Thursday, 27 March 2008

Sing Out! (Or, Don't)

Probably the most famous American folk music magazine, Sing Out evolved out of an organization called People's Artists. People's Artists, Inc. changed its name to Sing Out, Inc. in 1956, and informant passed on a letter expressing this intent to the FBI. The FBI spent months in 1957 trying to figure out if the name change had in fact occurred. It was later confirmed through letters sent by Sing Out, Inc. to the U.S. Government Copyright Office, who then forwarded copies to the FBI. Their interest in the organization was Communist influence or affiliations. People's Artists had been "cited as a Communist front" by the California Committee on Un-American Activities, and that information was sufficient enough to begin an investigation.

A. Connection with Communist Party

Informants, who are familiar with certain phases of Communist Party activity in the New York area, were contacted during August and September, 1957, and none could furnish any information that the Communist Party (CP) is sponsoring or promoting Sing Out, Inc.
The special agents in New York then listed a series of "CP Affiliations of Individuals Connected with Sing Out, Inc." Most of the names mentioned to this day remain classified:
On September 26, 1952, T-5 reported that [...] has been for many years a well-known entertainer at many CP affairs. T-5 has no factual knowledge that [...] is a member of the CP; however, he feels reasonably sure that if he is not a member, he is a strong sympathizer. T-5 stated that [...] is a singer and a piano player and that all of his songs are slanted to suit the particular Communist affair at which he is performing. T-5 stated that he remembers [...] back in the early thirties attending and entertaining at various Communist functions.
One of the few declassified names in the file is that of John Lautner, a CP organizer, who informed the FBI that a certain performer "entertained children of CP functionaries." Another is a mention of Earl Robinson, songwriter ("Joe Hill," "The Ink is Black, the Page Is White," and "Ballad for Americans") and CP member.

In January 1958, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) received a subscription solicitation letter from Sing Out, signed by Pete Seeger. The letter read:
Dear Friend:

I thought you would be interested to know that the little magazine, SING OUT, has been blossoming in recent months.

Articles of original research, such as "Songs of the Woman Suffrage Movement" have received acclaim from many different quarters. Discussion pieces, like Sam Hinton's "The Singer of Folksongs and His Conscience" have made the magazine livelier than ever.

And the songs have been maintaining an increasingly high quality. It is a matter of historical fact that a number of fine songs, such as "Goodnight Irene," "Tzena, Tzena," "Sixteen Ton," "So Long," and others were printed in SING OUT, or its predecessor PEOPLE'S SONGS, long before they sold millions on the hit parade.

I'm willing to bet that some of the songs in our recent issues, such as "Dr. Freud," "Housewive's Lament," or "Knickerbocker Line" will sooner or later also be known by millions.

During the past year I've sung, in person, for around 200,000 people -- mostly in schools and colleges. After each concert I've had dozens of requests as to where someone could get this or that song -- and nine times out of ten I find I am referring to SING OUT as the only source for the song in question.

The increased news in SING OUT also makes it of value; news of records and books (every issue of SING OUT contains a complete listing of all folk music records issued in the previous three months), and radio and TV programs and anywhere else that folk and topical songs make news.

Looking forward to getting your subscription,


Pete Seeger

P.S. - SING OUT subscription rates are: One Year - $2.00 -- Two Years - $3.00.
In forwarding the letter to J. Edgar Hoover, NACA wrote: "The enclosed material is forwarded for your information and any action deemed appropriate. No action thereon is being taken by this office."

The FBI's investigation into Sing Out was formally closed in 1958, but the magazine's name was to appear sporadically in the FBI's files after that, such as in 1960 when U.S. Customs impounded a shipment from Peking, China intended for Sing Out that contained the books Folk Songs of China, People's Music, and Research on Music.

Also in 1960, one upset subscriber from Canada felt the need to write a letter expressing his concern to the FBI:
Feb. 9, 1960

Dear Sirs;

I recently subscribed to the publication "Sing Out," and after having read the first copy, I have the suspicion that it might be "Pink" in nature.

I had originally understood that the magazine was a collection of universal Folk Songs, but it also has a number of articles and editorials.

Should you confirm my suspicions, would you be good enough to advise me how I might have my name stricken from their records, and my subscription cancelled.

Looking forward to your earliest reply, I remain,

Cordially yours,

/s/ [...]
The return letter from J. Edgar Hoover read: "Your letter dated February 9, 1960, has been received, and the interest which prompted your communication is indeed appreciated. While I would like to be of assistance to you, the function of the FBI as a fact-gathering agency does not extend to furnishing evaluation or comments concerning the character or integrity of any individual, publication or organization. I regret, therefore, that I am unable to comment upon the publication you mentioned."

The last substantive mention came when a teen-aged son in Baltimore in April 1960 showed his father (an employee of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory) a copy of The People's Song Book, published by Sing Out, the book found its way to the Director of the FBI. The Baltimore field office, however, had no information on Sing Out, Inc. The office photocopied select pages of the book, including the back cover:
This collection is a must for anyone seriously interested in American people's music."

"A collection of songs that really means something."
HAROLD ROME, composer

"Next to resurrecting and keeping alive the memory of the people who helped build America--Tom Paine, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, John Brown, Lincoln, Debs and FDR, and the hosts they led--is the assembling and publishing of the songs that were the inspiration of generations of Americans."
ROCKWELL KENT, artist and author

"A long-awaited record of a kind of American folk music which should long ago have entered the consciousness of the American people."
LEONARD BERNSTEIN, conductor and composer

"The new People's Song Book is something that we have been needing for many years. To collect the main freedom, topical, union and folk songs together in one book is a real service to America and Americans. Boni and Gaer, as well as People's Songs, are to be congratulated on the fine selection and presentation of this book."
EARL ROBINSON, composer and folk singer

"THE PEOPLE'S SONG BOOK is a collection of songs of, by and for the people. It is directly concerned with the problems of today and should help to make us aware that music is a part of everything we do in our life."
NORMAN LLOYD, composer and Director of Education, Juilliard School of Music

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