Almanac Singers

Almanac Singers

The Almanac Singers were a group of folk musicians who, as their name indicates, specialized in topical songs, especially songs connected with union organizing. Members Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie began playing together informally in 1940 or 1941. Pete Seeger and Guthrie had met at Will Geer's Grapes of Wrath Evening, a benefit for displaced migrant workers, in March 1940. That year, Seeger joined Guthrie on a trip to Texas and California to visit Guthrie's relatives. Hays and Lampell had rented a New York City apartment together in October 1940, and on his return Seeger moved in with them. They called their apartment Almanac House, and it became a center for leftist intellectuals as well as crash pad for folksingers, including (in 1942) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Ed Cray says that Hays and Seeger's first paying gig was in January 1941 at a fund-raising benefit for Spanish Civil War loyalists at the Jade Mountain restaurant in New York City. [Ed Cray, "Ramblin' Man: A Life of Woody Guthrie" (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 218-219. David Dunaway, on the other hand, in "The Ballad of Pete Seeger" (New York: Villard Books), 2008, p. 82, gives a date of December, 1940.] According to writer Joe Klein, Seeger, Hays, and Lampell wowed audiences at an American Youth Congress in Washington, D.C., in February 1941 [?] [It's unclear whether this happened in 1940 or 41: some sources say the Youth Congress disbanded in 1940: see Joe Klein's "Woody Guthrie: A Life" (New York: Delta), pp. 191-92. Klein, who adopts a harsh, judgmental Cold War tone, doesn't mention the contextual information that, in a speech to the Youth Congress on the White House lawn in February 1940, FDR had pointedly chided it for condemning only fascist dictatorships rather than "all" dictators (meaning Stalin) angering its members, who were still upset over his and Churchill's arms embargo against Loyalist Spain.] and shortly after this they decided to call themselves the Almanacs.

Performers who sang with the group at various times included Sis Cunningham, (John) Peter Hawes and his brother (Baldwin) Butch Hawes, Bess Lomax Hawes (wife of Butch and sister of Alan Lomax), Cisco Houston, Arthur Stern, Josh White, Jackie (Gibson) Alper, and Sam Gary.

The Almanacs were part of the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA (whose slogan, under their leader Earl Browder, was "Communism is twentieth century Americanism"), who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers' rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals. They invented a driving, energetic performing style, based on what they felt was the best of American country string band music, black and white. They wore street clothes, which was unheard of in an era when entertainers routinely wore formal, night-club attire, and they invited the audience to join in the singing. The Almanacs had many gigs playing at parties, rallies, benefits, unions meetings, and informal "hootenannies", a term coined by Arkansas native, Lee Hays. In May of 1941, they entertained a rally of 20,000 striking transit workers.

Recordings and Redbaiting

The Almanacs' first record release, an album of 78s called "Songs For John Doe", recorded in February or March 1941 and issued in May, comprised three records of songs written by Millard Lampell that followed the Communist Party line (after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), urging non-intervention in World War II. It was produced by the founder of Keynote Records Eric Bernay. Bernay, who owned a small record store, was the former business manager of the magazine " [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Masses The New Masses] ", which in 1938 and 39 had sponsored John Hammond's landmark Spirituals to Swing Concert. [The Keynote label had debuted with the famous collection of Spanish Civil War songs, "Six Songs for Democracy" by Ernst Busch and chorus (1940). In addition to issuing records by Josh White and the Almanacs, Keynote drew on Cafe Society bands for a series of small group sessions, "nearly a third of which," Whitney Balliett has argued, "are among the best of all jazz recordings"; see Michael Denning, "The Cultural Front" (London: Verso, 1997), p. 338.] Perhaps because of its controversial content, "Songs for John Doe" came out under the imprint "Almanac Records", and Bernay insisted that the performers themselves (in this case Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary) pay for the costs of production. "Songs for John Doe" attacked big corporations such as DuPont, some of which had armed and financed Nazi Germany and which, during the period of re-armament in 1941, were vying for defense contracts. Besides being anti-union, these corporations were a focus of progressive and black activist anger because they barred blacks from employment in defense work.

The album also criticized Roosevelt's unprecedented peacetime draft, insinuating he was going to war for J.P. Morgan. Pete Seeger, later said that he believed the Communist argument at that time that the war was "phony" and that big business merely wanted to use Hitler as a proxy to attack Soviet Russia. Bess Lomax Hawes, who was twenty at the time and did not sing on the "John Doe" album, writes in her autobiography "Sing It Pretty" (2008), that for her part, she had taken the pacifist oath as a girl out repugnance for the senseless brutality of the first World War (a sentiment shared by many) and that she took the oath very seriously. However, she said that events were happening so fast, and such terrible news was coming out about German atrocities, that the Almanacs hardly knew what to believe from one day to the next, and they found themselves adjusting their topical repertoire on a daily basis.

Every day, it seemed, another once-stable European political reality would fall to the rapidly expanding Nazi armies, and the agonies of the death camps were beginning to reach our ears. The Almanacs, as self-defined commentators, were inevitably affected by the intense national debate between the "warmongers" and the "isolationists" (and the points between). Before every booking we had to decide: were we going to sing some of our hardest-hitting and most eloquent songs, all of which were antiwar, and if we weren't, what would we sing anyway? ... We hoped the next headline would not challenge our entire roster of poetic ideas. Woody Guthrie wrote a song that mournfully stated: "I started out to write a song to the entire population / But no sooner than I got the words down, here come a brand new situation". [Bess Lomax Hawes (2008), p. 43. According to Ronald D. Cohen in "Rainbow Quest" (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 30, Guthrie had joined the Almanacs in the summer of 1941, greatly enhancing its repertoire.]

On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and attacked Russia, and Keynote promptly destroyed all its inventory of "Songs for John Doe". The Communist Party now urged support for Roosevelt and the draft, and it forbid its members from participation in strikes for the duration (angering some on the extreme far left).

On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt, under pressure from black leaders, who were threatening a massive march on Washington against segregation in the army and the exclusion of blacks from factories doing defense work, signed Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) banning racial discrimination by corporations receiving federal defense contracts. The racial situation, which had threatened black support for the peacetime draft, was now somewhat diffused (even though the army still declined to desegregate) and the march was canceled.

The Almanac's second album, "Talking Union", also produced by Bernay, was a collection of six labor songs: "Union Maid", "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister", "Get Thee Behind Me Satan", "Union Train", "Which Side Are You On?", and, of course, the eponymous "Talking Union". This album, issued in July 1941, was not anti-Roosevelt but was redbaited in a review by "Time" magazine, nevertheless. [The review, published Sept. 15, 1941 in a column entitled "September Records", recalled the Almanac's anti-war album earlier that year: "Their recorded collection "Songs for John Doe", ably hewed to the then Moscow line, neatly phonograph-needled J. P. Morgan, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and particularly war (TIME, June 16). The three discs of "Talking Union", on sale last week under the Keynote label, lay off the isolationist business now that the Russians are laying it on the Germans."] It was reissued by Folkways in 1956 with additional songs and is still available today. The Almanacs also issued two albums of traditional folk songs with no political content in 1941: an album of sea chanteys, "Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads" (sea chanteys, as was well known, being Franklin Roosevelt's favorite kind of song) and "Sod-Buster Ballads", which were songs of the pioneers. Both of these were produced by Alan Lomax on General, the label that had issued his Jelly Roll Morton recordings in 1940. [General, a subsidiary of Commodore, had been founded by Milt Gabler, who in 1941 accepted a job at Decca. In 1939 Commodore had put out Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit", when Columbia rejected it as too controversial. http://www.delmark.com/rhythm.gabler.htm] When the USA entered the European war after Germany's post-Pearl Harbor declaration of war in December 1941, the Almanacs recorded a new topical album for Keynote in support of the war effort, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dear_Mr._President_(Almanac_Singers_album),"Dear Mr. President"] , under the supervision of Earl Robinson that included Woody Guthrie's "Reuben James" (1942). ["When Decca backed away from its contract offer [because of bad publicity associated with "Songs for John Doe"] , the Almanacs recorded "Dear Mr. President". Earl Robinson supervised the February 1942 session, which featured six songs in support of the war effort" (Ronald D. Cohen & Dave Samuelson, liner notes for "Songs for Political Action", Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL, 1996, p. 94).]

The title song, "Dear Mr. President", was a solo by Pete Seeger, and its lines expressed his life-long credo:

Now, Mr. President, / We haven't always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain't at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.//
Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain't perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not 'cause everything's perfect, or everything's right. / No, it's just the opposite: I'm fightin' because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / "You can't ride on this train 'cause you're a Negro," / "You can't live here 'cause you're a Jew,"/ "You can't work here 'cause you're a union man."//
So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That's lick Mr. Hitler and when we're through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.

The Almanacs were never allowed to forget their repudiated "John Doe" album, however. In 1942, Army intelligence and the FBI decided the Almanacs and their former anti-draft message were still a seditious threat to recruitment and the morale of the war effort among blacks and youth, [According to an article in "The Amsterdam News", the FBI also came after Billie Holiday, when she sang a pacifist song, forcing her manager to make her change her repertoire. See Denning (1997), p. 343.] and they were hounded by red-baiting reviews and gossip items in the New York tabloid press for the rest of their performing career. Eventually they had to change their name, resurfacing in 1950 with some new personnel, as The Weavers.

As a performing group, the Almanacs lasted a mere two or three years, in itself not a bad run for a group. Their influence, however, has been long and deep. Their mission was continued after the war in the organization People's Songs, and later through their numerous imitators, not excluding their more famous and less overtly political offshoot, The Weavers.

Discography

Original Studio Albums

#Songs For John Doe (Almanac Records, 1941).
#Talking Union & Other Union Songs (Keynote, 1941).
#Deep Sea Chanteys And Whaling Ballads (General, 1941).
#Sod Buster Ballads (General, 1941).
#Dear Mr. President (Keynote, 1942).
#Songs Of The Lincoln Battalion (Stinson/Asch, 1944). This album was performed by Almanac alumni: Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax, Butch Hawes, and Woody Guthrie. It was reissued by Folkways Records FH5436 in 1961 as one side of an LP entitled "Songs of the Spanish Civil War", Vol. 1, with, on the other side: "Six Songs for Democracy", by Ernst Busch and the chorus of the Thaelmann Battalion (11th International Brigade), originally recorded in Barcelona (1938) with bombs falling in the background. [The legendary album,"Six Songs for Democracy", was originally issued by Keynote in 1940, and, according to Maurice Isserman, was one of Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite albums. See "Which Side Are You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War", Urbana & Chicago: Illini Books, 1993, p. 20.]

ingles

*Song For Bridges / Babe of Mine (Keynote, 1941).
*Boomtown Bill / Keep That Oil A-Rollin (Keynote, 1942).

Compilations

*Talking Union & Other Union Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, 1973)
*Their Complete General Recordings (MCA, 1996)
*Songs of Protest (Prism, 2001)
*Talking Union, Vol. 1 (Naxos, 2001)
*The Sea, The Soil & The Struggle (Naxos, 2004)

Notes

Further reading

*Cohen, Ronald D. "Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society", 1940-1970. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
*Denning, Michael. "The Cultural Front: The Laboring American Culture in the Twentieth Century". London: Verso, 2007.
*Denisoff, R. Serge. "'Take It Easy, but Take It': The Almanac Singers," "Journal of American Folklore":, vol. 83, no. 327 (1970), pp. 21-32.
*Hawes, Bess Lomax. "Sing It Pretty". Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
*Lieberman, Ronnie. "My Song is My Weapon" : People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50". Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

External links

* [http://www.geocities.com/Nashville/3448/almanac.html The Songs of the Almanac Singers]
* [http://www.mp3.com/almanac-singers/artists/8986/biography.html Almanac Singers Biography]


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