The Almanac Singers was an American New York City-based folk music group, active between 1940 and 1943, founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. The group specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. They were part of the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA (whose slogan, under their leader Earl Browder, was "Communism is twentieth century Americanism"), who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers' rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals.
|Origin||New York City|
|Labels||Keynote, Almanac Records, General, Asch, Stinson|
|Associated acts||The Weavers|
|Past members||Woody Guthrie|
Baldwin "Butch" Hawes
Bess Lomax Hawes
Cultural historian Michael Denning writes, "The base of the Popular Front was labor movement, the organization of millions of industrial workers into the new unions of the CIO. For this was the age of the CIO, the years that one historian has called 'the largest sustained surge of worker organization in American history'". "By the early 1940s," he continues, "the CIO was dominated by new unions in the metalworking industries--the United Autoworkers, the United Steel Workers, and the United Electrical Workers--and 'industrial unionism' was not simply a kind of unionism but a kind of social reconstruction". It is in the context of this social movement that the story of the Almanac Singers, which formed in early 1941, ought to be seen.
In late 1940 and early 1941 (before America entered World War II) rearmament was putting an end to a decade of unemployment; and labor was at its most militant. As the CIO fought racial discrimination in hiring, it had to confront deep racial divides in its own membership, particularly in the UAW plants in Detroit where white workers sometimes struck to protest the promotion of black workers to production jobs. It also worked on this issue in shipyards in Alabama, mass transit in Philadelphia, and steel plants in Baltimore. The CIO leadership, particularly those in more left unions such as the Packinghouse Workers, the UAW, the NMU and the Transport Workers, undertook serious efforts to suppress hate strikes and to educate their membership. Those unions contrasted their relatively bold attack on the problem with the timidity and racism of the AFL.
Almanac members Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie began playing together informally in 1940 or 1941. Pete Seeger and Guthrie had met at Will Geer's Grapes of Wrath Evening, a benefit for displaced migrant workers, in March 1940. That year, Seeger joined Guthrie on a trip to Texas and California to visit Guthrie's relatives. Hays and Lampell had rented a New York City apartment together in October 1940, and on his return Seeger moved in with them. They called their apartment Almanac House, and it became a center for leftist intellectuals as well as crash pad for folksingers, including (in 1942) Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Ed Cray says that Hays and Seeger's first paying gig was in January 1941 at a fund-raising benefit for Spanish Civil War Loyalists at the Jade Mountain restaurant in New York City. According to a 1965 interview with Lee Hays by Richard Reuss, Seeger, Hays, and Lampell sang at an American Youth Congress held at Turner's Arena in Washington, D.C., in February 1941, at which sponsors had requested songs constructed around the slogan "Don't Lend or Lease our Bases" and "Jim Crow must Go". Shortly after this, they decided to call themselves the Almanacs. They chose the name because Lee Hays had said that back home in Arkansas farmers had only two books in their houses: the Bible, to guide and prepare them for life in the next world, and the Almanac, to tell them about conditions in this one."
Performers who sang with the group at various times included Sis Cunningham, (John) Peter Hawes and his brother Baldwin "Butch" Hawes, Bess Lomax Hawes (wife of Butch and sister of Alan Lomax), Cisco Houston, Arthur Stern, Josh White, Jackie (Gibson) Alper, Burl Ives, (Hiram) Jaime Lowden and Sam Gary.
They invented a driving, energetic performing style, based on what they felt was the best of American country string band music, black and white. They wore street clothes, which was unheard of in an era when entertainers routinely wore formal, night-club attire, and they invited the audience to join in the singing. The Almanacs had many gigs playing at parties, rallies, benefits, unions meetings, and informal "hootenannies", a term Seeger and Guthrie learned on an Almanac tour of Portland and Washington.
On May day of 1941, they entertained a rally of 20,000 striking transit workers in Madison Square Garden, where they introduced the song "Talking Union" and participated in a dramatic sketch with the young actress Carol Channing.
Recordings and Reds
The Almanacs' first record release, an album of three 78s called Songs for John Doe, written to protest the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Recorded in February or March 1941 and issued in May, it comprised four songs written by Millard Lampell and two by Seeger and Hays (including "Plow Under") that followed the Communist Party line (after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), urging non-intervention in World War II. It was produced by the founder of Keynote Records, Eric Bernay. Bernay, who owned a small record store, was the former business manager of the magazine New Masses, which in 1938 and 39 had sponsored John H. Hammond's landmark From Spirituals to Swing Concert. Perhaps because of its controversial content, Songs for John Doe came out under the imprint "Almanac Records", and Bernay insisted that the performers themselves (in this case Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Josh White, and Sam Gary, an interracial group) pay for the costs of production. Songs for John Doe attacked big American corporations (such as J.P. Morgan and DuPont), repeating the Party's line that they had supported German rearmament, and during the period of re-armament in 1941, were now vying for government contracts to build up the defenses of the U.S. Besides being anti-union, these corporations were a focus of progressive and black activist anger because they barred blacks from employment in defense work.
The album also criticized President Roosevelt's unprecedented peacetime draft, insinuating that he was going to war for J.P. Morgan. Seeger later said that he believed the Communist argument at that time that the war was "phony" and that big business merely wanted to use Hitler as a proxy to attack Soviet Russia. Bess Lomax Hawes, who was twenty at the time and did not sing on the John Doe album, writes in her autobiography Sing It Pretty (2008), that for her part, she had taken the pacifist oath as a girl out of repugnance for what she thought was the senseless brutality of the First World War (a sentiment shared by many) and that she took the oath very seriously. However, she said that events were happening so fast, and such terrible news was coming out about German atrocities, that the Almanacs hardly knew what to believe from one day to the next, and they found themselves adjusting their topical repertoire on a daily basis.
Every day, it seemed, another once-stable European political reality would fall to the rapidly expanding Nazi armies, and the agonies of the death camps were beginning to reach our ears. The Almanacs, as self-defined commentators, were inevitably affected by the intense national debate between the "warmongers" and the "isolationists" (and the points between). Before every booking we had to decide: were we going to sing some of our hardest-hitting and most eloquent songs, all of which were antiwar, and if we weren't, what would we sing anyway? ... We hoped the next headline would not challenge our entire roster of poetic ideas. Woody Guthrie wrote a song that mournfully stated: "I started out to write a song to the entire population / But no sooner than I got the words down, here come a brand new situation".
On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and attacked Communist Russia, and Keynote promptly destroyed all its inventory of Songs for John Doe. The CIO now urged support for Roosevelt and the draft, and it forbade its members from participation in strikes for the duration (angering some in the movement).
On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt, under pressure from black leaders, who were threatening a massive march on Washington against segregation in the army and the exclusion of blacks from factories doing defense work, signed Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) banning racial discrimination by corporations receiving federal defense contracts. The racial situation, which had threatened black support for the peacetime draft, was now somewhat defused (even though the Army still declined to desegregate) and the march was canceled.
The Almanac's second album, Talking Union, also produced by Bernay, was a collection of six labor songs: "Union Maid", "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister", "Get Thee Behind Me Satan", "Union Train", "Which Side Are You On?", and the eponymous "Talking Union". This album, issued in July 1941, was not anti-Roosevelt but was criticized in a review by Time magazine, nevertheless. It was reissued by Folkways in 1955 with additional songs and is still available today. The Almanacs also issued two albums of traditional folk songs with no political content in 1941: an album of sea chanteys, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads (sea chanteys, as was well known, being Franklin Roosevelt's favorite kind of song) and Sod-Buster Ballads, which were songs of the pioneers. Both of these were produced by Alan Lomax on General, the label that had issued his Jelly Roll Morton recordings in 1940. When the USA entered the European war after Germany's post-Pearl Harbor declaration of war in December 1941, the Almanacs recorded a new topical album for Keynote in support of the war effort, Dear Mr. President, under the supervision of Earl Robinson, that included Woody Guthrie's "Reuben James" (1942).
The title song, "Dear Mr. President", was a solo by Pete Seeger, and its lines expressed his lifelong credo:
Now, Mr. President, / We haven't always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain't at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.//
Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain't perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not 'cause everything's perfect, or everything's right. / No, it's just the opposite: I'm fightin' because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / "You can't ride on this train 'cause you're a Negro," / "You can't live here 'cause you're a Jew,"/ "You can't work here 'cause you're a union man."//
So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That's lick Mr. Hitler and when we're through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.
In 1942, Army intelligence and the FBI determined that the Almanacs and their former anti-draft message were still a seditious threat to recruitment and the morale of the war effort among blacks and youth. and they were hounded by hostile reviews, exposure of their Communist ties and negative coverage in the New York press, like the headline "Commie Singers try to Infiltrate Radio", They disbanded in late 1942 or early 1943.
In 1945, after the end of the war, Millard Lampell went on to become a successful screenwriter, writing under a pseudonym while blacklisted. The other founding Almanac members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays became President and Executive Secretary, respectively, of People's Songs, an organization with the goal of providing protest music to union activists, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and electing Henry A. Wallace on the third, Progressive Party, ticket. People's Songs disbanded in 1948, after the defeat of Wallace. Seeger and Hays, joined by two of Hays' young friends, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, then began singing together again at fund-raising folk dances, with a repertoire geared to international folk music. The new singing group, appearing for a while in 1949 under the rubric, "The Nameless Quartet", changed their name to The Weavers and went on to achieve great renown.
Original studio albums
- Songs for John Doe (Almanac Records, 1941).
- Talking Union (Keynote, 1941).
- Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads (General, 1941).
- Sod Buster Ballads (General, 1941).
- Dear Mr. President (Keynote, 1942).
- Songs of the Lincoln Battalion (Stinson/Asch, 1940). This album was not credited to the Almanac Singers, but to several individuals who were members of the band (Pete Seeger, Bess Lomax, and Butch Hawes) along with Tom Glazer. In 1961, this record was reissued by Folkways Records as one side of an LP entitled Songs of the Spanish Civil War, Vol. 1 (FH5436). The flip side of the LP was a re-release of the 1938 album Six Songs for Democracy, by Ernst Busch and the chorus of the Thälmann Battalion, 11th International Brigade.
- Song For Bridges / Babe of Mine (Keynote, 1941).
- Boomtown Bill / Keep That Oil A-Rollin (Keynote, 1942).
- Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London, New York: Verso, 1997) p. 6.
- (Denning, 1997, p. 7)
- (See "Growth During the Second World War" in Wikipedia's entry on the CIO)
- Ed Cray, Ramblin' Man: A Life of Woody Guthrie (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 218-219. David Dunaway, on the other hand, in The Ballad of Pete Seeger (New York: Villard Books), 2008, p. 82, gives a date of December, 1940.
- Richard A. Reuss and Joanne C. Reuss, American Folk Music & Left Wing Politics 1927–1957 (Lanham, Maryland and London: Scarecrow Press, 2000), p. 150 and note, p. 175. The Youth Congress of the previous year, a rally for jobs, had been held on the grounds of the White House. On that occasion, President Franklin Roosevelt had chided members for condemning only fascist dictatorships rather than all dictators (meaning Stalin), angering its members, who were still upset over his and Churchill's arms embargo against Loyalist Spain.
- "'Hold on', said Lee [Hays]. 'Back where I come from, a family had two books. The Bible to help 'em to the next world. The Almanac, to help 'em through the present world. We've got an Almanac. Of course, most Congressmen can't read it.' We became the Almanac Singers." (Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone [1993, 1997], p. 19.
- On the use of the term, Richard Reuss draws attention to Pete Seeger's article, "How Hootenanny Came to Be" in Sing Out! 5, no. 4 (Autumn 1955): 32–33. Cited in Reuss, 2000, p. 176.
- Ronald Cohen and Dave Samuelson, Songs for Political Action (Hambergen, Germany: Bear Family Records, 1996), p. 17.
- Pacifism, inspired by repugnance at the brutality of World War I, was still strong, and there was widespread non-interventionist sentiment among labor, as well as among the predominantly right-wing members of the isolationist America First Committee, who included not only Charles Lindbergh and the future U.S. president Gerald Ford, but also the anti-Communist socialist Norman Thomas.
- The Keynote label had debuted with the famous collection of Spanish Civil War songs, Six Songs for Democracy by Ernst Busch and chorus (1940). In addition to issuing records by Josh White and the Almanacs, Keynote drew on Cafe Society bands for a series of small group sessions, "nearly a third of which," Whitney Balliett has argued, "are among the best of all jazz recordings"; see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (London: Verso, 1997), p. 338.
- See Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography, edited by Peter Blood (Bethlehem: PA [1993, 1997) pp. 19–22:
Those were the days of Hitler's aerial blitz of Britain and Stalin's invasion of Finland. A large section of the American (and English and French) public was still hoping to sic Hitler on Stalin, and let the two rival dictatorships fight it out and leave the democracies alone. Harry Truman, then in the Senate (later succeeding FDR as U.S. President), is supposed to have said that we should try to get Hitler and Stalin fighting each other and then help the one that's losing. Then they'd both finish each other off. —Where Have all the Flowers Gone [1993,1997], p. 19.When Pete was preparing to write his autobiography, Helen Travis, a friend of his from that era, showed how Party members justified the changing line to themselves when she wrote :
I remain convinced that it was a phony war at the outset. However we lefties weren't hep enough to note how it changed when popular resistance to the German onslaught began in Yugoslavia ... before the invasion of the USSR." (Where Have All the Flowers Gone [1993, 1997], p. 22).
- Bess Lomax Hawes (2008), p. 43. According to Ronald D. Cohen in Rainbow Quest (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 30, Guthrie had joined the Almanacs in the summer of 1941, greatly enhancing its repertoire.
- The review, published Sept. 15, 1941 in a column entitled "September Records", recalled the Almanac's anti-war album earlier that year, noting tartly: "Their recorded collection Songs for John Doe, ably hewed to the then Moscow line, neatly phonograph-needled J. P. Morgan, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and, particularly, war (TIME, June 16). The three discs of Talking Union, on sale last week under the Keynote label, lay off the isolationist business now that the Russians are laying it on the Germans."
- General, a subsidiary of Commodore, had been founded by Milt Gabler, who in 1941 accepted a job at Decca. In 1939 Commodore had put out Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", when Columbia rejected it as too controversial. See Bob Koester, "Milt Gabler & Commodore Records" Archived 2011-07-09 at the Wayback Machine. In 1954, Gabler would issue the revolutionary rockabilly hit, "Rock Around the Clock."
- "When Decca backed away from its contract offer [because of bad publicity associated with Songs for John Doe], the Almanacs recorded Dear Mr. President. Earl Robinson supervised the January 1942 session, which featured six songs in support of the war effort" (Ronald D. Cohen & Dave Samuelson, Songs for Political Action, Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL, 1996, p. 94).
- On January 21, 1942, Alan Lomax wrote the following to Woody Guthrie: “I played the Almanac songs the other day for Mrs. Roosevelt, and she thought they were swell, and asked for copies of the records. She is playing them for her OCD staff, and I think their fame will be spread abroad. Besides, the News and Special Events man from BBC was here, and took a copy of "Taking it Easy" with the intention of getting it played on their network. He promised to . . . get your permission first. The other night I played the stuff for Bobby Strauss, who is Director of Information for OEM, and he was delighted and said he thought that the thing should be used on a broadcast with the only live talent. Something, I am sure, will come of that. I told him that you all could make a new song about any assigned subject at the drop of a banjo"(quoted in R. Cohen, 2002). In the same letter he urged that the group, if it was to change its name, choose something more associated with folk music than "The Headline Singers", which Guthrie was contemplating. The album was not released until May of that year.
- According to an article in The Amsterdam News, the FBI also came after Billie Holiday, when she sang a pacifist song in the middle of the war, forcing her manager to make her change her repertoire. See Denning (1997), p. 343.
- "We got to sing [the pro-war song, 'Round and Round Hitler's Grave'] on January '42, on a nationwide CBS broadcast, 'This is War'. But the next day a headline in a major New York newspaper said 'Commie Singers try to Infiltrate Radio,' and that was the last job we got" (Where Have All the Flowers Gone [1993, 1997], p. 28).
- Doris Willens, Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988) pp. 118, 119, and passim.
- Six Songs for Democracy was recorded in Barcelona (1938) with bombs falling in the background. It was issued by Keynote in either 1938 or 1940 (Keynote 101). According to Maurice Isserman, it was one of Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite albums. The Thälmann Battalion was named for German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann. See Maurice Isserman, Which Side Are You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War, (Urbana & Chicago: Illini Books, 1993), p. 20.
- Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940-1970. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
- Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 2007.
- Denisoff, R. Serge. "'Take It Easy, but Take It': The Almanac Singers," Journal of American Folklore:, vol. 83, no. 327 (1970), pp. 21–32.
- Hawes, Bess Lomax. Sing It Pretty. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
- Lieberman, Ronnie. "My Song is My Weapon" : People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
- Reuss, Richard A. and Joanne C. Reuss. American Folk Music & Left Wing Politics 1927–1957. Lanham, Maryland and London, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2000. Finished posthumously by Joanne C. Reuss from her husband's manuscript.
- Willens, Doris. Lonesome Traveler: A Life of Lee Hays. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.