[by Ken Hunt, London] It’s 2001. You open the paper at an article about the underground strike. Par for the course, the same old politicians are lip-synching the party line. Substitute the specific till the capitalist or metropolitanist becomes local to you. The London Underground is being turned into another public-private partnership. The workers are striking about compulsory redundancies, fears over safety, etc. You get incensed. Another sodding disruption. Another sodding protest. Another sodding privatisation gussied up, as London’s transport commissioner Bob Kiley – remember him, New Yorkers? – decries, to generate “the least expensive product or service at the highest price.” Wasn’t that a time when songs would have flowed about the Tory Party ripping apart the national rail system and Labour chuffing along complacently behind them toking on their exhaust fumes?
Rewind to the early 1960s. Phil Ochs, the Greenwich Village voice, is riding the New York subway heading to the office of Broadside magazine to deliver some hot new tidbit. He and Malvina Reynolds are the most prolific of the so-called Broadsiders. Both are forever rattling off songs to meet the needs of the hour. Having studied journalism at Ohio State, Ochs is avidly reading the New York Times on his way to the Upper West Side. A couple of news items have hotwired his creative juices.
Sis Cunningham, who co-edited Broadside with her husband George Friesen, recalled Ochs in their autobiography Red Dust and Broadsides: “Phil would come around and say, ‘I’ve got seven new songs.’ We’d say, ‘What! Seven new songs?’ So he said, ‘Yeah.’ And Gordon would ask him, ‘Well, where do you get all your material?’ He’d say, ‘Well, I get it out of the newspapers and out of Newsweek. I wrote two of them on my way up here on the subway from the Village.'” Broadside took topicality hot-off-the-subway but, broadmindedly, even took songs on which the ink was already dry. Confusingly, in a frenzy of parallel evolution, three Broadsides emerged around the same period in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. New York’s is the one to which Smithsonian Folkways has dedicated a five-CD, spiral-bound, slip-cased set called Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine.
When folk music first began brainwashing my generation’s minds during the mid 1960s, for several years it would have been hard to disembarrass lots of us of the notion that there was anyone in the whole wide world of folk who wasn’t at least vaguely lefty. As naive, as patently absurd as that now sounds, droves subscribed to this particular form of less-than-mass delusion. It stood to reason that anyone with a folk bone in his or her body had to hold some sort of suspect leftish or suspiciously bohemian views. Aside from the weekly music rags, Melody Maker and suchlike, the low-circulation folk magazines – many, in the language of The League of Gentlemen, local rags for local people – that were sold in the folk clubs and specialist shops, did little to disabuse about the well-known Communist conspiracy. Sing and its fellow travellers over here, the market leader Sing Out! and the more recherché Broadside over there reinforced such views. Here later folk pulpit pamphleteers – Karl Dallas’ name looms especially large – kept the red flag flying. That said, the first half of the 1960s saw a variety of magazines operating in the general folk field in Britain including Ballads & Songs, Folk Music, Folk Scene and Spin and not all had political agendas.
Broadside was neither unique nor the first, but its back pages remain a frozen barometer of its times and the folk condition. Even by the homespun standards of the day, Broadside had the feel of the parish pump about it. Clippings from newspapers and magazines provided further insights and raised eyebrows. Electricity had probably never played a major part in the production process and, had a fly formed an attachment to drying cow gum, it would have become immortalized in print for ever more. Broadside had that manual typewriter, pre-photocopier look to it that song folios like Anti-Fascist Songs of the Almanac Singers had had in the 1940s. “I remember the appearance of it,” recalls Gill Cook, who was not a huge fan of the magazine although Collets, the shop she managed, went out of its way to stock as representative a selection of the domestic and international folk magazines as it could. “Broadside was very badly laid out. It was political and I’d really rather gone off that stuff. The best one was Sing Out! There were always one or two political things in Sing Out! but they didn’t thrust it up your nose as much as Broadside. Sing was more local; there would be a few things about ‘foreign music’ but not very often.”
What really counted in Broadside was the songs. The finest were champagne drunk from a chipped enamel mug. Regular contributors included Bob Dylan, Peter La Farge, Tom Paxton and variously combined Broadside Singers. They would come into the office and sing or send tapes and lyrics on spec which would be transcribed and published in the magazine’s pages. Before Fast Folk was a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, Broadside had an archive of performances and some saw releases on the Broadside imprint of Moe Asch’s Folkways label.
In the early 1950s both the British and American folk scenes had formed a commensal relationship. In Britain many American musicians were little more than names with hearsay reputations – who had actually ever heard the Almanac Singers back then? – but others, names like those of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and Alan Lomax shone like beacons. In an era of L.s.d. currency restrictions and limited opportunities to travel abroad, even Woody Guthrie was best known, and often better appreciated, through Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. It was far from one way traffic though. Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd began to seed ideas in the American folkie consciousness from 1956 with The English and Scottish Popular Ballads series released on Riverside. Without getting jingoistic, it is a fact that Britain re-energised America’s songwriting movement that had flagged during the years of McCarthyist and McCarranist oppression.
During the 1950s the US authorities had simultaneously held back the red tide and had fun preventing Pete Seeger from travelling abroad. Argus-eyed red-busters, amateur and professional, had kept watch on Seeger, the other former members of the Weavers and their kind. (In 1968 in a post-McCarthyist lapse of judgement Broadside paraded soi-disant Dylanologist Alan Weberman’s arse-clenchingly sinister “Bob Dylan: What his songs really say” exposés, literally with added trashcan gleanings.) With consummate understatement in her Lonesome Traveler – The Life of Lee Hays Doris Willens remarked, “Controversy stuck to the Weavers like a tar baby”. In 1955 Seeger had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had been sentenced to gaol for contempt of court. The dawning of a new decade brought permission for Seeger to visit Britain. “Khrushchev’s Songbird” had previously toured in 1959 with Jack Elliot but he arrived in the autumn of 1961 with his wife Toshi and daughter Tinya – and promptly discovered something which excited him enormously. He encountered a song movement of unsuspected proportions and vigour. Sometimes under the influence of France’s literary chanson movement, sometimes motivated by dialect or occupation, sometimes channelling political ideas, writers such as Johnny Handle, Stan Kelly and Leon Rosselson were spearheading a new song movement. “These Americans came over,” remembers Rosselson, “and heard me perform, and other people, at some event and I remember how impressed they were by the fact that there were these topical, as they would call them, songs being written over here. There was no equivalent over there. This is way before ‘Protest’ started. The British song of that time that came out of C.N.D., the leftwing political and folk worlds predated the songs in Broadside and the songs they published there. I think it was because they’d heard these songs over here that they decided that they ought to have a magazine that could be a platform for those sort of songs in America.”
To be continued…
More information at http://www.folkways.si.edu/explore_folkways/BestBroadside.aspx