communism and the blues

The success of the 1917 Russian revolution and the subsequent execution of all members of the Czar’s family sent shock waves around the world, especially in the capitalist United States. The first red scare in August 1919 was launched and a crackdown on practically all leftist organizations and labor unions occurred as a fear spread throughout America that a Bolshevist revolution was about to happen worldwide. An odd side to this red scare was the widespread belief that Russian communists were trying to infiltrate black communities to start their revolution with black Americans, who had been suppressed for some 400 years. Following the stock market crash of 1929, and the subsequent collapse of job opportunities for many American blacks, the suspicion grew that Russian communists were targeting this segment of America. The blues, the music of black America, became suspect as well.  

“The only support for blacks in the South in the 1930s was the [American] Communist Party. There was a great symbiosis between blacks and the communists. In an official meeting of the Communist Party in 1936, the American Communist Party recognized the blues as the voice of the proletarian blacks,” stated blues historian Sam Charters, author of The Country Blues, in a BBC documentary called “Blues America: Woke Up This Morning” Part 1. 

In fact, the 1929 stock market crash propelled the United States into the greatest and longest depression in its history, which continued until the start of WWII. While the economy tanked, millions of Americans found themselves unemployed, especially if they happened to be black. Sympathy for leftist ideas and movements was on the rise during the Depression, most prominently in large cities that had previously been the centers of capitalist industrialization, such as New York City. Blacks living in the Big Apple began to see communism in a different light. One of those communists was a wealthy black music promoter named John Hammond, who was a big fan of the blues musician Robert Johnson.

“During the Depression, America’s pre‐eminent African American community, Harlem, underwent a profound political transformation, emerging as a center of the left‐wing ‘Popular Front’ social movement. Many of Harlem’s residents, especially among the community’s intelligentsia, found themselves attracted to the left‐wing milieu centered around the Communist Party. By the late 1930s, Communist‐led organizations in Harlem and elsewhere were frequently featuring jazz bands at their social functions and benefits. It was in this context that many musicians, including several of the most prominent jazz musicians and bandleaders of the Swing Era, became actively engaged in the left‐wing milieu of the 1930s and 1940s,” states an article in Jazz Perspectives (Vol. 3, 2009).

The second red scare started in the late 1940s after a communist revolution succeeded in China, with the clear implication that an alignment between Chinese and Russian communism would pose an international threat to capitalism. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, cracked down on anything or anyone holding either communist or socialistic views. Actors in Hollywood and even singers were blacklisted and hauled before this committee, which saw “reds under every bed.”

One red songster singled out by the HUAC was folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014), a self-proclaimed communist and admirer of Joseph Stalin in his pre-WWII views. Seeger joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in 1936 but left in 1949. He refused to appear before HUAC in 1955 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for contempt of Congress, later overturned by an appeals court.

What was Pete’s connection to the blues? Pete Seeger was one of the earliest backers of Bob Dylan and was responsible for urging [Columbia] A&R man John Hammond, the black Harlem Renaissance financier and blues lover, to produce Dylan’s first LP on Columbia. Seeger also invited Dylan to perform at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, of which Seeger was a board member. Dylan was heavily criticized for plugging in and going electric at the festival, a no-no in the eyes (and ears) of blues and folk music purists such as Alan Lomax.

Bob Dylan, who was influenced by such blues masters as Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas, also held deeply liberal views. These opinions were reflected in his very satirical 1962 song called “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Some of the lyrics of this song go like this:

“Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
Although he killed six million Jews
It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria.”

Mance, who passed in 1976, probably looked down and smiled when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan sings “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”

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