[by Ken Hunt, London] Back in New York, Seeger enthused about what he had seen and heard. Broadside, a publication with a tiny circulation – using, as Cunningham recalled, a hand-cranked mimeo machine “we had inherited when the American Labor Party branch closed in our neighbourhood” – became a vital conduit for song. Originally published fortnightly, very soon monthly, topicality was a major goal. It published its first issue in February 1962 and folded in 1988. By comparison Sing was launched on May Day 1954 and Sing Out! had first appeared in 1950. Unlike Sing Out! or Sing, Broadside did not interleaf traditional songs with its songs of struggle, diatribes on themes of social justice or political squibs. However imprecisely or colloquially some dubbed this latter category ‘folksongs’ – much to the exasperation of the folklorists and the outrage of armchair scholars who took the fight to numerous letters columns – Broadside‘s first issue carried the slogan “A handful of songs about our times” beneath its name.
Many froze not only the fleeting moment but the urgency of the search for the three-chord trick or, in some cases, that elusive third chord. Many strove to out-Dylan Dylan too. Union solidarity songs figured prominently, such as Hazard, Kentucky which appears on Phil Ochs’ The Broadside Tapes 1 and El Teatro Campesino’s El Picket Sign on The Best of Broadside. There again Ochs also sang the gloriously throwaway and irreverent Christine Keeler based on the Profumo episode – as was Matt McGinn’s Christine delivered by the Broadside Singers with Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger. Yet sprinkled through the pages of those early issues were songs that got a life, so to speak, and took on lives of their own. Songs like Janis Ian’s Society’s Child, Seeger’s Waist Deep In The Big Muddy, Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam spread like wildfire. “These songs were springing from the Civil Rights movement and from the burgeoning opposition to the Vietnam War,” Cunningham wrote.
Broadside was known in Britain by repute at least even if few ever saw a copy over its entire lifespan. Like Sing Out! and Little Sandy Review, it had a reputation way beyond the meagre quantities that got into Collet’s or elsewhere. Pete Frame, later the co-founder of Zigzag, picked up Broadside “as assiduously as [he] could” but Martin Carthy, for example, has no memory of ever seeing a copy. “What happened,” remembers Frame, “was that the record shop – Collet’s – at 70 New Oxford Street used to get them in sporadically but not on a regular basis. They used to get all these various folk music magazines from various places. Such as Sing Out!, Broadside and a different Broadside that was published from Boston. I used to buy them when and as I could find them. Broadside never got there that regularly. I also had those Broadside records. I certainly got the original of the one with Blind Boy Grunt.”
Frame hits it on the head. The main reason why people remember Broadside was that farcical alias. Blind Boy Grunt was Bob Dylan. Bell-wether or scapegoat by turn, completists collected Dylan’s every fart, belch and stomach grumble, as perhaps only jazz zealots had ever pursued their quarry before him. Blind Boy Grunt had three tracks on the Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1, released in 1963. The Broadside link would soon stretch to Dylan’s singing on Vanguard’s Newport Broadside (Topical Songs) – a wily remora of a title – and Broadside’s We Shall Overcome and the much later Broadside Reunion.
Less difficult to get hold of than the magazine itself was Oak Publications’ “songs of our time from the pages of Broadside magazine” anthology. “I also got an omnibus edition of Broadside,” Frame recollects. “It was pages from the magazine with something like 88 different songs. That came out in 1964, with illustrations by Suze Rotolo – Dylan’s girlfriend – and people like that. You would have a song per page. Or a song every two pages, like Train A-Travelin’ by Bob Dylan that came out of Broadside #23 – that had an illustration by Suze Rotolo. It was a typical early song by Dylan. It’s got Paths of Victory by Dylan, Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone, With God On Our Side, and stuff by Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and so on. It also had a long introduction with pictures of these guys and little notes about them.” Unbelievably by today’s information overload standards, back then the sum of the knowledge about many American performers was little more than the potted biog or puff on the back of an EP or LP.
Broadside was primarily a domestic phenomenon. Songs such as Thom Parrott’s Pinkville Helicopter, Matt Jones and Elaine Laron’s Hell, No, I Ain’t Gonna Go and Seeger’s Ballad of the Fort Hood Three remind how Vietnam overshadowed American society. Seeger’s Waist Deep In The Big Muddy on the other hand transcends the period and the particular to become a timeless anti-militarist song, up there with John B. Spencer’s Acceptable Losses and Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding. Quite reasonably, Broadside mostly saw life through an American prism. Yet commonalities abounded. The characters on the identity parade looked similar when Malvina Reynolds sang The Faucets Are Dripping about decaying properties and exploitative landlords in New York and Stan Kelly sang Fred Dallas’ Greedy Landlord about slum landlords in Rachman’s London or Paddy Ryan’s The Man That Waters The Workers’ Beer about short-measuring and exploitation. Exchanges occurred freely. The Glasgow Song Guild’s Ding Dong Dollar on the Broadside set was also printed in a C.N.D. songbook. Songs by Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, Irwin Silber and Jim Garland appeared in the Y.C.N.D.’s Songs of Hope and Survival songbook.
Even though Broadside published a smattering of topical songs from European and Canadian songwriters, songs such as Wolf Biermann’s Soldat and Das Familienbad, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Welcome, Welcome Emigrante and Matt McGinn’s Go Limp, it never meant as much in Britain, Europe or, a hunch, Canada as it did at home. “I don’t think Broadside had the same sort of meaning over here,” Rosselson concedes. “There was a very strong British equivalent over here, which was clearly much more interesting to British songwriters than the American version. My memory is that it didn’t have that big an impact here but over there Broadside was, in a way, the beginning of the protest movement over there.”
Seeger with trademark perspicacity, though he would probably pooh-pooh such a ‘compliment’, saw something important in 1961. It was the power of song, a vision at variance with what became the cult of the songwriter. He wanted songs put into circulation, maybe that one good that is in everybody, maybe more, and he wanted songs sung and shared. In the liner notes to his 1964 album I Can See A New Day Henrietta Yurchenco wrote, “About fifteen years ago, Les Rice, a shy farmer and ironwork craftsman from Newburgh, New York, wrote the Banks of Marble, a song which was taken up quickly throughout the English-speaking world. For many years he was silent. When Broadside began publication in 1962, Pete Seeger urged his friend and neighbour to start composing again. I Can See A New Day was Rice’s contribution to the new topical folk-song periodical.” Typical Seeger. “I really urge singers,” he told me in 1993, “to think of themselves not as a singer whose business it is to make people listen and applaud. Think of yourself as a singer who will show people what a great song you have and encourage them that they can sing it too – long after you’re gone. Not to say, ‘Oh, I must get them to buy my record.’ Or get them to buy this or that.”
They say in their lifetime the average citizen gets to make fifteen or so crosses on the ballot paper. The Best of Broadside contains scores of blueprints about how to register other sorts of vote. There are still countless themes of social justice waiting to be turned into song. How could the Labour Party’s ho-ho-ho ‘freedom of information’ proposals not incite a new batch of sceptics and their songs so long as fears about the absolute basics – food, water, air and health – are secondary to profit. As long as the boa constrictor of multinational business can pleasantly massage and lull so many people into a false feeling of security about genetically modified food and other environmental issues, warning bells must ring.
Once upon a time, small, cheaply produced folk rags like Broadside and Sing informed through song, reminded people about the benefits of solidarity. Nowadays when so much that is politically radical or looking to alternatives, whether in China, Britain or wherever, has switched to the Internet, there might be the suspicion that topical song’s time is past. During February and March 2001 under the collective title of The Magnificent 7, Robb Johnson, Attila the Stockbroker, Barb Jungr, Des De Moor, Tom Robinson, Phillip Jeays and Leon Rosselson did a seven-week season of “contemporary English chanson”. So called because, as Leon Rosselson explains, “it’s a broader category and these songs are definitely not American and may have a European influence, particularly French, and like the French chanson they are word-based, literate, intelligent and that sort of thing.” It would have thrilled Pete Seeger. Chronicling the march of political and topical song, the centre for political song at the Glasgow Caledonian University is archiving the past. The need still remains for new topical songs. The need remains to chronicle the past. Song remains one of the most effective ways yet devised by the human mind to express opinions. The Best of Broadside is more than American history.
In 1963 when Phil Ochs wrote the Ballad of William Worthy about a reporter whose U.S. passport was revoked after going to Cuba, would he have imagined the Cuban embargo still going on in 2013 and what should have been history still retaining its point and pertinence?