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?
Gellert’s songbook is a unique historical document, not only in its content (though none of Gellert’s songs occur in other collections), but in its purpose: to record African American music specifically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.
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.
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