With so much destroyed by McCarthyism, one cannot help asking, how might the US cultural landscape look today if not for these anti-Communist attacks?
In 1970, the New York Times interviewed Tex Ritter, actor, cowboy singer, onetime president and founder of the Country Music Association. Ritter was instrumental in ingratiating country music to then president Richard Nixon, helping tailor its conservative image as the music of Nixon’s “silent majority.” In the 1930s, Ritter had lived in New York, attending and even performing at the folk music hootenannies put on by artists and bohemians around the city. Ritter told the Times,
The years I was in New York I became quite well acquainted with the Communists. I knew them. They would listen to ma songs . . . At one time called myself a folk singer. It got to the point there for a few years where it was very difficult to tell where folk music ended and Communism began. So that’s when I quit calling myself a folk singer.
Ritter’s anecdote speaks to the role anti-communism played in shaping so many notions about popular music, in particular the divisions between folk and country. What was called folk was in fact a diverse constellation of regional styles and sounds. Plenty of artists, such as Josh White or Lead Belly, were writings songs across blues and folk genres. Ritter’s own words point to a similar porousness concerning what we now understand as country music. The space for collaboration and exchange was wide, the possibilities for new forms and modes of expression almost endless, lending credence to Lee Hays’s description of “a veritable renaissance of art and letters.”
It was McCarthyist onslaught that helped compartmentalize these various genres into narrower lanes, ultimately narrowing the space for cultural exchange. Folk, country, blues, and gospel were all siphoned into different corners, with distinct sets of rules.
The Communist Party survived the onslaught of the FBI and the blacklist, albeit with greatly diminished numbers and vigor. It wasn’t just the surveillance and repression that did them in. Nikita Khrushchev’s February 1956 speech disavowing the crimes of Stalin sent the global communist movement into disarray. The same went for the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Even as the party reeled from confusion, with members resigning in droves, the repression continued. One month after Khrushchev’s speech, the offices of the Daily Worker were raided by the IRS, claiming the paper hadn’t paid taxes. In 1958, its mounting financial problems finally forced it to cease publication.
By the time Seeger’s contempt of Congress conviction was thrown out in 1962 (he had fought it for five years), he had left the CPUSA. So had Irwin Silber, though that didn’t prevent him from being called in front of HUAC in 1958. Silber had been integral in People’s Songs and People’s Artists, its antecedent. He refused to answer questions about other members’ party affiliations, but by that point, such an issue had become moot. Even CPUSA stalwarts, such as Alan Lomax’s sister Bess and her husband Butch Hawes, both members of the Almanac Singers and cofounders of People’s Songs, were now “taking a leave from the Party.” FBI files on most of the folksingers would continue for some time, but the fact is that their ties to their ideological and political wellspring had been thoroughly severed. So had America’s strongest exemplar of cultural radicalism.
Leonard is sober in his assessment of this, not just in terms of how the party’s flaws often made the FBI’s job easier, but in insisting that this kind of repression was not exceptional in American political life. Despite the party’s often overblown rhetoric about McCarthyism indicating a slide into fascism, America’s conception of democracy has always relied on its deprivations, denials, and the limits to expression. One sees this not only in the treatment of the Communist Party, but of anarchists and suffragettes, of slaves and abolitionists.
It is also evident in the current combination of contemporary anti-communism and its attendant prudishness in regard to culture. A country that inherits the McCarthyite legacy without reckoning with it is bound to be the kind of place where a president can celebrate the assassination of leftists while his son whips up a furor about a French coming-of-age comedy on Netflix. With leaders like these, the prospects for a free and democratic culture remain dim. They will always regard our ideas and art with contempt. We should extend to them the same consideration.