Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Pete Seeger's Ban by Hootenanny: An Exercise in Futility

Not all vestiges of McCarthyism disappeared from the cultural life of the U.S. by 1964. Despite the victory over “Red Channels,” occasional flashpoints remained. It lingered at Hootenanny, the musical variety television show devoted to the burgeoning folk scene and broadcast over the ABC network from April 1963 to September 1964.

In the early 60s rock n’ roll was a shell. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a 1959 plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. Elvis Presley was in the U.S. Army from 1958-1960. In 1957—at the height of his stardom—Little Richard became a born-again Christian and abandoned performing. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his 13 year old cousin torpedoed his career, while Chuck Berry’s arrest under the Mann act landed him in jail. Then there was the payola “scandal” that focused primarily on Jewish disc jockeys such as Alan Freed who resisted playing white “cover” songs on their playlists. The accumulation of these factors left little but sanitized “manikins” such as Bobby Vee, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, etc. Serious music fans—particularly college students—retreated into folk and jazz.

Hootenanny drew upon this audience—offering “folk music” acts such as the Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins, the Smothers Brothers, The Journeymen, and others. Hosted by Jack Linkletter, the program was very popular, but quickly descended into political controversy over its blacklisting of Pete Seeger—leading to a boycott by most of the influential folk acts of the time.

While musician Pete Seeger and his former group the Weavers were banned on CBS and NBC as well as ABC, the latter’s action was particularly galling since Seeger and fellow progressive Woody Guthrie were the first to popularize a “hootenanny” in terms of a gathering of folk musicians. Seeger’s great “sin” was that he had been convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his constitutionally guaranteed political affiliations with the rabid lot at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (though his conviction had been overturned on appeal in 1962). Folk great Joan Baez was the first artist to announce her refusal to appear on Hootenanny because of the ban on Seeger and the Weavers. Soon she was joined by Tom Paxton, Barbara Dane, the Greenbriar Boys, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in her boycott of the show. Seeger actually implored his fellow musicians not to boycott Hootenanny in order to promote folk music.

In the beginning the show was quite popular. Hootenanny did well in the Nielsen ratings and was the network’s second most popular show after Ben Casey. Such record labels as Folkways, Elektra, Columbia, and RCA released compilation albums with “Hootenanny” in the title. Despite the hoopla and popularity, the issues surrounding the Seeger ban bubbled just below the surface. Well known artists such as Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs, and the Kingston Trio also refused to appear on the show. In an effort to “defuse” the situation, ABC announced that it would consider allowing Seeger on the program if he furnished a sworn affidavit as to his affiliations, if any, with the Communist Party and its various front organizations. Basically, ABC wanted Seeger to produce a loyalty oath—an outrageous McCarthy era instrument of repression. Of course, Seeger refused. Progressive music impresario Harold Leventhal broke the story—which only pushed others to refuse to appear on the show.

Pandemonium ensued: those few remaining acts that had stayed on despite the boycott appeared shaky. The show had to fall back on their homegrown talent such as the Serendipity Singers who had a major hit in 1963 with “Crooked Little Man (Don’t Let the Rain Come Down).” To its credit, Hootenanny presented network prime time’s first interracial music group, The Tarriers.

Ultimately, it was not politics, but rather a seismic change in popular music that killed the show. The British Invasion and Beatlemania burst upon the scene in early 1964 and helped contribute to a precipitous decline in Hootenanny’s viewership. Yet it was not viewers alone who were affected. Performers such as John Phillips (The Journeymen), Cass Elliot (The Big 3), Gene Clark (The New Christy Minstrels), and John Sebastian (The Even Dozen Jug Band) who had appeared on Hootenanny, abandoned folk music for the greener pastures of rock groups such as The Byrds (Clark), The Mamas & the Pappas (Phillips and Elliot), and the Lovin’ Spoonful (Sebastian). The Outer Limits took over its time slot and Hootenanny gave way to ABC’s new music series Shindig!

Hootenanny part 2 occurred in 1967, when CBS management cut a Pete Seeger performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (although, after huge publicity, it was aired on a later broadcast). CBS management had been concerned that the song was an allegory attacking President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam policy. However, by then the long blacklist of Seeger by network television began its decline when he hosted a program on the fledgling National Educational Television (later PBS). Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and Mississippi John Hurt.

Furthermore, at the same time Seeger and his music were most unwelcome on network television or on the radio, many of his songs achieved huge popularity when recorded by other artists. “If I Had a Hammer” became a #10 hit in the U.S. when it was recorded in 1962 by Peter Paul & Mary and a #3 song when recorded in 1963 by Trini Lopez (although the latter version was a #1 hit in 36 countries). French pop star Claude François released his cover “Si j'avais un marteau" in 1963, while Italian pop star Rita Pavone issued "Datemi un martello" the same year. Martyred Chilean folk musician Victor Jara issued a 1969 cover of the song called “El Martillo.” The Byrd’s release of “Turn, Turn, Turn” became a huge #1 hit in 1965. In that song, Seeger interpreted a section from the Book of Ecclesiastes. And “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” had a number of popular versions by artists such as The Kingston Trio, Marlene Dietrich, and Johnny Rivers. How ridiculous that ban on Seeger seemed when hits composed by him were all over the corporate owned radio waves.

No comments: