Irwin Silber, 1925-2010


 

Silber with Barbara Dane


 

Irwin Silber is recalled today as a primary creator of the urban folk song revival, which grew out of the 1940s and culminated in the early 1960s. He died on September 8 in Oakland, California from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

 

Silber was born in Manhattan on October 17, 1925 just in time to experience his formative years during the Great Depression. Like many of his contemporaries in New York City's working-class Jewish community, Silber joined the Young Communist League and then the Communist Party. As a student at Brooklyn College, he organized the American Folksay Group. Through his associations with the likes of Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, Silber became an integral part of Seeger's post-war People's Songs organization, an independent artist-run collective which not only sought to publish the songs of veteran left-wing folksingers, but also grew into a national network for their publicity and management. Silber was on the founding committee of People's Songs and a frequent contributor to its newsletter, The People's Songs Newsletter, an important means of communication among leftist folksingers and which published many important songs.

 

By 1948, due to pressures from the increasingly rightward trend in the nation, the organization fell victim to red-baiting and ultimately disbanded. By 1950, the newsletter, too, was gone. Silber, recognizing the strength of a national magazine to publish and popularize new topical songs, created Sing Out! later that year. He served as its editor until 1968, publishing articles and songs by Woody Guthrie, Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Leadbelly, and many other artists performing on college campuses and in coffee houses.

 

As the icons of the initial folk revival gave way to the 1960s' generation, Silber's magazine (along with Sis Cunningham's Broadside) became most noted for its publication of songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other rising stars then selling out folk festivals. Coverage of these artists, as well as their latest songs, made Sing Out! a folksinger's bible. In 1965, as Dylan went electric, Silber found himself in the midst of battle as his fiery criticism saw Dylan refusing to publish any more songs in the magazine. Silber's confrontation with Dylan, as well as attacks on other notables of the day, including Phil Ochs, meant that Silber eventually fell into disfavor. In 1968, he was asked to leave Sing Out! His hard-line stand appeared to reflect the old Left even though he'd severed ties with the Communist Party by 1955. Ironically, Silber had by then become a driving force in an SDS offshoot, the decidedly Maoist New Communist Movement, and went on to write and edit their newspaper, the Guardian.

 

Throughout his life, Irwin Silber can best be described as a cultural worker. When, in the late 1950s, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he memorably told the Committee that his work at the Communist Party-led Jefferson School of Social Science was teaching square dancing. During his years with Sing Out!, he made an effort to focus on songs of protest—civil rights, the Vietnam War, the women's movement, and any number of struggles for liberation. In 1964, Silber married jazz vocalist/activist Barbara Dane and the two set out to record and publish songs of revolution around the world. He and Dane maintained their own record label, Paredon, to preserve the music until, in 1980, it was given to Folkways.

 

Silber published several books on folk music and authored a number of works on politics. In 2004, he wrote a biography of Lester Rodney, sportswriter for the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker, completing the circle of his radical life and times.

Z


John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York City.