In his excellent, edifying study Political Folk Music in America From Its Origins to Bob Dylan, Lawrence J. Epstein tells the fascinating tale of the left-wing “free-spirited modern troubadours” who “envisioned themselves as moral auditors for the angels.”
Of course, as even the briefest survey of Scientology or the Department of Homeland Security demonstrates, self-proclaimed “moral auditors” are rarely all that keen on submitting to audits themselves, which is probably why when the Associated Press wrote up Cry, the Beloved Country in April 1969, the opening paragraph focused squarely on the dissonance of the artist’s dissent:
Tony Dolan composes and sings folk songs. He also requires that the girls he dates subscribe to the conservative magazine National Review.
And this, it seems, is precisely how Dolan—a future conservative commentator and Reagan speechwriter credited with coining the phrase “evil empire”—preferred it.
“I’m composing and performing to show that conservatism swings,” he explained, and, indeed, even setting aside the liner notes penned by William F. Buckley Jr. (!) and such hippie-antagonizing ditties as “Join the SDS”:
Join the SDS
Oh, we’ll canonize Alger Hiss
Join the SDS and learn to love the communists
—and “New York Times Blues”:
All the news that’s fit to print, unless of course it’s anti-communist…
Hey, the ADA blew up the Statue of Liberty
Let’s see, that was on page 106, Column B, I think
—the fiery “Remember Bloody Budapest” made clear Dolan would show no quarter to those who were aesthetic contemporaries but ideological adversaries:
Pete Seeger, you have sung so long about justice and love for us all, but where were your songs of righteousness when Kennedy was killed by a Marxist or when they built the Berlin Wall?
Well, Joan Baez, you sing so soft, you sing about the falling rain, but where were your songs of righteousness…when Poland’s youth lay slain?
The Omni Recording Corporation has lifted these and other provocations out from the dustbin of history for Freedom Is a Hammer: Conservative Folk Revolutionaries of the Sixties, a fun, exquisitely packaged 29-track compilation of cultural oddities featuring Dolan’s work alongside salvos from Baez-esque operatic chanteuse Vera Vanderlaan and plucky pop-folk songstress Janet Greene, who left a cushy gig playing Cinderella on a Columbus, Ohio, television show to record “Commie Lies” and “Fascist Threat”:
I think I’ll take a little quiz and find out just what fascism is,
though some may think that it’s extreme to find out what words really mean:
It has a party rather small that seeks to rule and govern all
A single leader whom they say everybody must obey
Destroy the government with lies, seize control and centralize
Very shortly you will see a fascist state monopoly
Although we’ve used the fascist name
Communism is just the same
It’s plain to see these two are twins
And freedom dies if either wins
Freedom Is a Hammer curator Bill Geerhart describes these conservative folk luminaries as “musical counter-revolutionaries,” but the label isn’t quite accurate, really. A revolution had taken place; a cadre of artists did, in Epstein’s estimation, “give birth to a new American tradition…that seized the name ‘folk music’ from its traditional owners and re-made it as politically left-wing.” But songwriters like Dolan, Green, and Vanderlaan sought to answer left-wing New Folk in its own arena, not turn the clock back to a pre–Carter Family era before commoditization or politicization, a time when folk was, as Epstein puts it, “simple music created anonymously and played by and for common people.”
There wasn’t any real subterfuge to the effort: Christian Anti-Communist Crusade founder and author of the 1960 bestseller You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists) Dr. Fred Schwarz openly told reporters he was taking “a leaf out of the Communist book” in shepherding Greene’s career. “You’d be amazed,” he continued, “at how much doctrine can be taught in one song.”
This particular “leaf” bears uncanny resemblance to the songwriting philosophy of Joe Hill, the martyred patron saint of political folk who served as a kind of John the Baptist to Woody Guthrie’s Jesus Christ, expounded upon in a 1914 letter to Solidarity, a publication of the renegade Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies):
A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over; I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.
Yet despite a musical “cloak” of deft melodies, compositional sophistication, and pure catchiness, these “conservative folk revolutionaries” reached a vanishingly small audience compared to their left-wing counterparts.
Why? It’s simple: In boxing, a counterpunch turns tables and ends fights. The same strike employed in the (popular) culture wars, however, can appear insincere or desperate, whatever its true strength.
Thus, Joan Baez belted out “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” for a rapturous crowd at Woodstock while fewer people than comprised your average Weather Underground quorum likely ever heard Greene perform her playful, slinky anti-appeasement earworm parable “The Hunter and the Bear” about a “moderate American man” who puts down his gun to negotiate with a crafty, duplicitous bear in the woods:
Now they both got what they wanted, please take note,
The bear a full stomach and the hunter a fur coat;
That’s the truth, can’t be denied; for the hunter ended up in the bear’s insides…
He’s on the missing person’s list since he tried to coexist
And Vanderlaan’s Henry-Hazlitt-meets-Old- Macdonald number “One From One Leaves Two” clearly failed to persuade her generation’s hepcats to abandon On the Road in favor of Mises’ Human Action:
Mumble-dee, gumble-dee, my red cow, she’s cooperating now
At first she didn’t understand, milk production must be planned…
But now the government reports she’s giving pints instead of quarts
In a just world, artists who beat the drum for retrograde revolutionary socialism and lionized Pete Seeger—a man who only got around to issuing a (conditional) apology in 1993 for having mistaken Stalin for “merely a ‘hard driver’ not a supreme cruel dictator” (Whoops!)—would garner at least as much scoffing opprobrium as Vanderlaan’s hokey ode to Ronald Reagan (“Modern Paul Revere”) or Dolan’s defense of the House Un-American Activities Committee (“Abolish, Abolish!”).
Truth is, though, no one needs the truth spelled out: This isn’t a just world and not even the catchiest tune could have ever induced then-blossoming white middle-class Baby Boomers to abandon the carefully constructed vision of themselves as proletarian radicals. The New Folk buttressed a tedious artifice Boomers used (and continue to use) to assuage latent guilt over their status as the most pampered, privileged cohort in the nation’s history. The post–New Left left may regard the “common man” more as a ward to be beneficently regulated by a muscular technocratic state than a comrade worthy of equal autonomy, but if any generation internalized the silly maxim “perception is reality,” it is the one currently driving us all into an abyss of endless nannyism and debt.
A young ’60s right-wing folk singer railing against Castro’s tyranny or the totalitarian evil of the dissent-smashing Comintern was, manifestly, “speaking truth to power.” Alas, presuming that New Folk actually preferred rebellion to reassurance turned out to be a bad bet.
That said, Red-hating conservative folk, perhaps predictably, enjoy a certain beyond-the-grave respectability.
“After years of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity,” rock critic Jon Dolan opines in Rolling Stone, “it’s weirdly refreshing to listen to reactionaries complaining about actual communism, rather than the publicly funded roads variety.”
Yes, well…we’ll see what Rolling Stone has to say when the Tea Party Justin Bieber makes his glorious debut.