in Germany, she explained afterwards, and its short, rough lines said, “Tyrants can do what they will to my body, but my mind is free.” What she was doing, it struck me right away, was affirming the power and the responsibility of us all to keep speaking our minds in the midst of the repression of the McCarthy years. I was mesmerized. From working with the American Socialist, l’d had an inkling that this could be done, but I had never seen anyone standing up in public doing it with such conviction. It was a reaffirmation of everything I believed in, everything I had dedicated my life to. I still hum that song to myself today, although I‘ve forgotten most of the words.
After the songs were over, I went up to the stage and introduced myself to Martha and her guitarist, Frank Hamilton — one of the great folk accompanists of the time, I found out later. She called across the room to a heavy, bearish-looking fellow, medium-tall, with his shirttails hanging out and a few days’ worth of beard on his face. He came over and said hello. He was Albert Grossman, Martha’s manager and a co-owner of the Gate of Hom.
Later on, he was to become one of the dominant personalities in the pop explosion — the man who took Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and any number of others to the top of the commercial heap.
I explained to the two of them how badly the Eugene Debs Forum needed to raise some money, and how a small benefit concert could help. We were trying to get the word out, I told her, and that was expensive. We were arguing that radicals spent too much energy squabbling over the pros and cons of the Russian experience. American problems were a tall enough order, especially during a time when capitalism was on the upswing and labor and the left were in retreat. Clarity and education, not competitive sloganeering, would get the socialist movement back on its feet.
Martha thought that sounded good and she‘d like to help out. Grossman said it was fine with him. He was not unsympathetic, he was just bemused at how hard some people would work for no money– and for a lost cause, as far as he was concerned. Martha sang for us, for a minimal fee, in the living room of a large apartment in Hyde Park. A hundred and fifty people showed up: a huge success.
Martha and I became friends after that. She asked complicated questions about what I thought progressives should be doing and how we might change the world, and I did my best to answer. In return, she brought me to folk concerts and poetry readings and gave me a look at the strange, sophisticated world she lived in. I was fascinated.