Music, Racism, and the American Left: Thoughts on Lawrence Gellert

This post is the first in a planned series on music, race(ism), and radical politics, building on and around research done for my undergraduate dissertation. Resources, as they are added, will be posted here.

Looking at Lawrence Gellert’s Negro Songs of Protest, one wouldn’t think it a particularly dangerous book. A slim compilation of twenty-four folk songs set to simple piano accompaniment, with a binding so frail that most of the pages had declared their independence from the spine decades ago, and yellowed in some places to the point of unreadability. (This, I’m told, is one of the better surviving copies.) Like many of its colleagues churned out from the leftist presses of New York in the early twentieth century, this book bears the marks of struggle. Unlike its more famous comrades, like the Little Red Songbook or anything by People’s Songs, though, it never recieved any modern re-printings, and was left instead to meditate on the coming revolution from the stacks of research libraries, accessed from time to time not as a tool of struggle but a curio from a more optimistic age. Dangerous, now, perhaps not. But as the contemporary Left struggles to define its response to issues of race and racism, relics of past struggle offer useful historical guidance: what about past action was successful, and what is best kept in the movement’s past?

The cover of 'Negro Songs of Protest', painted by Lawrence's brother, Hugo Gellert. From the Library of Congress's copy, scanned by the author.
The cover of ‘Negro Songs of Protest’, painted by Lawrence’s brother, Hugo Gellert. From the Library of Congress’s copy, scanned by the author.

Gellert’s songbook is a unique historical document, not only in its content (though none of Gellert’s songs occur in other collections), but in its purpose: to record African American music specifically concerned with politics. As Langston Hughes points out in his introduction, this effort was sorely needed:

These songs collected by Lawrence Gellert from plantations, chain gangs, lumber camps are of inestimable value. They show that not all Negroes are shouting spirituals, cheering football teams, dancing to the blues or mouthing interracial oratory—supposedly unruffled by the economic stress of these days. Some of them are tired of being poor and picturesque and hungry.

Terribly and bitterly tired.

These songs stand as a radical rival to collections like those of the Library of Congress, collections concerned with liberal preservationism, grounded on romantic notions of ‘the folk’ and their primitive but ‘authentic’ expression. Gellert’s recordings make explicit what others prefer as allusion: ‘Sistren’ and Brethren’ deals with the aftermath of a lynching; ‘If You Catch Me Stealin’’, the less ‘picturesque’ side of rural Black poverty; and many others the abusive conditions faced by African Americans in work, in court, and in jail. (More detailed studies of individual songs will appear on this blog as this series progresses.) These radical assertions of an African American reality concealed in other musical, and, indeed, historical accounts are a vital record of the Jim Crow experience—this alone makes Gellert’s collection worth recognition.

gellert1
Lawrence Gellert, from ‘Negro Songs of Protest’, Rounder 4004. (Source: http://www.wirz.de/music/gellefrm.htm)

Little has been written about Negro Songs of Protest since its publication. It makes minor entries more recent histories of the left-wing folk revival, but with two exceptions, no authors have considered it worth serious discussion. Part of this neglect is undoubtedly owed to the chauvinistic reign of Joseph McCarthy that darkened the period between the decline of the Popular Front and the moment when its histories were written—where other ‘fellow travellers’ like Alan Lomax were able to hide behind prominent ‘establishment’ posts, the marks of Communism on Gellert’s work were unable to be concealed.

While the fog of McCarthyism has slowly lifted, the influence of a broader, racist, conservatism remains—both in broader American culture, and specifically in the way Gellert’s reputation has been handed down. Bruce Conforth’s 2013 biography, the only book-length study of Gellert’s life and work, reads as little more than a smear on Gellert as a man, and a blanket assault on the songs he collected. In the run up to publication, Conforth claimed to have found proof of something long-rumoured: that Gellert substantially altered and in some cases entirely forged the songs in his collection in an effort to impress his left-wing peers. The relative inaccessibility of Conforth’s book—priced at a mark only available to academic libraries—makes it hard for most readers to assess this proof for themselves. The little time I had with the book, though, seemed to show that these claims were nothing but sensationalism.

Conforth’s principle claim is that the songs Gellert collected are not ‘folk songs’, because ‘the more overt songs were most probably composed with specific contexts in mind; they probably had relatively short life spans and a context dependency that disallowed their full acceptance into the folk tradition’ (Conforth, 119). Far from the damning proof promised, Conforth instead reveals his own conservatism. The notion that ‘folk’ songs are somehow timeless and immutable, divorced from the everyday, has barely been credible since Herder popularised it in the eighteenth century. That this trope is brought into action, though, reveals another of the reasons why Gellert’s collection is so fascinating: in its bridging of political, ‘folk’, and Black aesthetics, it offers a unique test-case for musical historiography.

Since books like Samuel Charters’ The Poetry of the Blues, there has been a trend toward arguing that African American folk music has nothing of the explicitly political—there is, he says, ‘little social protest in the blues’. While allowances are made for ‘complaint’, African Americans are never permitted the specific agency of political protest.  In defining the topical as ‘not-folk’, Conforth pulls the same rhetorical trick: political songs are excluded from being ‘real’ representatives of their tradition simply because they are political. Needless to say, this stereotype is grounded in the centuries of more obvious racism that asserted the inability of Black people to think for themselves, and their need for white ‘guidance’. For conservatives, the horror of Black thought, let alone Black communist thought, is too much to bear.

Of course, Gellert’s collection is hardly an unmediated expression of Black resistance. The songs are transcribed with piano accompaniments by leftist composer Elie Siegmeister. They are arranged in the ‘house style’ of the Composers’ Collective: strident, full of open fifths and occasional, unexpected suspensions in a small concession to aesthetic modernism. The actions of all folk-song collectors at this time are marred, too, by cultural appropriation—an issue that remains complicated in Gellert’s case, owing to his and his informants’ involvement in a shared political struggle, but a power dynamic that nonetheless exists. In their broader song-collecting efforts, the Left also carries its fair share of ‘romantic racism’, and attempts to synthesise Black and white struggle often fell apart on account of this failure of understanding.

This paradox of leftists at once having a much more nuanced understanding of the operations of race than the majority of white Americans, and simultaneously perpetuating subtler forms of racism, remains as unresolved in contemporary politics as it was in the 1930s: the recent clashes between white Democrats and the Movement for Black Lives, for example, show that there is clearly progress to be made. Digging Lawrence Gellert out of the archive doesn’t offer any immediate prospect for reconciliation, but an awareness of the text, and its position in the knotted historiography of music, racism, and resistance, offers at least a passing hope for progress toward a better political solidarity.

Select References:

Samuel Charters, The Poetry of the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1963).

Bruce M. Conforth, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics : The Lawrence Gellert Story (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2013).

Steven Garabedian, ‘Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Lawrence Gellert, “Negro Songs of Protest,” and the Left-Wing Folk-Song Revival of the 1930s and 1940s’, American Quarterly, 57 (2005), 179-206. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40068255

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2 thoughts on “Music, Racism, and the American Left: Thoughts on Lawrence Gellert

  1. Hello There.

    This was a pleasure to find. I’m the Steve Garabedian you cite in your references. I have been researching and writing on Gellert, white music collecting, folk and blues revivalism, and African American blues protest for quite some time. In addition to my American Quarterly article, I treated Gellert at length in my 2004 dissertation. I have also written on Gellert in subsequent academic articles. You will find that I quite agree with your critical assessment of Bruce Conforth’s work. For someone who was initially Gellert’s champion and a strong advocate for the integrity of Gellert’s black songs of protest, Conforth’s book is startling in its acute lines of turnaround and dismissal — that genuine black vernacular expression and modern protest are mutually exclusive; that the political Left was insincere and opportunistic; and, that Gellert was a lost soul simply in search of status and identity.

    I have recently posted my viewpoints at the online forum and database, Mudcat.org. Below, I have pasted my first post in the forum thread.

    Best,
    Steve Garabedian
    Marist College
    Poughkeepsie, NY

    —————————————————-
    Hello All,

    This thread has been quiet for a couple of years. But, I’m writing in anyway.

    To this point, I have refrained from addressing the topic of Lawrence Gellert in anything but my formal published academic writing. Many people, including contributors to Mudcat, know the name of Bruce Conforth as it relates to Gellert’s biography and archive. Picking up the trail after the early inroads by the great Richard Reuss, Dr. Conforth was the pioneering researcher who opened up Gellert studies in the 1980s. Two years ago, his book, “African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story,” came out with The Scarecrow Press. He has been more and more active in recent years as a blues and folklore expert, and his teaching and writing is highly credited.

    I am finally writing in at this forum to speak up for myself and my own research on Lawrence Gellert. I am an academic as well, and have been researching Gellert, African American blues protest, roots music revivalism, and the cultural left of the 1930s and 1960s since the late 1990s. I have published on Gellert myself, and am working on a manuscript involving the man and his collection.

    As I see Conforth’s take on Gellert show up more and more, I want to say that it is one view, and that I am a researcher of some credibility myself who has a very different view. There is still room for a open discourse on Gellert, and there is still room for additional interpreters and researchers.

    No scholarship is definitive, and my own will no doubt have its limitations. But, I can say that I fundamentally dispute Conforth’s position on Lawrence Gellert as an apolitical careerist, with no genuine social convictions of any real degree. I also dispute Conforth’s dismissive view of the political left of the 1930s and ’40s as purely opportunistic. Moreover, I do not think it is “cased closed” that Lawrence Gellert or his Communist handlers fabricated material.

    In his many hours of taped interviews with Richard Reuss and Izzy Young from the late 1960s, Lawrence Gellert speaks with authority and emotion about world politics, leftwing cultural policy and figures in the 1930s, and issues of social injustice. As an older man, in these interviews from the ’60s, he is still quite emphatic that he believes socialism will prevail over capitalism because it is a “superior system.” He also shows a detailed level of knowledge about black history, resistance, and culture that is rare for someone of an age that predated African American Studies as a formal discipline with a canon easily accessible to all. Gellert was an autodidact from an intelligent family of thinkers and arguers. Yes, Gellert was eccentric, but I don’t think, as Conforth seems to suggest in his book, that Gellert’s main motivation in black vernacular music research was an identify and inferiority complex that drove him to want to make a name for himself out of the shadow of his older brother Hugo. I don’t see any reason to psychologize Gellert in these terms. Really, he seemed as intact and as screwy as any of the rest of us, particularly when it comes to writers, artists, bohemians.

    Was Lawrence Gellert an alcoholic, as it now states on his Wikipedia page? In sixteen years of research, I’ve seen no evidence for or against such a characterization.

    Was Gellert an acute womanizer? How do we judge such a thing? There were several women with whom he had relationships over the course of a long lifetime. Aside from adding to a profile of the man as unprincipled, I don’t see why it is necessary to the discussion. I admit that I have not looked into his romantic life, but I can say that it has never stuck out as a topic needing investigation either.

    This is not the place for a disquisition. And, I will keep working on my book and hope it comes out before the door is closed on Lawrence Gellert by interested parties. But, let me give one example of a specific inaccuracy from Bruce Conforth’s book that is the kind of thing that matters. In his book (p.118), Conforth highlights as primary evidence a 1935 Gellert article published in the leftwing journal “Music Vanguard.” He employs this evidence to further assert his ongoing position that Gellert had no interest in politics and was simply willing to allow the left to use his material in order to build a name for himself. Conforth relates some of the details of the 12-page piece by Gellert and stresses that — aside from the title “Negro Songs of Protest,” which was applied by leftwing editors apart from Gellert’s own hand — Gellert himself, as author, never uses the word “protest” once in the published article text. But, I have and know this same article well, and the primary evidence reads otherwise. Gellert includes the word “protest” in his prose at least three times, quite directly. He also uses the words “revolt” and “insurrection,” for instance, to refer to black vernacular song tradition in his time and before. I agree with Conforth that the title “Negro Songs of Protest” likely came from Mike Gold at “New Masses” starting in 1930. But, I disagree that Gellert wasn’t a willing participant of genuine conviction in the movement culture of the Old Left. I submit that Gellert used the word “protest” in this article because, like his leftwing editors at “New Masses” and “Music Vanguard,” he meant it and he cared.

    I have never argued that all of Gellert’s field archive is all protest, and I have never argued that only protest blues is the real blues or the only blues that matters. I have never defined “protest” as necessarily supporting only formal leftwing organizing campaigns, causes, or people, and I have never argued, as Conforth presents it in his book, that the blues in the Gellert collection are “anticapitalist.” The songs I highlight show resentment toward exploitation under a racialized system of capitalism; that’s what I argue in my writing. I never go so far as to say they are “anticapitalist.”

    Anyone who wants can read my 2005 Gellert article in “American Quarterly” to decide whether I’m nuanced and careful or reductive and exaggerated in my interpretations. I believe I’m the former and grounded responsibly in the evidence; Conforth characterizes me in the book as a radical “revisionist” who is “overpoliticizing” the blues based on my own contemporary views (what I want to see, not what is).

    I also think it is important to mention that the Gellert archive (taped interviews, correspondence, writings, and field recordings) is available for all at a public repository, the Archives of Traditional Music and Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington. This is the primary evidence base from which I draw conclusions in my writing, and it can all be traced to its public source. The material has been available to all since the 1980s. It is not lost, obscure, or unavailable. It is as easily accessible as any other public archive. This extends to the field recordings themselves, which have been digitized in full (505+ audio items) and can be ordered on CD or as a zip file over email to interested researchers.

    There is no reason why a single viewpoint (or even our two viewpoints) on Lawrence Gellert should be the last word. I look forward to any feedback from folks who have investigated the Gellert material on their own, who have read Conforth’s book, or who have opinions about my own writing.

    Steve Garabedian

    Like

    1. Hello Steve,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment! I’m glad you found this post. I thought about contacting you last summer when I was working on this project, but as it was just undergraduate work I didn’t want to trouble you with it. I should say it was your American Quarterly article that first introduced me to Gellert’s work, and though they aren’t cited here, I also enjoyed your subsequent writing. I await your monograph with great interest! The relationship between music, race(ism), and social/political movements is an area in which I’m pursuing graduate study, so I’m definitely excited to read more.
      Thanks again for getting in touch, & all best,
      Alex

      Like

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