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  • The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA 1939–1956 by Aaron J. Leonard
  • Braham Dabscheck
Aaron J. Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA 1939–1956 (London: Repeater Books, 2020). pp. 322. £12.99 paper.

This is a book that delves into the dark side of America; of those who lurk in the shadows and make their mark by spying, informing on and worsening, if not destroying, the lives of others who are seen as being beyond the pale. Aaron J. Leonard examines how various arms of the state set about destroying the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), with a particular emphasis on folk singers who had been or were believed to have been members of the CPUSA and/or had "leftist" views critical of aspects of America, in the period 1939 to 1956. Leonard's major focus is on witch hunts conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into folk singers.

Leonard's reference points are the major changes in geo-politics of this era – World War II, the Cold War, China going communist and the Korean War; legislative measures to curtail the CPUSA and leftists; the evolving stance of and schisms within the CPUSA in response to both of these pressures; the activities of the FBI and other state agencies in denouncing and maintaining surveillance of (suspected) communists and leftists; and the ways in which folk singers and others responded to these pressures.

Much of Leonard's narrative draws on FBI files where agents and their informers are involved in working their way through fogs of memory trying [End Page 221] to determine whether or not a person of interest had been a member of the CPUSA, attended meetings or meet with someone who was a known "red," the content of their conversations and whether they had been critical about American society – such things as inequality, racism, expressed support for unions – and had said something about supporting Russia during World War II.

The major fear of witch-hunters and the consistent object of legislation to curtail communists was that they would employ violence in an effort to overthrow the government. The FBI compiled a Security Index of suspected communists and leftists who would be interned, as had been done to Japanese Americans during World War II, if America was invaded during the height of these Cold War fears. Leonard reports that, in July 1950, 11,930 were on this list, of over 21,000 people who had been investigated.

Leonard begins his account with brief biographical material on folk singers Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, Sis Cunningham, Millard Lampell, Paul Robeson, who also toured the world's leading opera houses, Josh White, Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), Aunt Molly Jackson, Bess Lomax Hawes, Ruth Alice "Ronnie" Gilbert, Freddie Hellerman, Burl Ives (of acting fame) and Cisco Houston. He intersperses his broader account with a chronological examination of the various ways in which the FBI maintained surveillance of these artists, acted (especially spreading rumours that they were reds or had been reds in the past) to restrict and limit their careers and instances where they were interviewed by the FBI and asked to "rat" on others and interrogated by Congressional or State Department officials. Leonard's presentation of this material is enlivened with contemporary photos and reproductions of FBI file notes.

These artists spent these years shielding themselves from such attacks and disassociating themselves from the CPUSA. The problem for the witch-hunters was that while they may have been members of the party in the past or were more generally progressive, they never participated or indulged in violence or plots to overthrow America. They devoted their lives to entertaining and making music.

Leonard points out on several occasions that the FBI had negative impacts on the lives and careers of these folk singers. An epilogue dovetails neatly with his introductory material where he discusses what happened to them in later years, even though they were still subject to FBI surveillance. The overwhelming majority had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1839-3039
Print ISSN
0023-6942
Pages
pp. 221-223
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-27
Open Access
No
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