Tuesday, January 6, 2009

National Fear

Americans think of ourselves as the brash explorers who braved the wild frontier to build our nation. But our history is also sprinkled with times when the dominant emotion was fear. We pride ourselves on the freedom of expression, but when these moments of national fear occur, this is one of the first freedoms to be sacrificed. And musicians are often affected.

On of these moments of national fear occurred following World War II. We emerged victorious from the war. We debuted the most powerful weapon on earth. And it seemed that the world must do our bidding. But this feeling of hubris was dashed in 1949. Suddenly, China fell to a communist revolution. And then, the Russians tested an atomic bomb of their own. How could this have happened? Americans wanted it to be somebody’s fault. And Senator Joseph McCarthy was there to fan the flames, and play on the fear of communism. The blacklist followed.

The Weavers: Kisses Sweater Than Wine


In the years leading up to the war, however, things looked different. Still in the throes of the Great Depression, it seemed reasonable to Americans that capitalism had failed, and perhaps communism was a better way, or at least involved ideas that might help. So it is hardly surprising that musicians who grew to adulthood in these years would espouse communist ideas. Four of these musicians, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, formed The Weavers in 1948. The songs of The Weavers were deliberately nonpolitical. Seeger and Hayes had been in The Almanac Singers prior to this, and that group’s political material had cost them much of their popularity. But in 1948, it was still acceptable for musicians to keep their politics to themselves, and The Weavers were a hit.

This success would only last for four years. After 1949, the climate began to change, and by 1952, it longer mattered that The Weaver’s songs were apolitical. The members of the group were called to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and they refused to do so. Gigs disappeared, and The Weavers broke up. Separately, they continued to perform, but it would be hard going for many years afterwards, and none of them ever enjoyed the same level of popularity again.

Paul Robeson: Ol‘ Man River


Like The Weavers, Paul Robeson had espoused left-wing political views in his younger days. He was also an activist, and a black man who stood up for his rights. But Robeson was not one to silence himself. Where The Weavers decided to avoid political material, Robeson decided to continue to speak out. It meant that he was blacklisted earlier. Robeson appeared before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1950. He did not name names, but he did defend his own activities and beliefs. It cost him his career. His passport was revoked, so he could not even pursue a career overseas, as some did. One of the great American voices was silenced.

Dixie Chicks: Not Ready to Make Nice


Another episode of national fear began on September 11, 2001. What happened that day was truly terrible. But the nation’s reaction included some lashing out that had nothing to do with terrorism.

The Dixie Chicks had been a hot act in country music, sending albums to the top of both the country and pop charts. Until Natalie Maines spoke up between songs, at a London concert three days before the Invasion of Iraq. “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”, she said. Suddenly, the Dixie Chicks found that their music could no longer be played on country radio. There were protests where their albums were destroyed. And, of course, sales of their albums dried up.

So now, they have to try to make it as an alternative act, cultivating an entirely new audience. Their first album in this vein sold over a million copies, but that was quite a comedown for them. The jury is still out.