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#1: Article on Irwin Silber, Former Editor of Sing Out!

Posted on 2005-11-02 03:27:56 by Jim Capaldi


Magazine editor, former target of McCarthy, celebrates 80th birthday

"ARE YOU NOW or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

There was no more terrifying question back in 1958, especially if it was
being directed to you by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

That's the predicament 33-year-old Irwin Silber found himself in. He was
hauled before HUAC because he was the editor of "Sing Out!" -- a
folk-singing magazine he founded with Pete Seeger and
musicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax. (Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author
of "A Raisin in the Sun," was the office secretary.)

When I say folk singing, I'm not talking about the Kingston Trio, New
Christy Minstrels or the other commercial acts that were satirized in last
year's comedy, "A Mighty Wind."

I mean people like Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Lee Hays and Huddie
Ledbetter (better known as Leadbelly), who came out of the great CIO
labor-organizing drives of the 1930s. (Guthrie wrote on his guitar, "This
guitar kills fascists!")

At a time when the Democrats and labor unions were cowed into silence --
sound familiar? -- "Sing Out!" was a lonely voice of dissent against

In Silber's case, he had a problem because he had been a member of the
party. He joined in 1942, when the Soviet Union was our ally against Hitler,
and left the party in the late '50s, after Nikita Khrushchev revealed the
full extent of Stalin's crimes.

But he wasn't about to "name names" to the witch hunters, and he couldn't
take the Fifth Amendment because he would have been fired from his job.

That job was to write blurbs for the covers of cheap paperback detective
novels, paying him the princely sum of $100 a week. The money was vital to
keep "Sing Out!" going.

So instead of pleading the Fifth Amendment, he pleaded the First -- his
right of free speech.

"I'm not going to tell you," he declared.

The chairman of the committee tried a different tack: "Did you ever teach at
the Jefferson School?" (a Marxist academy in Manhattan)

"Yes," he said.

"And what did you teach?"

"Square dancing," he said.

The room erupted in laughter, and that was the end of his testimony.

That's just one chapter in the life of this remarkable man, who was present
at the creation of many of the cultural landmarks of the past century.

He helped produce the first hootenannies at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall,
featuring blacklisted artists like Howard DaSilva, Morris Carnovsky, Josh
White, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly.

"Leadbelly always dressed impeccably, onstage and off, wearing the spiffiest
suits and carrying himself with great dignity," he recalls. "It was his
reaction against Alan Lomax's trying to dress him in overalls or prison
stripes when he performed."

Another longtime friend was Paul Robeson, with whom Silber played softball
at a Marxist summer camp in New Jersey called Camp Wochica (short for
Workers' Children's Camp).

Robeson wrote the forward to Silber's first book, "Lift Every Voice." John
Steinbeck wrote the forward to a later book, "Hard-Hitting Songs for
Hard-Hit People." (The title was suggested by another close friend, Woody

He's written 10 other books, including "Songs of Independence," "Socialism:
What Went Wrong?" and, more recently, "A Patient's Guide to Knee and Hip

His latest book is "Press Box Red," the story of Lester Rodney, a Daily
Worker reporter who started the campaign to integrate the major leagues in
1942, five years before Jackie Robinson finally broke baseball's color

For more than 25 years, Silber has lived in Oakland with his wife, jazz
singer Barbara Dane. (True to form, they fell in love on a May Day.)

He turned 80 on Oct. 17, but the big celebration will be this Sunday. Among
the guests will be Lester Rodney, still going strong at 94, and Silber's
tennis buddies, with whom he plays three times a week.

He's paid a big price for the life he chose. But as Emerson said, "Nothing
can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

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Reach Martin Snapp at 510-262-2768 or e-mail <a href="mailto:msnapp&#64;" target="_blank">msnapp&#64;</a>

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