New York Newsday Review Of


By Letta Tayler, Staff Writer
Copyright © 2000 by Newsday, Inc.

September 3, 2000

From The Underground
'Best of Broadside' compilation brings to light 89 folk tracks from 1962 to 1988

THIRTY-FOUR YEARS ago, when she was just 14 and a relatively unknown singer-songwriter, Janis Ian wrote "Society's Child," a ballad about a white girl who is ostracized for dating a black boy. Ian's producer told her that if she'd drop the racial angle, he'd take the song to the top of the charts.

Ian refused. Twenty-two record companies subsequently rejected "Society's Child," and the song became a hit only a year later after Leonard Bernstein featured it in a television special. Then Ian began receiving death threats.

The ordeal would have been a lot for any musician, much less a girl barely in her teens. Asked recently what pulled her through, Ian cites Broadside magazine, the now-defunct publication that first printed "Society's Child." "The amazing thing about Broadside was that it gave you moral backbone," Ian recalls. "Even at 14, I could say, 'No, I don't think so,' knowing that there was a community that would stand behind me." Founded in 1962 in a housing project on Manhattan's Upper West Side by Agnes (Sis) Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, a leftist couple who grew up in poverty in rural Oklahoma and were blacklisted in the 1940s, Broadside served for a brief and vital time as the primary mouthpiece for songs springing from the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, women's liberation and other social upheavals that began in the '60s. Defiant and scruffy, the mimeographed publication was the outlet for folk songs dismissed as too topical by folk revivalists devoted to pastoral themes and too radical by the mainstream hit-making machine.

A young Bob Dylan (using the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt), Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Pete Seeger, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nina Simone, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton and Bernice Johnson Reagon were among the musicians whose songs were printed in Broadside. Gathering in Sis and Gordon's living room and at monthly Broadside hoot- enannies at the now-defunct Village Gate in Greenwich Village, they swapped songs, talked politics and forged a musical movement that went on to influence contemporary performers from feminist punk-folkie Ani DiFranco to blue-collar champion Billy Bragg to rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine.

Many songs printed in Broadside were later released by individual artists; several-often culled from the hootenannies-also wound up on Broadside compilation records. But few of these recordings made the transition from vinyl to compact disc. That will change Sept. 12, when the Smithsonian Folkways label releases a five-CD box set titled "The Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthems of the American Underground From the Pages of Broadside Magazine." Accompanying the 89 songs are extensive liner notes, graphics from the original Broadside and numerous photos of the magazine's contributors, from a boyish Dylan to a debonnaire Seeger.

To Ian and others who got their start in Broadside, the acknowledgement is long overdue. "Broadside played a crucial role in encouraging musicians to write topical songs and in disseminating them to a larger audience," says Ronald D. Cohen, a history professor at Indiana University Northwest who is a folk music expert and the co-producer of "The Best of Broadside." One of Broadside's most important achievements, Cohen says, is underscoring the endurance of topical music as a vehicle for social change.

Listened to one after the other, the songs serve as the nation's conscience, decrying war, poverty, racism, environmental destruction, inhumane prison systems and the exploitation of migrant workers and coal miners. If the tone frequently succumbs to heavy-handed simplicity, there's no denying the writers' fervor. They were, as Paxton puts it, the children of Woody Guthrie, championing the causes of the have-nots in a new era.

Many tracks on "The Best of Broadside" have become standards, such as Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." That song-one of several Dylan tracks-is featured in its first recorded version, performed by the New World Singers, a group active in the civil rights movement. The box set also contains the original version of Peter LaFarge's "Call Him Drunken Ira Hayes," a lament for a Pima Indian war hero who died a forgotten alcoholic; Johnny Cash later made the song a hit.

There's also Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes," an indictment of mass-produced, cookie-cutter suburban housing, and Bonnie Dobson's "Take Me for a Walk," a look at nuclear war that became a favorite of the Grateful Dead under its alternative name, "Morning Dew." Some lesser known tracks are equally compelling. Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" seethes with rage and despair over the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the church bombing that killed four black school children in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

One of the best known tracks is "Society's Child," which is included under its original name of "Baby I've Been Thinking." In an illustration of the fractious nature of the '60s folk community, Ian got as much flak over "Society's Child" from folk singers as she did from segregationists.

"On the left wing, I had the people who were ticked off that the girl caves in and says she can't see the guy any more," Ian says. "And then I had the people who were horrified that I'd made a 'record' record, with drums in it, and not just a folk record." Though the debate-loving Broadside published articles voicing a variety of reactions to "Society's Child," it solidly backed Ian and her song. The same can't be said for Broadside's response to Dylan's going electric at the Newport Folk Fest in 1965. "Gordon unfortunately took it personally," recalls Paxton.

"He felt that this was some sort of betrayal." The departure of the movement's favorite son may have been the beginning of the end. Although Broadside continued publishing until 1988, its heyday was in its first few heady years, when Sis and Gordon were still smuggling the issues out of their apartment building-which didn't allow any commercial ventures-in a baby buggy. That was the era before protest music found a new berth in the fledgling rock movement and moved later to punk and rap. As Sis herself conceded, according to the liner notes, "We were not in a position to keep abreast of this transition." Indeed, instead of embracing rock's protest ethos, Broadside spurned the genre because of its culture of taking drugs and dropping out. "They were the old left, pretty straight-laced," Cohen notes of Gordon and Sis. Although, he adds, the couple were firm believers in sharing property, taking in stray musicians like so many dogs and letting them sleep for months on their living room couch or floor.

Only a few rock songs made it into Broadside, including, wonderously, Black Sabbath's 1971 Vietnam diatribe "War Pigs." In the meantime, rock publications such as Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, which even in their nascent years were slicker than the shoe-string Broadside, provided new sustenance to counter-culture music fans. And Sis and Gordon, who never sold a single ad in Broadside and never lived above the poverty line, began to wear down. (Gordon died in 1996; Sis is 92 years old.) What endures are the songs, snapshots of issues that exploded in the latter half of the past century, some of them to be resolved and others to endure in various permutations today.

"At the time, most of us didn't think we were making history," says Paxton.

"But now I look back and see we accomplished a lot. We showed that young people can pick up a tradition and carry it on and add a certain weight to it, and have an effect on the political life of the country." Like many Broadside contributors, Paxton waxes nostalgic when he speaks of the magazine. "I just wrote a song about George W. Bush," he says with a sigh.

"But where can I print it?"

Copyright © 2000 by Newsday, Inc.


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New York Newsday Review Of


By Letta Tayler, Staff Writer, New York Newsday

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