“I’m not a folklorist. I hate folklorists!” Lawrence Gellert asserted late in life. “I wasn’t interested in just music” for its own sake, he insisted, but rather music “as a weapon” in the service of Black freedom and social justice.1 Despite such claims after the fact, Lawrence Gellert did indeed, for a time as a younger man in the 1930s and 1940s, earn distinction as a chronicler of African American folk expression. And, it was the stated political nature of his work—articulated in just such characteristic fashion above—that accounted for both Gellert’s rise and fall in the changing contexts of United States history.
In 1932, a Gellert collaborator and comrade-in-arms was unreserved in his praise: “These songs collected by Lawrence Gellert from plantations, chain gangs, lumber camps, and jails are of inestimable value, if they do nothing more than show that not all Negroes are shouting spirituals, cheering endowed football teams, dancing to the blues, or mouthing inter-racial oratory. Some of them are tired of being poor, and picturesque, and hungry. Terribly and bitterly tired.” The statement was composed by African American literary icon Langston Hughes. Though never published, the lines were intended as part of a four-page foreword for Gellert’s first songbook, Negro Songs of Protest from 1936.2 In an accompanying letter penned from Tougaloo, Mississippi, Hughes hoped that the material was “not too late, and that you will like it.” He commented, “I think the songs are great, and am honored to be chosen to do the foreword.” The following year, while he was on a tour of the Soviet Union, Hughes went about preparations for a Russian translation of Negro Songs of Protest. He secured a contract with the Music Union in Moscow, arranged for a cash advance, and “did a plain English version of the songs.” Providing additional assistance on this last score, he informed Gellert that he had “explained to the translator all the idioms, so that he could put them into Russian.” The Soviet publication was released in 1938.3
Gellert spoke favorably about Hughes throughout his life, and his admiration reflected the overlapping roles each played in the leftwing Cultural Front of the Depression years. In interviews in the 1960s and 1970s, after Hughes had passed, Gellert spotlighted the writer for never “turning” on his radical past like some artists and intellectuals who found the Left in the 1930s and then “crawled off on one pretext” or another “as soon as the little prosperity came back again.” The collector credited Hughes for his work in the communist movement, but he added that Hughes remained a free thinker “never under control” of the Party. Hughes’s “best stuff was in the leftwing press,” said Gellert. “He was a wonderful guy. Did you ever get to meet him?” asked the collector of his interviewer in 1976.4
Lawrence Gellert was similarly “never under control,” and, like Langston Hughes, produced some of his “best stuff” as a Left radical in the 1930s. From the 1920s into the 1950s, Gellert documented Black vernacular music in the US South in written transcription and audio. A “lean, scraggly-haired New Yorker,” as Time magazine called him, Gellert was an independent white music collector, without formal training, credentials, or affiliation.5 “How Long, Brethren?” was one of the songs that he encountered in his fieldwork. It was a “city blues,” he recalled, “right out of Charleston.” Original unaccompanied sound fragments are represented among Gellert’s field recordings from the 1930s, and a full transcript with musical arrangement is included in Negro Songs of Protest. As he printed it, the item reads:
How long, brethren, how long,
Must my people weep and mourn?
How long, how long, brethren, how long?
So long my people been asleep
White folks plowin’ n——r’s soul down deep.
How long, how long, brethren, how long?
Too long, brethren, too long
We just barely miserin’ along
Too long, too long, brethren, too long.
White folks ain’t Jesus, he just a man,
Grabbin’ biscuit out of poor n——r’s hand.
Too long, too long, brethren, too long.
So long, brethren, so long
N——r keep a-singin’ the same old song.
So long, so long, brethren, so long.
N——r he just patch black dirt,
The raisin’ part of the white man’s earth,
So long, so long, brethren, so long.6
For those familiar with the blues, the song may strike a chord. It bears a marked resemblance in sound and structure to the popular standard “How Long, How Long Blues,” a commercial “race record” hit in 1928 for the influential piano and guitar duo of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. On that record, the chorus and verse in part went this way:
How long, babe, how long
Has that evenin’ train been gone?
How long, how long, yes baby, how long?
I stood at the station, watched my baby leaving town
Feeling disgusting, nowhere could peace be found
Well, how long, how long, baby, how long?7
In the commercial recording, Carr sings about romantic longing; in the Gellert transcription, the unnamed informant sings about the long struggle for Black freedom. Both items are, I hold, authentic expressions from out of African American vernacular culture. Still, the difference is significant, and so are the stakes of recognition. To that point, it is useful to note that there was already a long history behind “How Long” before even Carr and Blackwell or Gellert. In 1867, compilers William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison published “My Father, How Long?” in Slave Songs of the United States, the first major collection of Black folk music in the United States. They included a revealing annotation that the “negroes had been put in jail at Georgetown, South Carolina, at the outbreak of the Rebellion” for singing the title. Lines like “We’ll soon be free,” they explained, were “too dangerous an assertion,” and “De Lord will call us home” was “evidently thought to be a symbolic verse” that alluded to the “Yankees.”8 Clearly, Gellert’s informant did not originate the theme in the documentary item, and neither did Carr and Blackwell for that matter in their blues recording.
Lawrence Gellert always explained that he happened into Black music research purely by accident. At the start of his musical awakening in the early 1920s, Gellert collected primarily out of simple curiosity. But progressive family associations and the unfolding contexts of history brought him to a new place by the next decade. In the 1930s, as the nation’s political economy was in collapse, Gellert emerged to considerable prominence in the “Red Era” of the American past. Adopting the rubric of “Negro Songs of Protest” for his work, the collector showcased his song material in the print media, in two published songbooks, and on the stage.9 Though his song archive ranged broadly, including many familiar folklore and popular items, Gellert singled out for public attention his store of Black lyrical protest. The collector was not the source of this music, but he was an important platform for discovery. Indeed, in a time of institutionalized segregation, Gellert was an agent in the emergent dominant cultural awareness of African American resistance. He was making a reputation, credited Time, for “collecting Negro songs that few white men have ever heard.”10
This is a book about Black protest and white denial. It examines the rise and fall of Lawrence Gellert in the key decades bracketed by the folksong revivals of the 1930s and the 1960s. Moreover, it explores the changing politics in the nation’s dominant culture that allowed for the “discovery” and then “denial” of Gellert’s collection, and traditions of African American musical protest generally, in this span of history. It follows Gellert, but it is not a formal biography.11 Broadly, this is a story of openings and closings—solidarity, struggle, and contradiction—in the defining middle decades of the American twentieth century.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen has defined “denial” as “knowing and not-knowing.” His book, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, has reached scholars and activists in fields wide. Michelle Alexander applies Cohen’s insights in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and I apply it here as well to issues of race, protest, and injustice. As Cohen shows, the workings of denial extend from psychology to politics, the private to the public, the individual to the collective. Cohen provides the common scientific understanding of denial as “an unconscious defense mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety and other disturbing emotions aroused by reality. The psyche blocks off information that is literally unthinkable or unbearable.” He adds, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. The statement is not wholly deliberate, and the status of ‘knowledge’ about the truth is not wholly clear. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.” Through his examination, Cohen is unflinching in casting judgment. The point is intervention, not resignation. “The political echoes of these states of mind may be found in the mass denial so characteristic of repressive, racist and colonial states. Dominant groups seem uncannily able to shut out or ignore the injustice and suffering around them,” he writes. “Acknowledgment” is the counter to denial, argues Cohen, and it must be encouraged for human progress. Cohen’s work is pointed and highly generative as regards denial and the dynamics of power. I reference the term throughout this book as a marker signaling white blind spots, intransigence, and defensiveness when it has come to Black agency and resistance.12
The historical element in my framework of denial is “romantic racialism.” George Fredrickson conceptualized the term in The Black Image in the White Mind in 1971. The concept is still relevant. Fredrickson identified romantic racialism as a conflicted corollary of modern racialist thinking. In the ideological and political battles leading up to and following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the notion that there was a scientific basis to presumed racial difference became the commonsense of white consciousness for parties on all sides of the “Negro problem.” For those whites sympathetic to the plight of Black slaves and freed people, this could lead in peculiar directions. In the 1840s and 1850s, some antislavery moderates embraced a liberal humanitarianism toward people of African descent that was at once radical and conservative. In short, they adopted a doctrine that, as Fredrickson puts it, “acknowledged permanent racial differences but rejected the notion of a clearly defined racial hierarchy.” Liberal romantic racialists, in other words, inverted the new racist dogma toward what they believed were sympathetic ends. They agreed that “Negroes” were innately docile, childlike, and submissive. But they lauded these very characteristics as ameliorative or, indeed, superior to the aggressive, materialistic, and coldly rational nature of Anglo-Saxon or Caucasian temperament. In an age of Western venality and spiritual decline, they charged, the “Negro” offered an inspiring symbol of self-sacrifice and redemption. He was, in fact, a “natural Christian” of disarming moral and human integrity. This viewpoint was embodied most sensationally in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional creation of Uncle Tom. Combining the best elements of African “racial” heritage with, as some advocates added, the finest qualities of “feminine” virtue, the Negro was not only different, but perhaps better than his white oppressor.13
Fredrickson concludes that the “romantic racialist view of the Negro and his role in American society, popular and even influential by 1864, occupies an anomalous position in the history of American racial thinking.” It was “benevolent in intent,” he writes, and “not linked to an unequivocal theory of white supremacy” in the general sense. Fredrickson stipulates, however, that “[a]s characteristically put forth by whites,” romantic racialism “often revealed a mixture of cant, condescension, and sentimentality, not unlike the popular nineteenth-century view of womanly virtue, which it so closely resembled.” Whether in the case of people of color or women, this kind of advocacy did not equate to egalitarianism. “It was never suggested that whites become literally like the black stereotype and sacrifice their alleged superiority in intellect and energy,” stresses Fredrickson.14
The romantic racialist mindset allowed that one might favor Black music while still denying Black intellect or agency. It also meant that white chroniclers of African American vernacular music might project a politics of race and culture of their own making. Whether left, right, or center, white music collectors engaged in a tradition of folklore studies and folk revivalism in the twentieth century that overlapped with the long tradition of romantic racialism. People of color have been expected to sing with open hearts, but not openly speak their minds.
I am a cultural historian of the modern United States, with a special interest in domination and resistance, and a research focus on Left radicalism and African American history. Though he was never a card-carrying Communist Party member, as the old cliché would have it, Lawrence Gellert was an American “Red” over a period of years when that was both tolerated and not tolerated. An outspoken alternative thinker who was awakened to issues of racial and economic oppression during the worst years of the Great Depression, Gellert was still, at age seventy in interviews from the late 1960s, saying that “communism will succeed in the world simply because it’s a superior society to capitalism.”15 He was no joiner, but he was a radical. In the folk revival ferment of the 1930s, he was one of many culture workers on the Left who came to discover American vernacular music as he came to an analysis of American injustice.
Gellert was also only one among multiple white rebel music collectors and afficionados from over the years who came to prize African American music in particular as part of this awakening. Young and earnest, these restive white Americans, mostly men from the urban and suburban North and West, sought a usable past and a meaningful present in the alternative culture of rural southern Black America. Typically working from a remove of race, class, and regional difference, some of these white individuals became weekend music hobbyists, and some went off into the field directly to become folklorists, blues scholars, promoters, experts, activists, or any combination of the above. In the first half of the twentieth century, Black vernacular music styles (blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues on the secular side) were the primary province of everyday African American working people; in the second half of the century, Black music crossed over to mass awareness with the rock ‘n’ roll, folk, and blues music explosions of the 1950s and 1960s. What was gained and what was lost in this transition is another of the themes raised in this study. As historian Grace Hale has detailed it most broadly, disaffected white rebels from the dominant culture found a love for “outsider” America in the postwar. But in the disequilibrium of race and class inequality, white middle-class love could turn from empathy to fantasy. The result, argues Hales, is that “we live in an age when illusions—the idea that black culture is more authentic and middle-class whites are outsiders—rule. The romance of the outsider perpetuates a disavowal of power that damages us all.”16
Lawrence Gellert is an expansive and enigmatic historical figure. In life, he was everywhere and nowhere, it seemed. Folk and blues revivalism, however, with its changing meanings before and after World War II, was the backdrop to his story. From the mid-1930s to the latter 1940s, a leftwing folksong movement emerged in the United States that orbited around the institutional mainspring of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its liberal New Deal intersections in labor and civil rights. As this leftwing folksong revival was gaining a wider popular currency, however, it was cut short by the Cold War and the most reactionary years of US anticommunism. In 1950, Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers, scored a record contract and the first in a series of commercial hits with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.” By the next year, Seeger had been listed nationally as a communist, the Weavers were blacklisted, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was in the midst of his notorious ascent in Washington.
The period from 1958, with the Kingston Trio’s popular hit “Tom Dooley,” until 1965, when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, saw a resurgence of folk music discovery with a new generation of revivalists. This was the era of the “folk boom,” in American dominant culture. Pete Seeger resurfaced to mainstream visibility; Bob Dylan came to the fore, first as a Woody Guthrie imitator and Seeger heir-apparent; and popular artists Joan Baez and the trio Peter, Paul, and Mary made “folk music” a household word and a viable commercial prospect. Spinning off into offshoots and hybrids, “unplugged” American roots music and personalities remained highly visible through the 1960s.
Whether these two periods, spanning two generations, constitute a single ongoing revival or separate revivals is a point of discussion in contemporary folksong historiography. The matter is significant. As editor Neil V. Rosenberg contends in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, there are important differences between the “great boom” after World War II, as he calls it, and the Old Left activity from before. The very term “revival,” Rosenberg holds, only came “to achieve widespread currency” after “the great boom was under way.” Significantly, he elaborates, it came to supplant the “semantic niche previously occupied by ‘movement,’ ” perhaps because it “did not evoke the notion of political action” as did the former.17 Robert Cantwell, in When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, underlines the point: “What is most interesting about the [postwar] revival is not its political affiliations, but the absence of them.” He concludes that “for those of us whose revival began around 1958,” Old Left associations “were absent and would have been, in our naive and compliant youth, a barrier to any enthusiasm for folksong.”18
As for Lawrence Gellert, what is clear is that the collector—still very much alive and active in the 1950s and 1960s—was a notable presence in the first period, and a relative absence in the second. One can argue about the activism of the Depression and World War II years versus the activism of the postwar, the Old Left versus the New Left. But certainly, the folk boom of the 1960s had its politics, blossoming as it did in the same soil as the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements. In this context—especially one in which race, justice, and southern music were again an American preoccupation—where was Lawrence Gellert? More importantly, where was the archive of “Negro Songs of Protest” that had once been touted as a key index of Black freedom?
If Gellert came and went in folk revival consciousness from the 1930s to the 1960s, he was, even at the height of his success, an unstable entity. African American luminaries Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, for instance, praised Gellert’s work and shared a degree of professional and friendly acquaintance with the man, as we will see. But Gellert bickered with other figures of considerable repute, from W. C. Handy to John and Alan Lomax. In 1937, Gellert reportedly won, and then lost, a Rockefeller Foundation grant for continued field research, owing he said to his politics. In 1939, a second songbook, “Me and My Captain,” followed his first, Negro Songs of Protest, but the proposed third and fourth installments never appeared. By World War II, Gellert was already so “sore at the whole folk lore racket,” as he put it, that he considered turning in all of his aluminum field discs as scrap for the War Department.19 During the Cold War in the 1950s, Gellert said his stuff was untouchable, and by the early 1960s, in the peak of the “folk boom,” he was defamed as a fraud in influential circles. Gellert’s archive was tainted if not outright phony, went the charge, an example of white leftwing propaganda and interference rather than Black vernacular creativity and resistance.
In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Mahalia Jackson, among others, crystalized the ideal of the engaged folk movement when they performed in front of the 250,000 activists assembled at the March on Washington. That same year, Irwin Silber, influential editor of the movement organ Sing Out! magazine and an Old Left radical from the Communist Party days, issued a public charge of fakery against Lawrence Gellert. Silber wrote:
Frankly, as a person familiar with folk music and folklore materials for considerable time, I find it very difficult to accept the material presented by Gellert as folk songs which he really collected. Aside from the fact of documentation which would let us know where and under what circumstances, etc. the songs were collected, the fact that no one else has ever been able to collect similar songs or the same song in a different version, would tend to indicate that this material should be approached with a great deal of care. . . . I am strongly of the opinion that these songs of Lawrence Gellert are more likely his or someone else’s original creation rather than material, which by any stretch of the imagination, could fall into the domain of folk songs.20
What had happened? At the apex of the 1960s boom, as the synthesis of vernacular music and progressive politics was inspiring countless new young people, a stigma had attached to Gellert’s name that lingers today.
Through a number of academic generations, following the retrenchments after World War II, a series of scholars waged what seems an uphill battle to prompt and sustain critical interest in Gellert’s considerable contribution to Black folksong research and American cultural history more generally. In the early 1950s, authors John Greenway and Russell Ames both drew on the collector’s work in their respective studies of American vernacular music. Greenway employed Gellert’s material in a chapter titled “Negro Songs of Protest” in his American Folksongs of Protest published in 1953; Ames cited Gellert’s “extraordinary collection” alongside that of John and Alan Lomax as well as Howard Odum and Guy Johnson in The Story of American Folk Song from 1955.21 Such efforts positing an organic cross-fertilization of traditional music and topical lyricism, however, rankled the new disciplinary proponents of academic folklore, only just gaining an institutional footing on most university campuses in the years after World War II. Moreover, they tested the limits of cultural work in the strained political climate of the domestic Cold War.
In the latter 1960s, folk music, revival, and Left specialist Richard A. Reuss conducted hours of taped interviews with Lawrence Gellert about his background, fieldwork, song collection, political commitments, and relations in the folk music community. I refer to these interviews often in this study.22 Reuss treated Gellert in some detail in his seminal doctoral dissertation from 1971. David King Dunaway has called Reuss “the preeminent scholar of the American folksong revival.” In that effort, Reuss made the invaluable first strides in Gellert studies. After a drought of neglect and suspicion, he set in motion the effort to reclaim Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” for a new set of researchers in the 1970s. But again, energies stalled. Reuss, himself, saw his scholarship thwarted. Though his doctoral thesis from 1971, “American Folklore and Left-Wing Politics, 1927–1957,” was referenced for years as the definitive study, he could not find a publisher and ended up leaving academia. Reuss passed away in 1986 at only forty-six years of age. His dissertation was finally published in 2000.23
In the 1980s, Bruce Conforth took the lead as the authority on Gellert. Conforth first encountered Gellert’s material while he was working as a graduate student in folklore at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University in Bloomington. In the early 1970s, after hunting around some, Gellert had deposited his original field discs, notes, lyric transcriptions, correspondence, and manuscripts at the university. With this trove of previously unexamined material at hand and through subsequent primary research, Conforth produced the first extended study of Gellert’s life and song archive as his master’s thesis in 1984.24 Additionally, he expanded his efforts from print to sound. Between 1973 and the early 1980s, there were three commercial albums issued from out of Gellert’s extensive field recordings, all on long-playing vinyl and with accompanying documentation.25 After four decades, those interested were afforded the opportunity for the first time to review Gellert’s original documentary items. Prior to these important sound releases, as blues scholar Paul Garon reminds us, readers might have been able to dig up a copy of Gellert’s lyric transcriptions and accompanying arrangements in print, but listeners were unable to make determinations based on actually hearing Gellert’s sound discs from the field.26 While Gellert was involved in the earliest of these productions in 1973, he was not involved in the latter two. Bruce Conforth was the impetus behind these historic releases in 1982 and 1984. His liner notes for the albums, and master’s thesis, became source texts that piqued interest in the scholarly community. But, once again, curiosity did not translate to any major sustained follow up.
Beyond the above efforts, and until my own scholarly article in 2005 and Bruce Conforth’s long-awaited African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story, published in 2013, there were only passing secondary mentions of Gellert scattered within a varied field of literature. Generally, these treatments were curious and approving rather than dismissive. Nevertheless, most were brief references along the way in studies focused on other or broader subjects. Sometimes, authors simply used Gellert’s material without much, if any, comment. In other instances, they raised interest, called for more investigation, and moved on.27
Because of parallels such as “How Long, Brethren?” / “How Long, How Long Blues” mentioned above and because of the impressive guitar-accompanied blues featured on the 1984 release Nobody Knows My Name: Blues from South Carolina and Georgia (the last of the Gellert LPs), blues scholars have shown a particular, if at times halting, interest in Gellert since the popular cross-over period of the 1960s. William Ferris cited Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” in the 1970s, as did David Evans in Big Road Blues in 1982. Bruce Bastin was the first to offer any kind of published profile in his highly respected regional survey, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast from 1986. Bastin was followed with mentions by Paul Oliver in the “Bibliographical References” section at the end of the revised edition of Blues Fell This Morning, along with Steven Tracy, Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, Paul Garon, John Cowley, Francis Davis, Dutch expert Guido van Rijn, and, more currently, Elijah Wald, Adam Gussow, R. A. Lawson, and Roger House. More or less, each of these authors take Gellert as credible, but each has a larger story to tell and offers only limited coverage.28
Scholars of the folksong revival, in turn, built on Richard Reuss’s defining contribution. In 2000, the book version of Reuss’s dissertation included its original key sections on “important collector” Lawrence Gellert. Robert Cantwell made reference to Gellert in When We Were Good, as have historians Robbie Lieberman, Ronald Cohen, Dick Weissman, David King Dunaway, and John Szwed.29
There have been a number of nods to Gellert in contemporary interdisciplinary studies in American cultural history, Southern history, communist history, and African American studies. Mark Naison, Robin D. G. Kelley, James Smethurst, and Mark Solomon each mention Gellert in their histories of the communist movement and African American radicalism before World War II. Scott Nelson, David Roediger, and Grace Hale, as well, cite Gellert in their critical historical work. From abroad, scholar Mechal Sobel relates Gellert’s archive of song to other vernacular currents of African American “retaliatory violence.” In her study of outsider painter Bill Traylor, Sobel references Gellert’s material and argues that “bitter blues” were a reality, on record and on paper.30
I am not certain if I first encountered Lawrence Gellert’s name in Lawrence Levine’s classic Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, or Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front. Levine’s book from 1977 remains an academic standard. With no hint of uncertainty, Levine includes a few of Gellert’s song texts in his sweeping foundational history. Hammer and Hoe helped establish Kelley as a major scholar when it was released in 1990. Kelley quotes song lyrics from Gellert’s pieces in New Masses and also cites a report on the Scottsboro Boys defense that Gellert contributed from the field in Alabama. Michael Denning’s expansive The Cultural Front contained the most formal and analytical treatment. In the book, Denning not only connects African American blues tradition to labor and Left history, with reference to “radical folklorist” Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest,” but beyond that, Denning’s formulation of a “political vernacular of the blues” proved pivotal to my thinking. Each of these books was central to my reading as a doctoral student in American Studies in the 1990s, but I cannot recall which came first in my Gellert consciousness. In reflecting back, whatever the source of my initial curiosity, the larger point is that the collector and his archive were there hidden in plain sight in a number of discourses all along.31
What is more, as I quickly realized back then, a wealth of Gellert primary sources were readily available in a public archive. Gellert’s 221 field recording discs comprising 505 song items are preserved with accompanying materials as “United States, North and South Carolina, Georgia, African Americans, 1920s–1940s” at the Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) at Indiana University in Bloomington. His correspondence, assorted lyric transcriptions, unpublished manuscripts, and archival miscellany are available as “Gellert mss., 1927–1978” and “Gellert mss. II” in the Lilly Library there. Additionally, there are the hours of taped interviews with Richard Reuss (mentioned above), also housed at the ATM in Bloomington. Why wasn’t anyone pursuing this material further?32
Lawrence Gellert was said to have passed away in 1979. Actually, he had vanished at eighty years old that June from his apartment at 148 Sullivan Street in Manhattan. To this day, family members, friends, and police have no clear answers to this disconcerting end. Though his siblings are identifiable in the Social Security Death Index, Lawrence Gellert is not listed. Police never resolved his “missing person” case, reported a body, or established a trail of disappearance.33
In a further twist, the tragic Etan Patz missing child case that took place in New York City in 1979 comes into this story. Six-year-old Patz went missing only a few blocks from Gellert’s apartment. Though Gellert was never a serious suspect, his eldest brother Hugo believed that Lawrence was developing clinical paranoia in his advanced age. When the police came to question him as part of a broad canvassing of the neighborhood, Lawrence may have panicked and fled, or taken his own life. Additionally, some allege that things went as far as foul play. The theory is that Lawrence was set up as a suspect for the missing child case by an unscrupulous landlord with police connections who wanted him out of his rent-controlled apartment. Greenwich Village artist David Margolis, a close friend of both Hugo and Lawrence for fifty years, believed that Gellert was a victim of such a conspiracy. On the other hand, as I was told by nephew Donald Gellert, Donald’s father Otto (Lawrence’s older brother by two years) believed that Lawrence fled back to the South to live out his remaining years in anonymity. Some family members suggest that Otto, in fact, helped Lawrence relocate. In a separate interview, Donald’s younger brother, James, added that his “Uncle Lou” had placed an urgent phone call to two friends just days before his disappearance. For a period of time, this nephew James, who had been close to Lawrence, searched the morgues in the New York area, but to no avail. It seemed, James said, that Gellert “panicked” or “lost his mind” as a result of some “dramatic episode.” He referred to the “demise of Lawrence Gellert.” Whatever their respective theories, all parties involved remain baffled and saddened. In the words of nephew James, Lawrence simply “evaporated.”34
By now, Lawrence Gellert’s immediate family members and contemporaries have all died. Nevertheless, I have had the opportunity to interview or correspond with Lawrence’s nephews Donald and James, as well as Bob Neidich, son of Lawrence’s younger sister Billie and husband Irving. I shared email correspondence with Tom Gellert, grand-nephew of Lawrence by way of his older brother Theodor. Additionally, I maintained an active correspondence with, and interviewed as well, Israel “Izzy” Young of the Folklore Center. I interviewed artist Margolis, mentioned above, and also folksinger Pete Seeger, who offered his recollections of Gellert. In 2005, I was thrilled to be located by grand-niece Penny Gellert Freeman, as warm and brilliant a family contact as any historian could ever dream. Penny and I began an ongoing correspondence, and then I visited her and her husband, Doug Freeman, for a series of interviews in summer 2010. Penny shared family history, photographs, personal memories, and her own independent research. Incredibly, though they were unaware of the connection when they settled, Penny and Doug lived in Hendersonville, North Carolina, only a few miles from Lawrence’s original base of operations in nearby Tryon.
In some ways, Lawrence Gellert’s record of existence on this earth is no more or less spotty than that of anyone else. In a sense even, considering his field recordings, published writings, personal papers, and interviews, we have more, perhaps, of a Lawrence Gellert paper trail than most of us leave behind. Still, Gellert is an elusive figure. I have spent a great of time and energy delving into the gaps and mysteries surrounding his life and work.
All of this is prologue to a central set of questions guiding my interest in the man’s story in the first place. If the reasons behind Gellert’s continual remove from scholarly attention are more than simply “academic”—if the archive is legitimate, and the reasons for its slighting are a matter of cultural and political change as much as they are a matter of, for instance, disciplinary predilection—then what does it mean that a line of researchers in succeeding generations since World War II have found it necessary to continually renew the discussion of Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” after recurring periods of silence? What explains the enduring absence of this valuable material in folklore studies, blues scholarship, and African American studies? Why is it that a list of accomplished researchers, several times over, have had little long-term success in trying to reintroduce Gellert’s Black songs of protest to wider recognition?
I take up these quandaries in the pages that follow. The book pursues as its general subject Black musical resistance and white dominant representation, and as its specific focus the rise and fall of Lawrence Gellert and “Negro Songs of Protest.” As I conclude, the tragedy of Gellert’s story, folklore collecting, and musical revivalism, generally, is the tragedy of missed opportunities and roads not followed. Ultimately, in my judgment, Lawrence Gellert was a sincere broker in the cause of racial justice and radical change; the Gellert archive is credible. But, the vindication of Gellert is about more than character rehabilitation. Rather, it is about the historical validation of a dialectic of resistance between “red” and “Black,” the political Left and African American vernacular cultures of opposition, that was genuine and meaningful in the American past. I hope in my treatment to have done right by the people and music represented.
1. Lawrence Gellert, interview by Richard A. Reuss, March 28, 1968, Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, Bloomington. See note 22 below for a fuller description of this material henceforth denoted as “Gellert interviews, ATM.”
2. Lawrence Gellert Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
3. Langston Hughes to Gellert, February 1932; Hughes to Gellert, June 11, 1933; and Hughes to Gellert, February 22, 1934, Lawrence Gellert Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. The Russian edition of NSP is Negrityanskie Pesni Protesta, trans. G. M. Shneerson (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdateil’stvo “Iskusstvo,” 1938); there was also a German publication, Protestlieder des Amerikanischen Negroproletariats, trans. G. M. Shneerson and Ernst Busch (Berlin: Verlag Lied der Ziet, 1949).
4. Gellert interviews, ATM; Gellert interview by Lorraine Brown, October 22, 1976, Works Progress Administration Oral Histories Collection, #C0153, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
5. “Songs of Protest,” Time, June 15, 1936, 51.
6. Gellert, Negro Songs of Protest (New York: American Music League, 1936), 16–17.
7. Leroy Carr, Sloppy Drunk, Catfish KATCD 108, 1998, CD.
8. William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (1867; New York: Peter Smith, 1951), 93.
9. Throughout this study, I use the term “Negro Songs of Protest” both to refer to the body of Black freedom song that Gellert documented and in reference to the titles for his many writings on the subject. Context and formatting (italics versus quotation marks, for instance) should make the distinction clear.
10. “Songs of Protest,” Time, June 15, 1936, 51.
11. Interested readers should consult Bruce Conforth’s biography, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013).
12. Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2001), 4–5; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010; New York: The New Press, 2012), 182.
13. George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 1, 71–72, 107, 97–98, 114–15.
14. Fredrickson, 125.
15. Gellert interviews, ATM.
16. Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10.
17. Neil V. Rosenberg, ed., Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), xii, 2, 18.
18. Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 21–22.
19. Gellert interviews, ATM.
20. Irwin Silber, “Dubious,” letter to the editor, Mainstream (July 1963): 61.
21. John Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953); Russell Ames, The Story of American Folk Song (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1955). Both authors consulted Gellert at the outset of their projects. John Greenway to Gellert, January 21, 1951, and Russell Ames to Gellert, April 21, 1955, Gellert Manuscripts, Manuscripts Department, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.
22. Totaling nearly nine hours, Reuss’s oral interviews with Gellert between 1966 and 1969 constitute the only primary source evidence of such extent on the collector. “United States, 1966, 1968, 1969,” interviews of Lawrence Gellert by Richard A. Reuss, Israel Goodman Young, and Margot Mayo (on six sound tape reels, analog, 3 ¾ ips, 2 track, mono).
23. Reuss, “American Folklore and Left-Wing Politics, 1927–1957” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1971), and Reuss with JoAnne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927–1957 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000).
24. Bruce Michael Harrah-Conforth, “Laughing Just to Keep from Crying: Afro-American Folksong and the Field Recordings of Lawrence Gellert” (master’s thesis, Indiana University, 1984).
25. Negro Songs of Protest: Collected by Lawrence Gellert, 33 rpm, Rounder 4004, 1973; Cap’n You’re So Mean: Negro Songs of Protest, Volume 2, 33 rpm, Rounder 4013, 1982; and Nobody Knows My Name: Blues from South Carolina and Georgia, 33 rpm, Heritage HT 304, 1984. In 1972, Gellert issued a private release by appropriating the defunct Timely label. This album—Collection of Lawrence Gellert: Negro Songs of Protest, TI-112—was repackaged with his oversight for commercial distribution as Rounder 4004. Blues hobbyist Stefan Wirz provides a useful online discography for all this at https://www.wirz.de/music/gellert.htm.
26. Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit (1975; San Francisco: City Lights, 2001), 200.
27. See Steven Garabedian, “Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Lawrence Gellert, ‘Negro Songs of Protest,’ and the Left-Wing Folk-Song Revival of the 1930s and 1940s,” American Quarterly 57 (March 2005): 179–206.
28. William R. Ferris Jr., “Racial Repertoires among Blues Performers,” Ethnomusicology 14, no. 3 (September 1970): 439–49; Bruce Bastin, Red River Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 64–67; Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (1960; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), and Steven Tracy, ed., Write Me A Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999); Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992); Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit (1975; San Francisco: City Lights, 2001); John H. Cowley, “Don’t Leave Me Here: Non-Commercial Blues: The Field Trips, 1924–1960,” in Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, ed. Lawrence Cohn (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 267–69; Guido van Rijn, Roosevelt’s Blues; Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); Adam Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); R. A. Lawson, Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890–1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); and Roger House, Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).
29. Reuss with Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics; Robbie Lieberman, “My Song Is My Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930–1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Cantwell, When We Were Good; Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Cohen, “Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and Labor Songs in the Depression South,” in Radicalism in the South since Reconstruction, ed. Chris Green, Rachel Rubin, and James Smethurst (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 83–96; Dick Weissman, Which Side Are You On?: An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America (New York: Continuum, 2005); David King Dunaway and Molly Beer, Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010). In a more contentious vein, R. Serge Denisoff, a contemporary of Reuss, mentioned Gellert in his Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971).
30. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (1983; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); James Edward Smethurst, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930–1946 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998); David R. Roediger, Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of An American Legend (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Hear Me Talking to You: The Blues and the Romance of Rebellion,” in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890–1930, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 239–58; and Mechal Sobel, Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).
31. Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; and, Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996).
32. As of December 2017, Bruce Conforth has deposited his Gellert research materials at the University of North Carolina. See Bruce M. Conforth Collection on Lawrence Gellert #20552, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This collection is access- and use-restricted. Duplication or publishing of collection materials requires the personal permission of Conforth. In August 2019, the author denied my permission request.
33. Jerry Schmetterer, “80-Yr.-Olds Are Sought By Cops, Kin,” Daily News, November 4, 1979, 84.
34. Donald Gellert, phone interview by author, September 7, 2002; James Gellert, phone interview by author, September 10, 2002; and David Margolis, interview by author, March 10, 2003, New York City. For Conforth’s account, see African American Folksong, 227–30. On the Patz case, see Michael Wilson, “Even After Patz Verdict, a Sense of Emptiness Lingers Over Old Soho,” New York Times, February 16, 2017, A23, and James C. McKinley Jr., “Pedro Hernandez Gets 25 Years to Life in Murder of Etan Patz,” New York Times, April 19, 2017, A21. Gellert left a “last note.” Though it does not necessarily indicate suicide, it reflects a frightened and disordered state. See Tamiment Library, NYU, Hugo Gellert Papers, TAM 150, Box 2 of 2, Folder 6, “Gellert, Jim,” 1979.