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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 179-206

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Reds, Whites, and the Blues:

Lawrence Gellert, "Negro Songs of Protest," and the Left-Wing Folk-Song Revival of the 1930s and 1940s

In 1936, a slim songbook of African American vernacular music was published by the American Music League, a Popular Front-affiliate of the Communist Party U.S.A. Negro Songs of Protest, as the volume was titled, included just twenty-four song transcriptions and accompanying musical arrangements. Nevertheless, the modest publication featured lyrics of black discontent and rebellion rarely encountered by a white readership. There were, among the striking compositions, verses of caustic irony and warning:

You take mah labor
An' steal mah time
Give me ol' dish pan
An' a lousy dime
'Cause I'm a nigger, dat's why

White man, white man
Sit in de shade
Heah in de hot sun
I sweat wid his spade
'Cause I'm a nigger, dat's why

I feel it comin', Cap'n
Goin' see you in Goddamn
Take mah pick an' shovel
Bury you in Debbil's lan'
'Cause I'm a nigger dat's why
("Cause I'm a Nigger")

There were also expressions of black religious disillusionment and militant worldly defiance: [End Page 179]

Sistren an' brethren
Stop foolin' wid pray (2x)
When black face is lifted
Lawd turnin' away

Yo' head tain' no apple
Fo' danglin' from a tree (2x)
Yo' body no carcass
For barbacuin' on a spree

Stand on yo' feet
Club gripped 'tween yo' hands (2x)
Spill dere blood too
Show 'em yo's is a man's
("Sistren an' Brethren")

Such lines were characteristic of the evocations of race, class, and protest collected within the songbook. Their release in print sounded a note of revolution in terms of both the culture and politics of the modern United States.1

The compiler behind the book was one Lawrence Gellert, an independent white music collector who had been documenting black protest traditions in the South for more than a decade. The younger brother of prominent radical artist Hugo Gellert, Lawrence was an active proponent of the Communist movement of the era. Since 1930, he had been contributing articles of song lyrics and commentary culled from his fieldwork to such left-wing periodicals as New Masses. With this first book publication—to be followed by a second, "Me and My Captain", in 1939—Gellert received considerable acclaim. In a short profile in 1936, Time magazine applauded the "lean, scraggly-haired New Yorker" for his skill in "collecting Negro songs that few white men have ever heard." His collection, determined the New York Times, unearthed a "new genre" of black music dealing with "the realities of Negro life." The left-wing press was even more enthusiastic. The Communist Party newspaper Daily Worker called the release of Negro Songs of Protest a "landmark in American culture." Composer Lan Adomian, in New Masses, wrote that the book featured "some of the finest examples in Negro folk music" of the day. The material, he concluded, represented an "indictment" against long-standing white ignorance and denial, a stark rebuke to "the slander that a nation of thirteen million people, reduced to peonage, is nothing more than a grand minstrel show."2

Nearly seventy years later, Lawrence Gellert's name has fallen into obscurity. More important, his impressive documentary archive of African American [End Page 180] musical protest rarely gains a hearing.3 Gellert researcher Bruce Conforth has identified close to half of the work songs, chain gang songs, hollers, and blues in the full collection as "overt songs of protest." This compares with "less than 5 percent," he concludes, in the collections of recognized predecessors and peers in the field of white research on black vernacular music. Along the same line, blues scholars Guido van Rijn and Bruce Bastin have written on the Gellert archive as a valuable "alternative source," as Bastin put it, to the canon housed in the Archive of American Folk-Song at the...


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