Self-Righteous Leftists

Tom Paxton doesn't like to look back too long, for fear of turning into dust. It is okay, he says, to glance backward every so often, but do not stare. Yet for an hour in late August, Paxton appears happy talking about what happened a thousand yesterdays ago, before he and his friends became entries in history books -- back when Bob Dylan was just a friend, struggling on the coffeehouse circuit, when musicians sang about war, race and rent, and when idealists swung guitars like swords from streets and stages. "I don't feel we were living in history," Paxton says, "but we never took any of it for granted."

Were it not for the boxed set arriving in stores, containing forgotten and forbidden works by the likes of Paxton, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Pete Seeger, the Fugs and Janis Ian, Paxton would prefer to let history lie asleep. There are new tunes to write, new politicians to pick on, new fights to start. But soon enough, the conversation turns back to the 1960s, to the coffeehouses and bars of Greenwich Village, and to the magazine that published, recorded and released his songs and the songs of dozens of his contemporaries.

This month Smithsonian Folkways releases a five-disc collection of songs from Broadside magazine, which first appeared in February 1962 and continued to run until 1988. It was born with a bang -- the brainchild of Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, who saw their publication as a vessel for "a handful of songs about our times" -- and died as a whisper. Broadside disappeared after 187 issues that contained the early works of not only the aforementioned icons but also Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" and Lucinda Williams's very first recording, "Lafayette."

For the first time, the counterculture and its attendant music comes into focus a little more clearly, especially for those of us in our twenties and thirties. The topics range from bomb shelters to factory strikes to Native American dislocation to Vietnam to sex scandals to the murders of schoolchildren in church bombings; these songs are personal and political, strident and sad, loud and lo-fi. The boxed set exists as a primer; here, for instance, is the very first recorded version of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," documented in 1962 by the New World Singers, which features Gil Turner on banjo and vocals and Happy Traum on guitar and vocals. Here's the previously unreleased 1962 version of Dylan's performing "John Brown," back when he had to record under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt to keep from violating his Columbia Records contract.

And here's Paxton's long-lost "Train for Auschwitz," a song he never recorded for Elektra Records, partially because he was once told that a non-Jew had no right to write such a horrific song about the holocaust.

The box also serves as a sad reminder: In an era when Jewel passes for "folk," the Best of Broadside provides ample evidence that once upon a hell of a long time ago, musicians gave freely of themselves.

"The context has totally changed," Paxton says, lamenting the death of topical songwriting. "We don't have a national emergency, a social earthquake, like we did in the '60s, with the civil-rights movement and then the antiwar movement with all its permutations."

Talk to anyone who wrote and performed back then, and sooner or later, they will look back in anger -- and sadness and wistfulness. Traum, interviewed at his home in upstate New York, recalls the days when he would perform at civil-rights benefits around New York. He talks about first meeting Seeger, who would become his "absolute mentor," and Ochs. He remembers recording Dylan's "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," a song Dylan left off Freewheelin' to make room for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

Traum, who edited the folk-music magazine Sing Out! from 1968 to 1970, refers to the period as a "bubbling cauldron," one he'd never again wish to live through. Paxton recalls how the Broadside gang would hang out at Ochs's apartment or at Dylan's "sleazy pad" on West Fourth Street. He talks about how they'd all go see whoever was performing at the Gaslight or at the bar upstairs, Kettle of Fish, where Caruso and the Beatles coexisted peacefully on the jukebox. There, the musicians would sit all night, drinking and talking politics like a bunch of ragtag John Reeds, carrying guitars and notepads. Paxton tells of the night at the Kettle of Fish when, during one protracted argument, Dylan leaned in his ear, sang a new song called "Garden of Eden" and asked Paxton what he thought of it.

"We knew that we were living in history," says Happy Traum, contradicting his old friend Tom and, finally, echoing him. "I don't think anybody ever took it for granted. I was very aware not that it would get as big as it got, but I did know that Dylan was something other and that there was always excitement going on. We knew we were where the world was changing, and we never took it for granted. Even then, we knew. I am sure the people in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s must have known there was something special going on with art and literature when you could walk down the street and see Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Ernest Hemingway sitting in the street cafes. It was like that, just like that."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky