The Times They Aren't a Changin' | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Times They Aren't a Changin' 

Sixties American folk recordings, preserved by Broadside magazine and recently donated to UNC-Chapel Hill, are as relevant as ever during these war-torn times

Just a few more countries we've got to invade

Because a few more dollars have got to be made

Labor, big business, Congress agree

Just like they did in Germany.

At first hearing, you might think folk singer Peggy Seeger is commenting on foreign affairs, circa 2002. But the song, "Hitler Ain't Dead" (he's only hiding here) was penned by an American draft resister, Jack Warshaw, during the Vietnam War.

Seeger's recording is part of the Broadside tapes, a collection of 236 topical songs recorded by American folk singers of the 1960s, including Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Janis Ian and Richard and Mimi Farina. The original tapes were recently donated--in their entirety--to the Southern Folklife Collection (SFC) at UNC-Chapel Hill. A $22,649 grant from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences is being used to preserve and make them available to the public.

The recordings were made for Broadside magazine, a small mimeographed publication founded in 1962 by Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and husband Gordon Friesen. Some are little more than demo recordings; others are live "hootenanny" tapes and audio recordings made from television shows. Selections from the tapes were released in 2000 on a five-CD box set, The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988, on Smithsonian Folkways ("Have You Ever Written A Folk Song? I Have, I Have," The Independent, Feb. 14, 2001).

But SFC head Steve Weiss points out that the remaining 75 percent of the tapes--which, when archived, will total 250 CDs--have never been made available to the general public. As the SFC contacts the artists (many of whom are alive and still active) for details on song titles and lyrics, they're finding that many of them are excited about being able to get copies of their own recordings.

"Before Broadside, folk singers, with the exception of people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, weren't really writing their own material that much," Weiss explains. "But Broadside, in the beginning of the '60s, coincides with the beginning of the singer-songwriter movement that continues today. The interesting thing about these recordings is that the performers are taking traditional ballads and completely rewriting the lyrics."

In fact, Cunningham, a former member of the Almanac Singers, and Friesen, a left-wing journalist (who were both blacklisted during the McCarthy era) were picking up on a centuries-old tradition of topical songwriting in the naming, and mission, of their magazine. "Broadsides" frequently were songs written on the spot at an event--a hanging, for instance--that described the scene, the crowd, or the story surrounding it. The lyrics--along with the name of a familiar tune that would provide the melody--might be duplicated and sold for a few pennies as a kind of "musical journalism" or souvenir of the event.

Broadside magazine served the same purpose, but while the players and particulars may have changed, there is timelessness to their subjects. There's Richard Farina's recording of "Death Row," in which he laments the racial disparities of the death penalty:

If you're white you got some chance to beat this death row

If you're white you might get loose from off this death row

But a man that's partly black, partly dark chocolate brown

He ain't got an earthly chance to beat this death row.

In Tom Paxton's "What a Friend We Have in Hoover" (former FBI head, J. Edgar), you could substitute Ashcroft (attorney general, John) without missing a beat:

What a friend we have in Hoover

Freedom has no truer friend

Is your thinking left of center?

He will get you in the end.

And Paxton's close friend, the late Phil Ochs, made an unvarnished point about America's relationships with the rest of the world in a Canadian interview: "I think American foreign policy is at best adventurous and over ambitious, and at worst, criminal," he observes. "We're being very pushy in very ambiguous situations, and causing a lot of death."

"Phil was probably the best-known regular writer for Broadside," recalls Patrick Sky, a contemporary of Ochs who has lived in Chapel Hill since 1989. "But for a long time, he couldn't get a record published. When I was in New York, Phil was playing at basket houses [coffeehouses that passed the hat to pay performers]. For a lot of these people like Peter LaFarge, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Ernie Marrs, who did a song called 'Plastic Jesus,' Broadside was the first time they ever got published."

Sky himself has a number of recordings in the Broadside collection on topics including unemployment, taxes and racial oppression. In "Talkin' Indian Blues," he recounts a visit to an Indian reservation, with native dance performances and a souvenir shop:

Savage rights and savage ways

Just don't make it in modern days

This is the twentieth century

We've got a better god called prefabrication.

These kind of brow-furrowing sentiments don't exactly fit alongside Shania Twain's newest single today. But it wasn't a lot easier in the '60s, either.

"I'll be honest with you: To be young, it was thrilling to get published in Broadside," Sky says. "But it was definitely not a popular magazine--it was sort of a writer's magazine for writers. Most of the people who subscribed also sent in songs and tried to write for it."

They would do so by visiting the Broadside "office"--Cunningham and Friesen's apartment near Columbia University--to record their songs on a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. The couple would decide which songs they wanted to print and transcribe the words and music.

"There was a little room in the back," Sky says of the informal sessions. "I'd sit at the typewriter and mess around and drink tea with them." Evidence of that informality remains on the tapes; at times, a pet parakeet can be heard in the background, along with the sound of typing.

"Gordon and Sis were honest, straightforward and easy to deal with," Sky says. "They were enthusiastic; they were fans, really. I thought of them as people who were very interested in what was going on, and put their time into it. Everybody appreciated them."

Broadside magazine continued up until 1988, although Sky's interest in topical music had waned long before then.

"I switched to Irish music in 1972 and never looked back," he admits. "I completely lost interest; everything went very commercial and it wasn't fun anymore." He discovered the Irish uillean pipes during a 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival performance by Liam O. Flynn, and went on to play and build them. In 1973, Sky and singer Lisa Null founded Innisfree Records, which remains in operation today as Celtic powerhouse label Green Linnet. Sky moved to Asheville and later to the Triangle to earn a folklore degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Today, he doctors computers for the North Carolina League of Municipalities when he's not making music.

"The record business is like television--very sponsor-oriented," Sky says. "A good satirist like Tom Lehrer would have a hard time getting started today." While he'll occasionally listen to a song his son might bring to his attention, Sky is rarely captivated. "Most songs I hear today are 'I' songs--sophomoric angst. I've never been too interested in that."

Still, there are contemporary topical songs and protest songs being written, although they have just as hard a time attracting wide attention as they did in the days of Broadside.

"There've always been people who have objected--always," says Peggy Seeger from her home in Asheville. "It was dangerous in the early '50s to object, and it's beginning to be dangerous again to object. But people wrote songs right through the '50s and sang songs right through the '50s--it's just that you didn't hear them. And the time will come when people are going to start to hear these things sung to them again. They'll have to." EndBlock

More by David Potorti


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