It was one of my brother’s life-pleasures to sing with Pete Seeger at University Settlement Camp in Beacon, New York. As for so many, Pete was a surrogate father figure to him. Seeger and his wife Toshi Ohta, who was involved in radical organizations in New York City, shopped sometimes at my father’s Oriental Food Shop on Amsterdam Avenue and 124th Street in Manhattan. During the summer my siblings and I would attend Pioneer Youth Camp in Rifton, New York. Many staff and counselors were Old Left acolytes, civil rights activists and labor organizers. The camp was fully integrated, bringing together—not always harmoniously—middle-class children with “disadvantaged” scholarship children like ourselves along with black and Puerto Rican children from Harlem and the Lower East Side.
The camp dispensed with flag-raising rituals, uniforms and compulsory religious services, although a bell was rung to call people to meals. There was a lively air of political engagement about the 1960 Kennedy and Stevenson Presidential campaigns, civil rights demonstrations and labor history.
We would have all-camp campfires and sing songs by Woody Guthrie and others. At the end everyone would stand, form a circle around the fire and link hands, our faces aglow, singing the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” while sparks would go shooting above the trees into the night sky. For a brief, incandescent moment, some thought that social ills would be righted, that we would overcome.
Guthrie was a folk hero whose songs evoked the Okies’ migration from the Dust Bowl to California, their poverty and mistreatment, the deportation of Mexican migrant workers, and a claim to belonging to our country (“This Land is Your Land”). Seeger’s association with Guthrie and the Weavers, and their subsequent McCarthyite blacklisting, was part of the story too.
I came to Bob Dylan, darling of the folk revival, late, initially having a distaste for his hoarse, nasally voice, but changed my opinion after listening to my sister’s early folk albums and the transitional album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” As I had faithfully recorded the Top 20 songs on AM radio and avidly collected Marvel comics, I soon became a Dylan follower and listened to his songs obsessively. But I was also listening to the topical folksinger Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Tim Hardin, Mimi and Richard Farina, Jack Elliott and others. Like reading yesterday’s papers, much of that music has dated badly. When Dylan accused Ochs of being merely a journalist, I’m afraid he was largely right. I never listen to Ochs or any of the others now, except Dylan.
There was among certain folk devotees the purist conviction that acoustic music was more primitively “authentic” in its essence than electric music, despite the fact that electric instruments had been used in country music, as Dylan pointed out, and the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James, which had such a huge influence on British Invasion groups such as the Rolling Stones, derived much of their power from amplification. This assumption was the subtext for the booing Dylan would receive when he walked on stage in black leather with members of Paul Butterfield’s electric blues band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (and when Pete Seeger is alleged to have threatened to cut the cable during the set). You can see the actual performance on Murray Lerner’s DVD documentary, “The Other Side of the Mirror,” which charts all of Dylan’s appearances at Newport.
I never bought into the correct ideological line about the nobility of all poor, black and working folk, an image that was heroicized by WPA documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn who, as Susan Sontag wrote, would “take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” I abhorred John Hammond, Jr’s “blackface vocals,” as Greil Marcus wrote, and other white blues musicians who performed a minstrelsy version of the blues. I loved The Band, Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson, Van Morrison, and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green.
Though I attended a 1966 Ochs concert at Town Hall with a girlfriend from the summer before, I swore my allegiance to Beatles and Dylan then. My sister saw Dylan in those years and remembers a tiny figure crouched at the piano, saying “F___ You!” to the audience. Until 1964, I had attended public schools in Harlem, learned to play basketball with my friend James “Moose” Moore and was saturated by black culture and music. Soul music, Motown and Stax-Volt got into my body: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, James Brown, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the Impressions and more. The music that came out of places like Memphis, Detroit or Muscle Shoals had a lot more rhythmic force than the rustic country or rural blues touted by the diehard folkies. I appreciate Robert Johnson now, but it took me awhile.
With the civil rights movement heating up—attacks on Freedom Riders, the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, the deepening chasm between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael’s calls for Black Power and the breakup of the fragile interracial coalition—I was beginning to see the world through racialized eyes. Which side are you on, boy?
At summer camp in 1963, John Rice was a friend of mine. He was an African American from South Carolina, a slender gentle modest boy, a fleet-footed athlete who excelled in track and baseball. I ribbed him, calling him "Carolina Extra Long-Grain Rice." One afternoon a fat whiteboy from Bensonhurst taunted him, calling him a "Mississippi n-word." A howl cut the air. Suddenly, the white kid staggered from his cabin, wailing, his hands clutching his head, blood streaming down his skull, dropping to his knees. Blood soaked and matted his straggly brown hair and trickled down his forehead. We froze. John trailed him, dragging the blood-stained Louisville Slugger he had brained him with. I was playing catch with friends in the open space close to the flat rock that gave Keystone, our village, its name. My head spun like a broken carousel. My eyeballs rolled heavenward. The noonday sun had been blotted out, blackened, eclipsed.
Some of my white friends were sophisticated and literate, employing language with sarcasm and gentle absurdist irony as a shield against fear. They spoke with greater freedom and ease, it seemed to me, and had a less embattled view of the world. Bernd was an intellectual from Queens, conversant with Sartre and Miles Davis, studying Greek. Rubinsky used to call me Yum-Yum, as in "Under the Yum Yum Tree." Horowitz wrote medieval tales in a black composition notebook. My bunkmate Peter was shy, with brunette hair that brushed his eyes like a sheepdog. Another bunkmate Vinnie came from the Bronx, and liked to imitate the sound of Mario Andretti's Indianapolis 500 racing car.
Later on I had an African American bunkmate, Julius, who would drape a sheet around himself like a toga and walk around the cabin, proclaiming himself Julius Caesar. Racism can be a pathology, Toni Morrison said, an amputation of the body politic.
In 1964 Cassius Clay decks Sonny Liston with a phantom punch, winning the heavyweight championship. He converts to Islam and is renamed Muhammad Ali. He's stripped of his crown when he refuses induction, saying, "No Vietcong ever called me a n-word." The planet tipped on its axis.
The black children who came from ghetto neighborhoods, the 'hood, rapped. Not in the sense we use that word today—or maybe so. They rapped in a language full of violent emotion, anger and the necessity of bravado. I had a b-ball friend, Kelly, who was praising Moses Malone, the fifth player to jump from high school into the professional leagues. “Then comes me, Kelly,” Kelly bragged. True, the kid owned a whole bag of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe moves, driving down the middle of the key, going for a lay-up in a crowd, his body curling around the ball, hanging. As his defenders made the downward descent on their jump, Kelly would unwind and flick the ball to the right side of the backboard and Yes!
But he was barrel-chested, scrawny, walked like a duck, well under six feet, and wore an undistinguished knitted hat and faded jeans. His was the longest shot of all hoop dreams.
Like a patient convulsed upon a table, the decade exploded. My best friend Martin Supnick and I got to know a tandem, both named Dave--one tall and rangy, the other short and stocky--who grew their hair out into haloed Afros and joined the Black Panther Party.
Sometimes I wonder about Kelly and black friends who, doubtless inspired by photographs of armed Panthers visiting the state capitol of Sacramento or a bereted Huey Newton on a throne in Oakland, joined the Party. Or Moose who became involved in black theater. Are they in prison or dead? A disproportionate number of black men are.
I stopped listening to folk music altogether. I couldn't sing "This Little Light of Mine" one more time. I couldn't even abide the thought.