Tag Archives: Daniel Wolff

How Does It Feel? An Alternative American History, Told With Folk Music

Daniel Wolff | Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 | Harper| June 2017 | 18 minutes (4,937 words) 

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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An alien way of life.

You could say the silence started in Calumet in 1913. Word spread that the doors opened inward, that no one was to blame. What followed was a great quiet, a hundred years of agreed-upon untruth.

Or you could say it began just afterward, during the patriotic rush of the First World War and the Palmer Raids that followed. The Wobblies were crushed, the call for a workers’ alternative stilled.

Or you could say it began after the Second World War. If you see the two global conflicts as a single long realignment of power, then after America emerged as a superpower, its century-long Red Scare kicked back in with a vengeance. That’s how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saw it. She traced the “hysterical and fear laden” atmosphere of the late 1940s back to when she was a union maid visiting Joe Hill in prison. “Now,” she said, “it is part of the American tradition.” In other words, once the nation of immigrants had defined itself, had determined an American Way, it also established the opposite: an Un-American Way.

In 1918, it was the U.S. Senate’s Overman Committee investigating Bolsheviks. In 1930, the Fish Committee looked into William Z. Foster and other communist influences. Eight years later, it was the establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which continued to operate through the fifties. “The real issue,” as HUAC’s first chairman, Martin Dies, put it, was “between Americanism on the one hand and alienism on the other.”

No one did more to define the Un-American than J. Edgar Hoover. His career began in 1917 jailing “disloyal aliens” as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department. Soon Hoover was in charge of carrying out the Palmer Raids. By 1924, he was head of the nation’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he appeared before the Senate Internal Security Committee in 1948, he testified to “some thirty-five years of infiltration of an alien way of life in what we have been proud to call our constitutional republic.” That math put the beginning of the infiltration—and the silence—in 1913.

Hoover testified as the Popular Front was making one last national effort. Henry Wallace, former vice president under FDR, had mounted a third-party run for the presidency. Seeing little difference between Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey, Wallace vowed to establish “the century of the common man.” That included expanded health care, the nationalization of the energy industry, and cooperation with Russia instead of Cold War. Attacking what he called the Red Scare “witch hunt,” Wallace proclaimed, “those who fear communism lack faith in democracy.”

What was left of the Popular Front rallied around him. Alan Lomax headed up a “musical desk” and brought in Guthrie, Seeger, Hays, and others. People’s Songs churned out tunes, including a fiddle-and-guitar blues by Guthrie: “The road is rocky, but it won’t be rocky long / Gonna vote for Wallace: he can righten all our wrongs.” Read more…