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.