Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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July 01, 2010
America Sings of Bolshevism!
(part III of III)

the 1930's          (through 1938)

time constraints/terminal boredom w/ the material ----> outline/bullet point post here
of imaginary contents in final section

  • some indispensible secondary sources here:

    Michael Denning's masterpiece, The Cultural front: the Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997)

    American Folk Music and Left-wing Politics, 1927-1957 by Richard A. Reuss, JoAnne C. Reuss (2000)

    also: My Song Is My Weapon: People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50, by Robbie Lieberman (1995)

  • some themes:
    rise of the USA's organized left
    incl. the Commienist-backed / leaning / sympathetic / compatible / wary / hating / whatevs

    squabbling, shifting factional attitudes towards USSR

    changes thereof throughout the decade

    "folk" music in its various forms

    overlapping w/: workers' choruses

  • (some of the ) entities to research/puzzle over
    (incl. musical repertoires/stances of):

    Workers' Music League

    slogan: ""Music for the Masses" --> "popular" music?

    brief description of, here

    International Music Bureau, and H. Eisler

    Pierre Degeyter Club

    described here

    members are said to have included Marc Blitzstein, tho' also Henry Cowell, Earl Robinson and George Anthell, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Aaron Copland

    "popular" music??

    Jacob Schaefer/ Freiheit chorus

    Daily Worker Chorus

  • distinctions to navigate:

    is folk music "popular music"?

    confusion of the high/low art distinction:

    "classical" composers who write "workers' songs"?

    proletarians who write symphonies?

    Is it "America" singing if it's Moscow that's funding/stage managing the effort?

    popular music/Popular Front

    the Popular vs. the popular

    the popular vs. the populist

    groups within the 30s American left: the pro-Russian, the "anti"-"Russian", the neither

    the anti- and neither, and music:
    songs & music explicitly "about" the Russ. Rev. vs. those that don't reference it but may be inconceivable without it

    the return to Americana & "roots" music as progressive, reactionary (who knows?), or "neutral" stance, neither pro-USA nor pro-USSR, but pro-"the people"?

    e.g., Carl Sandberg's American     Songbag (1927)

    compare: IWW's Little Red     Songbooks:

    29 editions published between 1909 and 1956, per article on Archie Green, here.

    how many editions post-1917?

    of those, how many w/ songs that referenced Russia?

    of these references, how many were sympathetic?
    probably understandably few: see, e.g., IWW chronology incl. post-WWI years, here, on Russian involvement, & above piece on Green.

    nice article about the IWW's use of music, here.

    the meanings & uses of Americana

    displays of patriotism:
    as "genuine"

    as xenophobic

    as strategic camouflage

    as default setting

    cf. Earl Browder's 1936 presidential campaign slogan: "Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism"

    (back to the past as forward to the future)

    "Star-Spangled Banner" as substitute for "The Internationale"

    "Star-Spangled Banner" as complement to "The Internationale"

  • "Black America Sings of Bolshevism!"

    intersection w/ story of the CP & black American musicians & artists

    Dec. 1934: Paul Robeson's 1st trip to the Soviet Union
    He did not seem to have sung much about Russia during the 1930s but he did talk a lot about it.

    Thus, on picket lines in Chicago during the mid-1930s, rural blacks newly arrived from the South could be heard singing:
    Gimme that new Communist spirit,
    Gimme that new Communist spirit,
    Gimme that new Communist spirit,
    It's good enough for me.
    It was good enough for Comrade Lenin,
    It was good enough for Comrade Lenin,
    It was good enough for Comrade Lenin,
    And it's good enough for me.

    (as per the Reusses' American Folk Music and Left-wing Politics (p. 94))

    the mysterious Juanita Lewis:

    singer with Hall Johnson's choir

    among the 22, including Langston Hughes, who in summer 1932 travelled to Moscow for director Karl Junghans' ill-fated "Black and White," Comintern-approved film project

    as mentioned in, among other sources:

    the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, v. 1, by Cary D. Wintz, Paul Finkelman (2004) (p. 123)

    and Defying Dixie: the Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore (2008)

    and Faith Berry's Langston Hughes, Before and Beyond Harlem (1995)

    Whatever became of Ms. Lewis?

    [We gather that she is certainly not the same person (w/ diff. surname via alias, marriage, etc.)(unfortunately, because 'twould otherwise, would make the story even more interesting) as Juanita Hall

    The latter also sang with the Hall Johnson choir, and in 1950 became the first black American to win a Tony Award.

    A nice capsule bio of Hall is here.

    A glimpse of her work in the musical "South Pacific" can be enjoyed here.

    A 1980 interview, here, with Jester Hairston discusses some of Hall's activities in 1932, but makes no mention of a trip to Russia.]

    Also on the 1932 Russian trip, as a couple of the above sources also note, was the singer Taylor      Gordon, author of the 1929 memoir of life in the American West, Born to Be.

    W.E.B. Dubois was quite unimpressed by Taylor's book but highly praised his singing (of spirituals, not of Bolshevism), as set forth in "The Browsing Reader" column in The Crisis for April 1930, as viewable (at p. 129) here.

    During Gordon's year following his return from Moscow, he seems also to have appeared on stage with Fred Astaire in the Broadway version of "The Gay Divorcee."

    More info on Gordon's fascinating life can be found on the Taylor Gordon and Rose Gordon Biography Project blog,

    The fuller story of the "Black and White" journey and (non-)film was told nicely in American Heritage magazine, here, and in detail in Joy Gleason Carew's Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise (2008).

    The NYT obit of Louise Thompson, who organized the trip, is here.

    [update 7/13/10:

    further (non-musical) context:

    March 1932 = Fortune magazine's special "Russia Russia Russia" issue

    featured classic cover lithograph by Diego Rivera, viewable here

    Nicholas Fraser's recent review of a new Henry Luce bio puts it that the "early, extremely long article in Fortune was among the first attempts to make sense of the new Soviet regime."

    Meanwhile, Margaret Bourke-White, in Luce's publications, at around this time helped fix images of Five-Year Plan-era Russia for the American imagination, as gathered for example in her Eyes on Russia (1931).]

  • the Russian Rev. or USSR as depicted in 30's musical theater

    distinctions to make: "mainstream" Broadway and / or / with / vs. "folk opera," workers' musical theater, agitprop street theater, etc.

    a non-musical but funny Broadway skit, & interesting reflection of public opinion vis-a-vis the Rev.:
    Willie & Eugene Howard's "Comes the Revolution"
    from the show "Ballyhoo" (1932)

    1930s continuation of the "Russian emigré" character & themes in shows, as in 1920s:

    "Roberta" (1933):

    character of Stephanie = exiled White Russian princess (played by Irene Dunne in the 1935 movie)

    opened at the New Amsterdam Theater, 11/18/33

    saw Bob Hope in his first major Broadway role

    on B'way Princess Stephanie played by Ukranian emigré Tamara     Drasin

    further assimilation of Russian emigrés into cultural life of USA
    i.e., Hollywood

    e.g. # 1: Anna Sten:

    starred in wonderful Russian silent "Girl with the Hat Box" (1927)

    nice bio of her here but no explan how she got out of Russia.

    arrived in USA & moved into awesome 1934 Richard Neutra house

    not a musician, it seems

    but name-checked in Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (1934)!
    re: Goldwyn's tutoring of her:

    If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction
    Instruct Anna Sten in diction
    Then Anna shows
    Anything goes.

    e.g. # 2:

    Dimitri     Tiomkin

    born in Ukraine, became crafter of revolutionary spectacles
    arrived in Hollywood in 1930

    scored "Lost Horizon" (1937)(Acad Award nom) &
    "You Can't Take It With You" (1938)
    later "It's a Wonderful Life" ('46)

    Great Depression-era Broadway portrayals of Russian emigrés:

    new bite, compared to the 20s, added to certain depictions of aristocrats and their allegedly elitist attitudes.

    e.g., "Too Good For the Average Man" from "On Your Toes" (1936)

    full lyrics here


    When Russia was White,
    It was White for the classes
    And Red for the masses,
    Unfortunate asses!
    All wealth belonged to few. . . .

    Finer things are for the finer folk,
    Thus society began.
    Caviar for peasants is a joke;
    It's too good for the average man.

    comparative digression: "The UK sings of Bolshevism!" (survey of relevant shows and songs from British theater)

    e.g. # 1: Noel Coward's "Russian Blues" (1922)(London)

    from the show "London Calling!":

    (public debuts of Coward, Gertrude Lawrence)

    e.g. # 2, "Balalaika" (1936)

    a London hit:
    "The Eddy/Massey Balalaika was based on a hit London stage musical of the same title by Eric Maschwitz, which had in turn been inspired by a German operetta."

    plot recapped here, and here:
    The initial location is outside the Balalaika Nightclub in Montmartre just after World War I. An old man is singing a sad ballad, "Where Are the Snows?" and the audience is transported back to the Russia of 1914 by way of the story of a lovely ballerina and singer, Lydia, and her high-born lover, Peter. These two young people survive the Revolution, foil and attempted assassination of the Tsar and finally, melt into each other's arms while in exile in Paris.

  • 1938

    the appearance of the last true, ultimate "America Sings of Bolshevism!" show?

    Cole Porter's "Leave It to Me!"

    synopsis of, here:
    The play follows Leona Goodhue, an ambitious wife from Topeka, Kansas, who masterminds her reluctant husband Alonzo into a position as the US Ambassador to Russia.

    and here:
    The plot is a little silly and somewhat complicated with sub-plots coming in and out rapidly. A lot happens in the 2 hour plus musical and some of it does come out of left field.

    The show brought the world "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (and Mary Martin, who sang it)(sung, in the play, at a Siberian railway station).

    other numbers include:

    "Comrade Alonzo"

    sample lyric:
    'Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place,
    The International Soviet shall lead the human race.

    "Olga (Come Back to the Volga)"
    (mentions Lenin, Trotsky)

    cast included Tamara [Drasin] here too

    show featured Sophie Tucker
    (born Sonia Kalish-Abuza, in 1884, as parents fled Russia)

    ST sang "I'm Taking the Steps to Russia"
    (the ultimate, funniest "ASoB!" song evar?)

    sample lyrics:

    I'm taking the steps to Russia,
    I'm showing 'em how to dance,
    I'm starting the shag in Moscow,
    I'm putting red ants in their pants. . . .

    I know what's the matter with 'em,
    What they need is Harlem rhythm,
    So I'm making Communithm

    Those proletari-ats
    And agitators
    Will all be alley cats
    And alley-gators. . . .

    Old Stalin will hush his gush-a
    And strut like a Roxy usher
    When I make the steppes of Russia

    (for the rest, see The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, here.)

    The above jab at Stalin's long-windedness reappears later in the show, in "To the U.S.A. from the U.S.S.R." The song marvels at how "backward" and "slow" the USSR must be to prefer listening on the radio to Uncle Joe, rather than to Charlie McCarthy, as do folks in the USA.

  • Why end America Sings of Bolshevism! at 1938?

    Bordman's American Musical Theatre: a Chronicle, in discussing "Leave It to Me!" (see p. 565, here) explains indirectly why the above year is a convenient and merciful place to end the book:

    Leave It to Me's first-act finale was set in Red Square. The Communist anthem, "The Internationale," was sung, and a friendly Joe Stalin (Walter Armin) condescended to do a little dance.

    By the time the show embarked on a national tour during the next season, Stalin and Hitler has signed their pact, Stalin was eliminated as a character in the show, and a warning was added to the program insisting that the evening bore no relation to current events.

    In other words, after 1938, particularly after August 1939, the history just gets too depressing. And complicated.

    In any event, 1939 & the years immed. thereafter seem to show evidence of even wider interest in USA in "folk forms" (a step backward? or away? or beyond? or "deeper"? who knows/cares?), and not just those of the USA:

    Decca's 1939 album by the Russian Imperial Singers, Russian Folk Songs; from the liner notes:
    With the changes which have taken place in the musical as well as the political life of Russia, a tremendous interest has grown up abroad in the music of the earlier days, and the distinctive manner of its performance. . . . The Russian Imperial Singers is a group of five men who are carrying on the artistic traditions of the music of Czarist Russia.

    A final advantage of a brief digressionary epilogue into 1939 would be to mention Garbo's immortal "Ninotchka" (1939).

    "Ninotchka" is not a musical -- but what if it were?

    Then it would be Cole Porter's "Silk Stockings" (1955).

    Thus could be bootstrapped in a final quote from the lyrics (as noted here, on Clive Davis's cool blog) of that show's "Siberia":

    Then we're sent to dear Siberia,
    To Siberi-eri-a,
    When it's cocktail time 'twill be so nice
    Just to know you'll not have to phone for ice.
    When we meet in sweet Siberia,
    Far from Bolshevik hysteria . . .

  • Final (and perhaps only) good reason that America Sings of Bolshevism!* should exist at all:

    inclusion of CDs of recordings of all the songs.

    *(a title that admittedly is silly, if not ridiculous, if not stupid.

    Where did it come from?

    See previous posts: It's not TiR's fault.)

Now goodbye to this topic.