Delivering a radical broadside

 

Broadside was a small radical underground magazine which first emerged in New York in 1962. Produced on a mimeograph machine discarded by the American Labour Party, this extraordinary publishing effort brought the words and music of topical songs literally onto the streets. It was a unique coming together of paper, staples and some genius and it lasted, against the odds, for 26 years.

Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesan lived with their two daughters, Jane and Aggie, in the Frederick Douglass Housing Project on West 104th Street in Manhattan. Engaging in any sort of business activity was banned in the project and so they took to sneaking the songs out in a baby's pram.

But there were also more pressing reasons for secrecy. Both Cunningham and Friesen had been blacklisted in the 1940s and they remained cautious about something as "un-American" as publishing protest songs. Songs, they knew well, could be very powerful indeed. And perhaps others knew it too.

This was happening at a time when US society was changing radically. The end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s marked a period of self-examination for a country with many serious issues to be resolved. There were still many citizens prepared to be openly critical, and perhaps most passionate among them were the singers of songs.

The struggle for civil rights, the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the level of poverty united many in what ultimately became an effective movement. And at the beating heart of that movement was singing, the folk/topical song sometimes leading, sometimes following, but always bolstering the cause.

The idea was simple enough. In following the example of their 17th-century predecessors, Cunningham and Friesen adopted perhaps the oldest surefire method available: a simple songsheet available on street corners. It was a sudden and direct way of getting a song from the writer to any amount of willing singers. A song which appeared in the afternoon might, somewhere, become a rousing anthem on that very same evening. A new song might become a folk song overnight. Strange to think it could ever work in 1960s New York - but it did.

Among the songs first published in Broadside was Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind.

The first run was 300 copies and it cost 35 cents. The first editorial announced: "Broadside may never publish a song that could be called a folk song. But let us remember that many of our best folk songs were topical songs at their inception."

This was a reference to the folk boom which was already up and running and the fact that some of its adherents were fiercely protective of their patch. And not only were the Broadside writers considered a tad too radical for radio, they were also - some of them - too radical for the venerable folkies.

The new Smithsonian Folkways collection, The Best of Broadside, is therefore something of a historical document. Subtitled Anthems of the American Under- ground, this is a five-CD set which tells the tale of both the magazine and its offshoot record label.

Produced by Jed Place, it features 89 songs from the Folkways collection, the Broadside label and some tracks released by central artists who recorded on other labels. There are some performances from the 1970s and 1980s, but the bulk of the material comes from the 1960s - the period when protest music began to make itself heard.

Bob Dylan was one of Broadside's star turns, and he is represented here by the Ballad of Donald White, the story of a Seattle convict who is released because of overcrowding, can't cope with society, kills someone in order to get back into jail and is then executed for murder.

There is also a version of his anti-war song, John Brown, never released on an authorised recording until he performed it unplugged for MTV in 1995.

The words of Dylan make further appearances with Pete Seeger's version of Hard Rain, the New World Singers take on Blowin' in the Wind, the Broadside Singers version of Paths of Victory and Harry Traum performing Let me Die in My Footsteps.

It might also come as a revelation to discover that in his Broadside days, Dylan was known as Blind Boy Grunt.

Among the rest of the impressive Broad- side line-up, there are contributions from Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Richard Farina, Jim Page, Tom Paxton and Janis Ian. It's mostly good stuff but there is that feeling that topical songwriting ends with acoustic folk and, in fact, there is no aural evidence here of what actually happened next. There is a suggestion in the notes that these songs went on to fuel "angry rock" and rap but this is perhaps to take undue credit for something in which Broadside played no active part.

Cunningham and Friesan were simply not interested in rock. They gave up on Dylan after he plugged in and paid no attention to the topical songs which came from bands such as Buffalo Springfield. That said, there were a few rock songs which made it onto the respectable/radical pages of the magazine. One of them, believe it or not, was Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which Friesan himself hailed as a great song about Vietnam. But, such leaps apart, the magazine was without teeth by the early 1970s. It had lost its radical edge simply by not keeping up with the musical times.

But full respect even so. Gordon Friesan and Sis Cunningham nurtured songs and songwriters all their lives. As activists, they believed in the real power of songs to help, to heal, to galvanise, to support, to engage and to overcome; and ultimately they believed in the sheer might of the human voice.

Using terms such as these may sound a little naive in the 21st century, but it's always worth remembering that passion can sometimes thrive. Certainly among these 89 songs there is much that seems old-fashioned - but there are also many great songs that urgently need to be sung.

The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 is released by Smithsonian Folkways