Folk 'Em

The new Broadside boxed set resurrects the intimacy and immediacy of New York in the 1960s

Tom Paxton doesn't like to look back too long, for fear of turning to dust that disappears with the slightest gust of hot air. It is OK to glance backwards every so often, he says, but do not stare. Still, for an hour in late August, Paxton is only too happy to talk about what happened a thousand yesterdays ago, before he and his friends became entries in the history books--back when Bob Dylan was just a friend struggling on the coffeehouse circuit, musicians sang about war and race and rent, and idealists swung guitars like swords from the streets and stages. "I don't feel we were living in history," Paxton says, "but we never took any of it for granted."

Were it not for the boxed set only now arriving in stores, containing forgotten and forbidden works by the likes of Paxton, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Pete Seeger, The Fugs, and Janis Ian, Paxton would prefer to let history lie in its grave. There are new songs to write, new politicians to pick on, new fights to start. He even sings into the phone a brand-new, never-to-be-recorded composition about George W. Bush: "We had one Bush/One Bush had we/And one was more than enough for me/This Bush is a couple leaves shy of a tree/Let's leave this Bush in Texas." But, soon enough, the conversation turns back to the 1960s, to the coffeehouses and bars of Greenwich Village, and to the magazine that published and recorded and released his songs and the songs of dozens of his contemporaries.

This month, Smithsonian Folkways releases a five-disc collection of songs from Broadside magazine, which first appeared in February 1962 and continued to publish until 1988. It was born with a bang--the child of Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, who saw their publication as a vessel for "a handful of songs about our times"--and died as a whisper. Broadside disappeared after 187 issues that contained the early works of not only the aforementioned icons of topical songwriting, the first foot soldiers to carry Woody Guthrie's remains across the battlefields of Vietnam and Kent State and Mississippi, but also Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" and Lucinda Williams' very first recording, "Lafayette."

Tom Paxton performs at one of the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate in New York City.
Tom Paxton performs at one of the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate in New York City.
Bob Dylan, long before his Wallflower son would betray the name.
Bob Dylan, long before his Wallflower son would betray the name.

As Ronald Cohen writes in the boxed set's extensively documented and illustrated book, full of old Broadside articles and photographs, Cunningham and Friesen "published hundreds of songs, articles, and illustrations propagating, promoting, and helping to stimulate and prolong the modern topical song movement." They were the children of Josh White, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly; they were true believers, agitators, and idealists, clutching little more than pieces of mimeographed paper. "A good song can only do good," Woody Guthrie once said, and Cunningham and Friesen adopted it as their maxim.

For the first time, that movement comes into focus a little more clearly, especially for those of us in our 20s and 30s, those of us for whom the 1960s exist as a groovy ad campaign for an NBC miniseries. The topics here range from bomb shelters to factory strikes to Native-American dislocation to Vietnam to sex scandals to the murders of schoolchildren in church bombings; these songs are personal and political, strident and sad, loud and lo-fi. The boxed set exists as a primer: Here, for instance, is the very first recorded version of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," recorded in 1962 by the New World Singers, which featured Gil Turner on banjo and vocals and Happy Traum on guitar and vocals. Here's the previously unreleased 1962 version of Dylan performing "John Brown," back when he had to record under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt to keep from violating his Columbia Records contract. And here's Tom Paxton's long-lost "Train for Auschwitz," a song he never recorded for Elektra Records, partially because he was once told that a non-Jew had no right to write such a horrific song about the Holocaust.

But, perhaps more importantly, the box serves as a sad reminder: In an era when Jewel passes for "folk," when empty-headed pop stars can see no further than the front of the limousine on the way to the MTV Video Music Awards, The Best of Broadside provides ample evidence that once upon a hell of a long time ago, musicians gave of themselves and expected nothing in return--except, perhaps, peace, love, and fairness toward all. Sometimes, it seems that all that's left of the period are vague vestiges, people like Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco and even Wilco--musicians who exist on the fringes, out where the pop charts don't go.

"The context has totally changed," Paxton says, lamenting the death of topical songwriting. "We don't have a national emergency, a social earthquake like we did in the '60s, with the civil-rights movement and then the anti-war movement with all its permutations, with hippies and yippies and the SDS and Weathermen. It was upheaval, and a social revolution was going on. That's not going on now. That context informed what we were writing. We had topics handed to us, shoved in our faces. That's not there now.

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