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.

Folk 'Em

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."

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.

"When you have that going on, I think you do write without thinking about the market. The market was the market of ideas. It was not the record industry. I mean, I certainly had my eyes on that as well, but my idealism kept me writing the songs. You can make tens of dollars writing these songs. It's like pro bono for a law firm. You write these songs because they need to be written. Today's problems are like low-level headaches. Yes, we have an endless array of questions and issues that need to be written about, but they're not as big as civil rights or the war. They don't push all other things aside like the other things did. We don't have police dogs and fire hoses in the evening news every night. That's what it was like."

Talk to anyone who wrote and performed back then, and sooner or later, they will look back in anger--and sadness and wistfulness. Happy Traum, interviewed at his home in upstate New York, recalls the days when he would perform at civil-rights benefits around New York; he talks about first meeting Pete Seeger, who would become his "absolute mentor," and Phil Ochs; he remembers recording Dylan's "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," a song Dylan left off Freewheelin' to make room for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Traum, who edited the folk-music magazine Sing Out! from 1968-1970, refers to the period as a "bubbling cauldron," one he'd never again wish to live through--were it not for the memories of performing at the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate, sitting alongside men and women who soon enough would become legends. Paxton recalls how the Broadside gang would hang out at Ochs' apartment or at Dylan's "sleazy pad" on West 4th Street; he talks about how they'd all go see whomever was performing at the Gaslight or at the bar upstairs, Kettle of Fish, where Caruso and the Beatles co-existed peacefully on the jukebox. There, the musicians would sit all night, drinking and talking politics like a bunch of ragtag John Reeds carrying guitars and notepads. Paxton tells of the night at the Kettle of Fish when, during one protracted argument, Dylan leaned in his ear, sang a new song called "Garden of Eden," and asked Paxton what he thought of it.

"We knew that we were living in history," says Happy Traum, contradicting his old friend Tom--and, finally, echoing him. "I don't think anybody ever took it for granted. I was very aware not that it would get as big as it got, but I did know that Dylan was something other and that there was always excitement going on. We knew we were where the world was changing, and we never took it for granted. Even then, we knew. I am sure the people in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s must have known there was something special going on with art and literature when you could walk down the street and see Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Ernest Hemingway sitting in the street cafes. It was like that, just like that."


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