Youth Against Fascism

In his new book on America's folk revival, Robert Cantwell looks at our post-war romance with the "real."

Nationalism, some say, breeds fascism. History, burdened with examples, backs this up. It's the kind of menace that can make you turn off the radio (after, say, listening to an infuriating story about fencing off the U.S. border), then go straight to a bookstore and pay 89 cents for a copy of the Constitution just to hold it in your hands, make sure it still exists.

Your friends, if they saw you reading the Bill of Rights in the middle of an ordinary day, would laugh at you, call you corny, roll their eyes. So you tell no one about the little book buried in your bag. You'd forget it's there except for the constant reminders of why you cared in the first place--and it surprises you how many of those reminders hold guitars in their hands.

After throwing a few banjos into the mix, Robert Cantwell would surely empathize. His extraordinary new history of the folk revival of the `50s and `60s, When We Were Good(Harvard University Press), argues for the kind of nationalism--the love of land and art and "neighborliness"--that is in my mind the citizen's most powerful force against totalitarian thought and deed. As revival hero Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, "This machine kills fascists."

It's precisely Guthrie's egalitarian patriotism that I bought into as a child, singing alongside my classmates his promise that "This Land was made for you and me," dressed in a giant turkey costume at one of those ideologically questionable Thanksgiving pageants every elementary schooler stumbles though. Cantwell, one of the hordes of wide-eyed college students who picked up a stringed instrument after hearing Pete Seeger, lovingly captures the era's innocence while at the same time slicing open the stale, sinister narrative of "postwar prosperity." "For we were good," he says of his comrades, "and wanted to be."

Just as I was wondering what that statement makes of the rest of us who didn't have the luxury of coming of age under Kennedy (though we all get to share the common denominator of the Bomb), Cantwell traces a line of oppositional youth movements, beginning with the "genteel socialism" of 19th century reformers, finding Nirvana's heritage in "successive periods a number of 'progressive,' alternative, or oppositional styles and ideologies, beginning in the generation of Jane Addams, variously inflected with class and ethnic meaning, gathering force at midcentury on the left, popularly consolidated in 'the sixties' and continuing today in green, new age, punk, deadhead, grunge, and slacker movements."

Cantwell's generous history of American socialism-- and not all of it is genteel--gives the revival a nourishing theoretical root system ranging from labor unions and the New Deal to the Popular front and the Communist Party. The author even cites one brave soul, Earl Browder of the Composers' Collective, calling communism "twentieth-century Americanism." But that was the '30's, a decade whose radicality nearly outshines the '60s in this volume. By the war years, "premature anti-fascists" come under attack, and in 1946, Republicans gain control of the Congress. As Frederick Siegel is quoted, "'Acting as much to punish their enemies as to revive true Americanism, the Congress was turned into a living theater, a psychodrama in which senators and representatives felt free to spin out their wildest fantasies of homosexuality, intrigue, and treason, all of which were said to lay behind the New Deal.'" Sound familiar?

But there's a subtle difference between the masses and the folk, and it's a romantic one. Cantwell makes it clear that his revival, while inspired by earlier protest singers, tends to follow Pete Seeger's lead, "rooted morally in a fundamentally religious sensibility that despises waste, ostentation, and worldly power." This explains the aesthetic parameters Cantwell establishes for the folk music movement, which by his measure began in 1958 when the Kingston trio sold four million copies of the Appalachian murder ballad "Tom Dooley," and ended in 1965 when that electric Judas Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival.

In fact, looking at the photo of the Kingston Trio with the Red Scare in mind elicits a laugh: The three clean cut, smiling young men in the matching striped shirts look about as scary as Sally Field in Gidget. Cantwell weighs their peppy telling of the tale of cold-blooded killing against Doc Watson's version from Harry Smith's Folkways Anthology of American Music (called the revival's "constitution"), and finds Watson's "Tom Dooley" far superior. As the author notes, the latter "retained something of the ghastliness and moral squalor of an actual murder."

In Cantwell's discussion of Smith's anthology, the revival's fixation on crusty old songs sung mostly by crusty old men (or so they sounded, since the same might have been said of Dylan), is thrown into relief. The desire of nice, middle class urban college students to commune with a poor working class oral tradition comes from a rejection of the shiny, happy consumer paradise their parents handed them. "Tom Dooley," he writes, "carried the listener's imagination away from high school corridors and sock hops," since they were, according to folk scene chronicler Susan Montgomery "'desperately hungry for a small, safe taste of an unslick, underground world.'"

Cantwell's winding loveliness, in search of the unslick dreams of his youth, reaffirms my conviction that 'What is an American?' is still a crucial if unanswerable question. This book offers a few quietly elegant clues--and to answer his own title, Cantwell is still good.

 
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