Links on the chain

Broadside published songs by writers who wanted to change the world -- including a young Bob Dylan. A five-CD set marches through the great folk mag's past.

Published September 19, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

It's August 1965. The Beatles are set to perform at Shea Stadium, but I'm stuck at summer camp in upstate New York, a few miles from the farm that would later host Woodstock. I'm sitting under a big oak tree with an equally outsized acoustic guitar. I'm learning to stretch my 11-year-old fingers into the awkward shape of a G chord from the camp's music counselor, a college student orphaned a decade earlier when the government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for leaking atomic secrets to the Russians. In the lyrics of Phil Ochs, we were building another link on the chain.

"Links on the Chain," which I learned to sing (if not quite play) that summer, wasn't your typical protest song. While others attacked oppressive governments, laws that need changing and assorted social inequities, this one targeted the labor movement for abandoning its progressive principles. Ochs himself was not able to stay on course either, but his early work stands as a monument to those op-ed columnists of song, people who knew and believed things and made it their duty as soldiers of conscience to convince others. "Now it's only fair to ask you boys, which side are you on?" sang Ochs. He might as well have been challenging the whole artistic community around him.

As silly as that question might sound to a 21st century pop performer, for whom choosing sides means shilling for either Coke or Pepsi, the Greenwich Village folk singers of the day were all, to one degree or another, on the left. (Ochs later etched the dividing line for '60s political conviction in the scathing "Love Me, I'm a Liberal.") Starting in 1963, as thousands of young people repeatedly gathered in Washington and other cities to speak out for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, singers like Ochs, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Pat Sky, Eric Andersen, Judy Collins and Joan Baez took the podium and spread the news their way. They weren't consciously positioning themselves as a marketing strategy, buying credibility with a little pro bono service to the cause, they were following through on the impulse that had drawn them to make music in the first place, building links on the chain fed them by Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson and others.

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"Links on the Chain" opens "The Best of Broadside 19621988," five CDs of music from the recorded archives of Broadside, a magazine that began publishing the words and music of topical folk songs just as they were needed to fuel one of the great grass-roots political movements of the 20th century. A youthquake on a collision course with good old boys like Burl Ives and Theodore Bikel and button-down stylists like the Kingston Trio, intellectuals with guitars became the bards of conscience. Let Peter, Paul and Mary score the hits: Music's acoustic missionaries were scribbling their news songs to change the world, not sell records.

Like many small publishing ventures, Broadside was a labor of love that could barely pay its bills (yet it eked out a two-decade existence, with a brief reprise). But idealists willing to sacrifice their lives for a worthy idea can accomplish a lot, and founders Sis Cunningham and the late Gordon Friesen never lost sight of their mission "to distribute ... songs in which the 'commercial music world' had little or no interest." They published the mimeographed magazine from a series of Manhattan apartments, where they hosted monthly visits by young songwriters eager to see their work in print. Supplicants, who included some of the greatest poets of a generation, would sing into the couple's tape recorder and Cunningham would transcribe the best of them for the next month's issue.

Soon, Broadside began releasing records, some made in real studios, others using the lo-fi apartment office archives. If the 89 songs that make up this collection come from diverse sources (and sound it), the simplicity of the music -- anything involving more than a guitar and an untrained voice sticks out -- keeps the audio inconsistency from being a distraction. You won't have any problem hearing the voices here. You want to test your speakers? Get a Sting album.

Following the similar (but less topical) "Sing Out!" Broadside disseminated songs the way it had been done before records became the lingua franca. For 50 cents an issue, anyone could learn an evening's worth of new tunes, with words from last week's newspaper headlines and melodies that probably came from some old English ballad -- as duly annotated in the box's book-length liner notes, which also contain complete lyrics to every song and even the newspaper clippings that inspired them.

(I'll leave the obvious preludes to hip-hop sampling and MP3 file sharing to any musicology or media student in need of a thesis topic. Help yourself. But be careful: In one of the set's most affecting songs, "But If I Ask Them," Sis Cunningham takes up the cause of Aunt Molly Jackson, an Appalachian woman whose songs were sung far and wide without bringing any relief to the harsh poverty of her life. "No one thought to wonder whose [song]/Here it was for them to use," sings Cunningham. "The song became no longer mine." Maybe Metallica should learn that one for the next Napster court hearing.)

Collectively, this music provides an unsentimental education about inconceivable catastrophes ("My Oklahoma Home [It Blowed Away]," "The Ballad of Martin Luther King"), monumental wrongs (racism, the nuclear threat, capitalist exploitation, the draft, the war, sexism) and courageous efforts to right them (like Paxton's "Ain't That News"). In our time, when knowledge of the past evaporates faster than instant messages on AOL, many of the subjects and events are so far off in the wasteland of times past that they might as well have never happened. Like the social crisis of interracial dating. The 15-year-old Janis Ian's previously unreleased first recording (credited, as a Broadside in-joke on a Dylan alias, to "Blind Girl Grunt") of "Society's Child" is here, in a 1966 version titled "Baby, I've Been Thinking." Of course, a climactic capitulation to prejudice makes it the only protest song in memory to give up and do the wrong thing ("One of these days ... [things] must remain"). Maybe its true cultural value is for the endorsement of pass-the-buck irresponsibility.

The songs bring the forgotten past to enduring life. In "Ballad of William Worthy," Ochs sings of a 1961 incident in which an American journalist was jailed upon his return from Castro's Cuba, a place U.S. citizens were -- and, technically, still are -- barred from visiting. Writing before the birth of Elian Gonzalez' parents, Ochs nails the entire absurdity of the government's position in two lines: "It is strange to hear the State Department say/You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay." Peter La Farge's tragic "Ballad of Ira Hayes" notes how selective America can be about its heroes; the resonant profile of a Native American later became a hit for Johnny Cash. Seeger, who to this day remains an unreconstructed protest singer, details an obscure and highly entertaining bit of history in Malvina Reynolds' deliciously witty "Do as the Doukhobors Do." Where else could you learn about five 19th century women, Russian immigrants to Canada, who expressed their objections to the nation's educational policies by attending a speech by the prime minister in the buff?

"The Best of Broadside" is such a mother lode that beyond fine recordings of the era's topical standards -- Reynolds' "What Have They Done to the Rain," Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," Paxton's "What Did You Learn in School Today," Matthew Jones' "Hell No, I Ain't Gonna Go" -- that many of the tracks that could have been omitted are still museum-quality, like "Song for Patty," a sympathetic 1974 number about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst that sounds a lot like Dylan but is credited to one Sammy Walker. (Another Walker contribution, "Catcher in the Rye," is even more Dylanesque. He also gets points for singing the version of Ochs' loving Woody Guthrie tribute, "Bound for Glory," here.) Ochs' heart-wrenching "Changes," a non-topical emotional outpouring that doesn't really belong here, is included in a tender live version that could well serve as the era's epilogue.

Even the post-dated songs warrant their place in such glorious company. Deborah Silverstein and the New Harmony Sisterhood Band's "Draglines" defies its 1984 vintage with the finely woven harmonies of Celtic folk singing to lodge a strong, not strident, protest against strip mining. Although a dubious bow to star power would seem the only explanation for why Lucinda Williams' "Lafayette," a good-times travelogue that was indeed published in Broadside in 1979, is here, the liner notes make its inclusion out to be a courtesy to Cunningham. (Thankfully, Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," which Friesen thought enough of lyrically to put it in the magazine, did not receive equal consideration.)

The biggest star in Broadside's pages, and for a time one of the magazine's most ardent supporters, was a mysterious young Midwesterner with a Woody Guthrie fixation known, for contractual reasons (namely he had one or two elsewhere), as Blind Boy Grunt. While Bob Dylan's literal presence in this set consists of two performances ("John Brown" and "Ballad of Donald White") and four compositions sung by others, in a sense "The Best of Broadside" is all about him. His arrival, influence and departure from the topical song scene each made a crucial difference in the lives of these artists.

The earliest recording of a Dylan composition, a 1962 rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind" by the New World Singers, is sung in the old way -- handsomely, evenly, with idealism buoying what in the author's own voice would bite and sneer with the dawning anger of a new generation. Seeger himself walks the line on a 1963 version of "Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," singing out with conviction but little emotion, letting Dylan's lyrics speak for themselves in a way their clenched-jaw author never would.

Dylan, and all those influenced by him, quickly abandoned the traditional troubadour's twinned faces of smiling good humor and dolorous tragedy to indict injustice and hypocrisy with cutting sarcasm, indignant anger and the obliterating belief that the world was about to change if they had anything to say about it. Then Dylan released "Like a Rolling Stone" and pulled off his end-of-the-innocence electrification at Newport in the summer of '65. (Seeger, making a famously myopic gaffe in an otherwise clear-eyed career, literally wanted to pull out the electric plug.) The folkies who loved him for singing about Hattie Carroll, Davey Moore and "Masters of War" saw him as a traitor, abandoning the righteous cause for something as trivial as artistic vision or, worse, commercial ambition. Whose back pages were those? Like hardcore punk rock years later, commercial marginalization wasn't a hazard, it was a trademark of quality. If a lot of people liked you, how good could you be?

Dylan moved on, in part by honing the blade of sarcasm and irony that had been a tool of many a protest songwriter into a far more dangerous weapon. Humor, from bitter mockery to lighthearted amusement, was wielded well by protest singers, and this collection offers plenty of examples. Reynolds, who wrote, and here sings, the classic "Little Boxes," a wry commentary on conformity and suburbia, finds urban decay just as rich. "The Faucets Are Dripping," an anti-landlord screed, has witty couplets like "The reservoir's drying, because it's supplying/The faucets that drip in New York." Peggy Seeger's 1970 feminist work song, "Gonna Be an Engineer," makes pointed fun of the clichis that kept women underpaid and underemployed. Ernie Marrs raised a stink at the time with the jocular irreverence of "Plastic Jesus," but the Fugs ("Kill for Peace") and others really pushed the limits of ironic detachment. (Check "The Willing Conscript," Paxton's deadpan depiction of a soldier asking to learn to kill and maim, sung here by Seeger.)

Given the subject matter, it took real poets to keep a straight face and not succumb to deadly earnestness or ineffectual anger. Paxton sings "Train for Auschwitz" ("The passengers condemned to die/But no crime have they done") as if the Holocaust was news in 1963. Likewise, the piercing Canadian soprano Bonnie Dobson's "Take Me for a Walk," an anti-nuclear song also known as "Morning Dew," sinks into glum ponderousness that could only be deflated by the ingenious sarcasm of Tom Lehrer, the singing Harvard math professor who kept a safe and apparently intentional distance from the folk movement. Even Ochs' previously unreleased "Freedom Riders," while as commendable in sentiment as any tune here, is blunt and amateurish. Leave it to the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a singing civil rights activist prominently featured on Disc Five, to let anger ring in the pseudo-spiritual "Nothing but His Blood," an agit-prop singalong that couldn't have failed to get fists pumping back in the day.

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It's August 1964. The late summer haze, how the Yankees are doing, cute beatnik girls I'll never see again, a planned overnight trip to a nearby ski lodge and thoughts of the impending school year blow away as news filters into camp about the KKK's brutal murders of three young Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Two of the victims were from New York, and a couple of the counselors knew one of them, Andy Goodman, pretty well.

We had sung the songs and knew the battle that was raging, but what we did not truly understand was how ordinary people, people we knew, were willing to die so that others they would never meet might move one step closer to freedom. The songs became personal and very, very real.

It's April 1965. I'm in Washington, protesting the war with thousands of other new lefties (and my mom). We chant "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez sing. I run into kids I know from camp. We know that our fight is different than, say, the Freedom Riders, or the Wobblies, the early trade unionists or the victims of the HUAC blacklist, but we know it is also the same. We know all the words to their songs -- they are our songs -- and we sing them, proud and strong, guided by the belief that we are part of a chain and each song is a link in it.

By Ira Robbins

Ira Robbins is the editor of "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" and a 40-year veteran of rock journalism. He lives in New York with his wife, cat and records.

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