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Article Folk Singers, Social Reform, and the Red Scare

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie. Photo by Al Aumuller, 1943. NYWTS - BIOG--Guthrie, Woody--Radio--Folksinger

The Works Progress Administration era recordings and subsequent recordings of artists such as Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie singing folk music helped to raise the awareness of the songs of rural Americans, Appalachians, African Americans, and various ethnic groups among urban and affluent Americans. These particularly influenced young people, who learned to sing these songs themselves, giving rise to the folk song revival. Though much of the movement was based in entertainment, many singers and fans became aware of and concerned for the social issues of the era affecting lives of the people who originated these musical traditions. The folk music revival was tied in with the labor movement and other social movements that grew out of the years following the depression.

The Almanac Singers

In 1941 Millard Lampell, Lee Hayes, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, a politically active group that was pro-union, anti-war, anti-fascist, and pro-civil rights. In addition to performing traditional songs, the group composed their own songs of protest. At this time political parties such as the American Communist Party and other groups with socialist leanings were active among advocates of social reform, especially unionization. Whether activist folk singers were members of those parties or not, they were often considered so by association. As World War II began, a suspicion of those who espoused socialism, communism, or anyone who associated with them grew into widespread paranoia. The Almanac Singers were a target of these fears and were branded a seditious group by the FBI. This led to negative press, difficulty in booking performances, and harassment; events that caused them to disband in 1942. Pete Seeger served in the Army during World War II as an airplane mechanic and performing for the troops.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger arrives at Federal Court with his guitar over his shoulder as his conviction for Contempt of Congress is appealed. Photo by Walter Albertin, 1961. NYWTS - BIOG--Seeger, Pete--Singer.

The Weavers

Almanac singers Pete Seeger and Lee Hays with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman formed the Weavers in 1950. This group that achieved a greater degree of fame than any other folk revival performers of their day, mainly singing their own versions of traditional songs. In 1950 their recording of the Leadbelly song, "Irene Goodnight," was the first commercial hit of the folk revival. However, at this time a growing anti-communist movement, often called the "Red Scare," had led to investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes were denounced as communists and blacklisted. The Weavers lost their recording contract, their recordings could not be played on the radio, and they could not book concerts. In 1955 Pete Seeger answered a subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he refused to answer questions he said were improper, asserting a First Ammendment right not to speak. This led to a long court battle. He was indicted for contempt in 1957 and convicted in 1961. This conviction was overturned in 1962. Woody Guthrie was also blacklisted during this period, just as he was beginning to experience the symptoms of Huntington's disease. The government's treatment of the Weavers and other folk singers had a chilling effect on the folk revival as a whole, with groups like the Kingston Trio avoiding any political or social commentary in order to achieve popular success without accusations of communism.

Government investigations have never prevented singers from singing. Though the McCarthy era black list could disrupt lives of performers and keep them from earning a living at their craft, songs of protest and reform continued in defiance of governmental attempts to curb free speech. In fact, efforts of governmental suppression only served to demonstrate the power of song and gave socially conscious singers added zeal.

At the Library of Congress in 2007, Pete Seeger performed examples of sing alongs with audience members, folk songs and activist songs. He presented a new peace song, "Don't Say it Can't be Done," inspired by the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentegon, and harking back to the Mongomery, Alabama Civil Rights bus boycott of 1955.


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  • Folk Singers, Social Reform, and the Red Scare


  • -  Politics and Government
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Social Change
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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