Monday, September 20, 2010
Fighting The Good Fight
Oakland and the music community lost a giant when Irwin Silber died Sept. 8 from Alzheimer's. He was 84.
Perhaps more than any other person, Silber launched the folk music boom of the 1950s and early '60s. He was the editor of "Sing Out!" a folk singing magazine he founded with Pete Seeger and folklorist Alan Lomax. (Their office secretary was the future playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote "A Raisin in the Sun.")
Under his guidance, "Sing Out!" became a lonely voice of opposition to the McCarthy witch hunts, which caused Silber to be hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked the ominous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
In Silber's case, the answer was yes. He had joined the party in 1942, when the Soviet Union was known as "our gallant Russian ally" and everybody, including conservatives like Winston Churchill, called Stalin "Uncle Joe." He quit in the mid-50s, after Khruschev's "secret speech" in 1956 revealed that Uncle Joe was actually a cold-blooded mass murderer.
He didn't want to answer the question because it was none of the committee's business. Besides, he knew the next question would be a demand to sell out his friends.
But he didn't want to invoke the Fifth Amendment - his right against self-incrimination - because he didn't think he had done anything wrong. What was so bad about that fighting for civil rights, social justice and peace? So he refused under his First Amendment right to free speech, instead.
Undaunted, the committee chairman tried to get the answer another way: "Did you ever teach at the Jefferson School?" (a Marxist academy in Manhattan)
"Aha!" said the chairman, zeroing in for the kill. "And what did you teach?"
"Square dancing," Silber replied.
The room exploded in laughter, and that was the end of that.
That's just one chapter in the life of this remarkable man, who produced the first hootenannys at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring blacklisted artists like Josh White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly.
"Leadbelly always dressed impeccably, onstage and off, wearing the spiffiest suits and carrying himself with great dignity," he told me. "It was his reaction against Alan Lomax's trying to dress him in overalls or prison stripes when he performed."
Every summer, Silber played softball with Paul Robeson at a Marxist summer camp in New Jersey called Camp Wochica (short for Workers' Children's Camp).
Robeson wrote the forword to Silber's first book, "Lift Every Voice." John Steinbeck wrote the forword to a later book, "Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People." The title was suggested by Woody Guthrie.
He wrote 10 other books, including "Socialism: What Went Wrong?" "A Patient's Guide to Knee and Hip Replacement" and "Press Box Red," the story of Lester Rodney, a Daily Worker sports reporter who pioneered the campaign to integrate the major leagues.
For the last 30 years he lived in Oakland with his wife, jazz singer Barbara Dane. Appropriately, they fell in love on a May Day.
And he had no regrets - except one. In his later years, he regretted writing a scathing editorial in 1965 that ripped Bob Dylan for going electric.
Dylan responded by writing "Positively Fourth Street," which begins with the words "You've got a lot of nerve."