Sunday, September 2, 2012

LEGACIES OF THE MUSICAL CULTURAL FRONT: ROBESON, GUTHRIE, AND SEEGER


Harry Targ

Saturday, September 8, 2012, I will be participating in a very special conference called “Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to Working Men and Women,” at Penn State University. My introductory comments below reflect the connections between these iconic performers and the Marxist tradition, the working class, popular culture, and people’s music. It calls for a return to the “popular front” politics of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

Several key concepts in the Marxian tradition influenced the consciousness and political practice of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. First, all three were historical and dialectical materialists. They conceived of the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as fundamental to the shaping of their activities and consciousness. They were historical materialists in that they understood that the material conditions of people’s lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And they were dialectical in that they were sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.

Second, class as the fundamental conceptual tool for examining a society shaped their thinking. Increasingly they realized that class struggle was a fundamental force for social change. Given the American historical context they saw that class and race were inextricably interconnected.

Third, all three addressed a theory of imperialism which they regarded as critical to understanding international relations. Living in an age of colonialism and neo- colonialism all three performer/activists, but particularly Paul Robeson, saw imperialism as a central structural feature of relations between nations, peoples and classes. They were inspired by those resisting the yoke of foreign domination.

Fourth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger saw that community, harmony, and socialism would represent the next stage of societal development. They believed that the vision of socialism had the potential for improving the quality of life of humankind. Robeson’s experiences in the Soviet Union led him to expect socialist states to be free of the kind of racism endemic to the United States.

Fifth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger emphasized the connection between theory and practice. Each artist in his own way articulated what Robeson proclaimed in 1937 in the context of supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War that every artist must take a stand. The artist (i.e., the intellectual) must act in the context of a world of exploitation. One was either on the side of the ongoing oppressive order or on the side of change.

Armed with these insights, the three folk artist/activists committed themselves to action; action grounded in the struggles of their day. In Antonio Gramsci’s terms, they were “organic intellectuals.” They joined anti-racist, anti-colonial, labor and peace struggles. They walked picket lines, entertained Spanish Civil War loyalists, striking workers and other protesters, and sought to lend support to international socialist solidarity.

Being an organic intellectual in the 1930s and 40s, and in the case of Pete Seeger the 1940s and beyond, meant participating in what Michael Denning called “the cultural front.” The political environment of the CIO, the Communist movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles, and building the New Deal provided the social forces out of which Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger could thrive and grow. The three artists and activists--Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger--were agents and products of Marxist ideas engaged in practical political work as organic intellectuals participating in a broad cultural front.

Each artist/activist projected an image of human oneness. They saw the connections between the defense of democracy in Spain and the U.S. South and the necessity of building a peaceful and democratic post-World War II order to achieve justice for the working classes of all lands. Robeson’s consciousness was shaped by the vision of a common pentagonal chord structure in the world's folk music; a metaphor that privileges difference and unity. The musical visions of Guthrie and Seeger celebrated what was common in the human experience as well.

In sum, an implicit Marxist lens influenced the consciousness and behavior of three giants-Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. Their artistic and political work was shaped by and shaped the social movements of the period from the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond. Cultural theorist, Michael Denning referred to the connections between artists, social movements, and the political moment as a multilayered “cultural front.” And the three in linking the theory, context and practice were applying the political strategy of the “popular front.”

Finally, the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger represent a model for building contemporary mass movements in the face of economic and political crises. Over the past two years the world has seen mass mobilizations against dictatorship in Middle Eastern regimes; emerging new socialist forces in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; mass movements against wars on workers, women, and minorities in the United States; and the emergence of grassroots mobilizations, particularly the Occupy Movement, all across the North American continent. The framework of struggle—the 99 percent versus the one percent— while not expressly Marxist, can have the same animating effect on workers, youth, minorities, and women, that the songs of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger did from the 1930s to the present time.