Now that the Summer Olympics are complete, all minds can turn to politics and the November election. This article is not about the election, although politics are the focus. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released yet another box set Sept. 5. The box is similar to the acclaimed 1997 reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
The Best of Broadside 1962?1988 contains five CDs that hold more than five hours of music. There are 89 songs, all of them folk, and each one takes on a different topic. “Topical songs have been an important part of America’s music since early Colonial days. Many people throughout the country today are writing topical songs, and the only way to find out if a song is good is to give it wide circulation and let the singers and listeners decide for themselves,” the liner notes from Broadside No. 1 explain. “Broadside’s aim is not so much to select and decide, as to circulate as many songs as possible and get them out as quickly as possible.”
Continuing on in the liner notes, Anthony Seeger waxes historical. “In Shakespeare’s time, a ‘broadside’ was a sheet of paper on which songwriters published their latest songs, sold in the streets to eager buyers who would savor the boldness of a writer and the scandalousness of the material. Broadsides were sung in streets, pubs, homes, often to familiar melodies. They were a combination of alternative newspaper, supermarket tabloid and poetry.”
Broadside magazine began in a small, rent-controlled apartment in New York City following the persecution of the American Left during the 1950s, Seeger proceeds. It functioned similarly to the broadsides sold in the streets of London hundreds of years earlier. “Even though radio, television and the entertainment industry were reaching more homes than ever before, none of them would present the songs being written by a new, young generation of songwriters,” Seeger writes.
For 26 years, Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gordon Friesen published Broadside. Its beginnings were humble, and its end was nearly the same. Cunningham and Friesen originally used a mimeograph machine discarded by the American Labor Party as their printing press. The first issue came out in 1962; the last issue was printed late in 1988. Cunningham and Friesen’s living conditions had improved, if only slightly, and the final issue was a slick offset-press affair.
Both born in rural Oklahoma, Friesen became a journalist and Cunningham a music instructor. Both were members of the Communist Party. They met in March 1941 and were married in July the same year. By November the “Red Scare” had torn apart Oklahoma’s communists, so fearing arrest, the couple fled to New York City. Friesen was shadowed by the FBI and eventually blacklisted in 1948, launching a decade of extreme poverty. Work for “radicals” was scarce, so with two newborn daughters Cunningham was forced to fight nearly endless battles with the welfare department.
Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds provided the Broadside spark, but neither could bring the project to fruition. The task fell to Cunningham and Friesen, instead—still radicals, unbowed and unbroken in the face of adversity.
Pete Seeger supplied a Revere tape recorder. Songwriters visited the apartment to record songs, which Cunningham then transcribed for publication. Later, Moses Asch’s Folkways label began issuing Broadside LPs, and his recording studio was used for some recordings.
Eventually, the tapes—though some are lost forever—wound up at the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Smithsonian Folkways box sets always display plenty of love. Attention to recording quality is a given, though even with some less-than-perfect originals to work with the end result pleases, fidelity-wise.
The packaging is the kicker. Expect Grammy Awards in both the liner note and design categories. A complete history of Broadside magazine is included, along with comments from the musicians involved. Song lyrics are obviously included. Brief profiles of each song and its artist complete the reading assignment. A vast history of America’s musical past is revealed in the notes, and the box is currently sitting at No. 4 on Amazon’s list of top-selling educational institution purchases.
Civil rights, nuclear threats, war, immigrants, labor, education and even the environment—each has a place in the songs of Broadside. Famous names such as Bob Dylan, Malvina Reynolds, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Nina Simone, Janis Ian, The Fugs and even Lucinda Williams appear alongside lesser recognized talents like Sammy Walker, Chris Gaylord, Elaine White, Thom Parrott and a host of others. Even a cursory listen will make you think; deeper exploration might make you angry.
There’s even a local slant. Charles Edward Artman was a common sight on Salt Lake City’s streets several decades ago. Hair and flag-flying Charlie Brown, as he was known, rode through the streets on his bicycle, a curious and eccentric individual many folks may remember. At the time, his record Teton Tea Party was nearly as prevalent as Charlie. Copies were everywhere. These days the record is a little harder to find, and according to the liner notes Charlie now lives in Florida. He turns up on disc four with “The Ballad of Earl Durand,” a true story of a Western outlaw who was arrested for buying furs without a license in Powell, Utah.
Durand, after a second arrest for poaching, was sentenced to six months in jail. Mountain man that he was, he couldn’t stand jail. He broke out and headed for the Wind River Mountains. When the sheriff came to get him, Durand killed him. When the National Guard came to get Durand, he killed two of them. Then he ran out of ammunition. Durand returned to Powell because he had money in the bank. As the story goes, he was caught at the bank and wound up killing himself. Charlie Brown didn’t write the song; a guy named Jack Langan receives that credit, but Charlie Brown did record it.
One song out of 89 hardly does justice to the set. Since it is an election year, the spotlight should go to “Little Boxes,” written by Malvina Reynolds and published in Broadside in 1962. It perfectly describes the masses who live in their little boxes made of ticky-tacky, which all look exactly the same. Also of interest is Tom Paxton’s “What Did You Learn in School Today?” Lyrics: “I learned our country must be strong/It’s always right and never wrong/Our leaders are the finest men/And we elect them time and again/And that’s what I learned in school today.”