IRWIN SILBER INTERVIEW
by Richie Unterberger (June 2002)In the mid-1960's Irwin Silber was editor of Sing Out! magazine, the leading folk periodical in the United States. Here he talks about his personal roles in, and his magazine's general views of, early folk-rock, including the controversies heatedly debated in its pages. I spoke to Silber in July 2001.
ED NOTE: Irwin Silber was interviewed for Richie Unterberger's new book Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution. Drawing upon more than 100 first-hand interviews with figures ranging from stars like Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, John Sebastian, and Donovan to behind-the-scenes producers, journalists, and influential cult musicians, it tells the story of the birth and early heyday of electric folk-rock in the mid-1960's. The first volume of a two-volume history of 1960's folk-rock, it covers the evolution of folk-rock through mid-1966; its sequel, tentatively titled Eight Miles High, covers the various branches and evolutions of folk-rock from mid-1966 to the end of the 1960s', and will be published in mid-2003. Both volumes are published by Backbeat Books. Turn! Turn! Turn! will be available starting July 2002 at chain and independent bookstores throughout North America and the United Kingdom, and can also be ordered through Backbeat's web site, www.backbeatbooks.com, and major online bookstores. More information on the books and 1960s folk-rock in general can be found on Richie Unterberger's web site, www.richieunterberger.com.
Q: Sing Out! is sometimes thought of as a voice for purists who were opposed to folk-rock or electric instruments being used. Looking through the 1960's back issues, I find that there's a lot more diversity of opinions represented than have usually been reported. There are some pieces heavily critical of folk-rock, but also some which praise it.
IS: There certainly were people who thought that electricity wasn't compatible with folk music. Some even thought the piano wasn't compatible, which is really ironic considering the use of the piano in traditional blues. It had to be guitar or banjo or harmonica, and a fiddle was OK for instrumental tunes. But I guess a lot of those folks didn't think of blues as folk music. Blues, after all, was a living music, being created and changed every day, whereas you supposedly couldn't fool around with folk music unless you were in the tradition yourself. But the thing to keep in mind is that electricity was not really the defining point. At least it wasn't to most of us at Sing Out!
There were many people who were certainly very important to the folk scene, mostly black but not all, Brownie McGhee and others, who amplified their guitar. It wasn't like electricity was the big thing, except for the super-purists.
I remember when Barbara [Dane, Silber's wife] first started singing Malvina Reynolds song, "It Isn't Nice." The lyric is great but the tune was really dull. That was one reason the song had never been really picked up by the civil rights movement, the way Malvina did it. No reflection on her. But when Barbara gave it a very bluesy beat it became very popular in the movement because all of a sudden it had a feel that was closer to the culture of the civil rights movement, and didn't come off as the expression of a white liberal, but somebody who was really involved in the movement. You didn't need to amplify your guitar to sing it, but most of the folkies loved it that way with or without electricity.
Folk rock? I never thought about music that way in terms of a category. I don't know who invented the term, it might have been Bob Shelton. But it's one of the problems with categories in music. Sometimes they're helpful if you treat them in a very limited way. But once you use them as a definition that is used to say whether a particular piece should be considered in that category or not, it's a total contradiction. So to me, folk-rock was an interesting experiment, and I was gonna judge it simply by what I heard, and not by the idea of it. As you could tell if you've read through all of this stuff, my biggest concern was not with the electricity or the category but with what Dylan was saying and doing about moving away from his political songs. In fact, even saying, well, he just used that for a while in order to get a break and all that kind of... and that's what distressed me more than anything else.
I mean, here was a guy who'd come along after I'd spent close to twenty years doing this stuff. And he was the most exciting person I'd heard since Woody Guthrie. And he combined a great artistic feel with a political sense that was poetic, that moved people. And now, to find him turning his back on it, at a time when -- I mean, remember, I wrote that open letter [to Bob Dylan, critical of his turn away from politics] I guess in '64 when the civil rights movement is at its height, the beginnings of the protest against the Vietnam War, and so on. And after the '50's, politics was really resurging in a big way. And the left - the new left, not the old left and people who were still stuck in the framework of the Communist Party and Trotskyism and so on - was developing a whole new sense of politics. And to have Dylan deliberately, consciously, moving away from it at that time - well, I really felt bad about that. But that was my view of it.
That's one of the reasons I went back to look through those pages. And what's most striking to me is the incredible breadth of topics that we addressed in Sing Out!, of which folk-rock was a relatively small part. There was always, at my urging, a lot about using songs in political movements, or as political expression. There was a lot of stuff on country music, traditional singers, interviews, feature articles, international music, and so on. And to me, since at that point, if you wanted to stop and call it folk music, well, that was quite a stretch in terms of not only folk-rock, but even in terms of what the big pop groups, the folk-pop groups, were doing. But I accepted that as the reality. A folksinger was somebody who sang the songs that everybody around considered to be folk and would use the term "folk" to describe. And I felt that our magazine should touch base with all these elements.
We had debates about a lot of things. There were a lot of debates about commercialism in the Top Forty and pop music. That is, as folk music began to get picked up by the pop companies and so on. And we were always looking for debates.
Folk-rock, I think the edge to folk-rock came especially because of Dylan's popularity. If it weren't for that -- I mean, it probably would have happened anyway -- but I think that kicked it off, because Dylan had become such an important figure in that folk scene. And so when he made a move in that direction, and it was a very -- it wasn't much of a transition. I mean, it was the period where it was a transition in singing the old songs to the new. But he really plunged into it. So that became a big source of controversy. So naturally we covered it.
Q: What was the magazine's circulation in the mid-1960's?
IS: At its height, close to 25,000 for a short period at the height of the boom. It was always hard to measure. I mean, it always [was] principally sold by subscription. But during that folk boom period, we did a lot of sales through bookstores and record stores and various outlets. Our press run was in the neighborhood of 25,000. And we probably had a thousand or so copies left over, but that was about it.
Q: How was it that the magazine got into serious financial trouble when you left right after the mid-1960s?
IS: (Sighs) It's a very tender subject. Sing Out! was doing very well. But what most people didn't realize is that it operated under the wing of Oak Publications and Folkways Records. So Sing Out! had virtually no overhead. It operated rent-free and with several people who worked on it being paid by Oak. Even then, it really never was a profit-making enterprise. And if you know anything about magazines, even when the advertising started to come in, which eased it somewhat, the paid staff that was required, and the publication and so on, there was no way it was gonna come out ahead. And I told people that it was gonna be somewhat difficult, especially since this happened at a time when I wanted to get out of the whole scene, and I sold off Oak Publications and went to work for the Guardian, so we no longer had an operation that could provide the overhead. I think they did it out of somebody's apartment for a while, or maybe they even worked up in Music Sales for a while, I don't know.
But the real problem was, frankly, when I left and they decided to create a whole new editorial setup, there were five editors. Each one of whom drew a salary. And they didn't publish an issue for something close to eight or nine months. Meanwhile, everybody was getting paid. What that meant was not only the money was going out, but one of the main sources of income from subscription renewals dried up. But there were no issues so we couldn't get many new subscribers. The new editors asked me to stay on as part of that group for a transition period, which I said I would. Well, when I saw this happening, I got very concerned and kept saying, "Hey, you're skipping issues, and you're using all this money. Isn't anybody going to be trying to begin to produce issues?" But they were annoyed with me for doing that.
It became convenient to say that I left them high and dry. Now we had a pretty good operation going. But really, that was such a drain on the resources, and then at the same time the readership plummeted. I don't know what the exact figures are. I think that was the main problem, in terms of the finances. Also none of the people who were doing that had that much business experience. And I don't think they were able to grasp what I was talking about. I know that sounds like -- you can say it sounds self-serving. But that was the way I felt at the time, before it got much worse.
When I left out Sing Out! I said "listen, I put in twenty years here. Half the time, I got only half of my nominal $50 a week salary. Somebody's gotta buy me out." And we hit on a sum, about $8000, something like that. They all agreed that was reasonable and they raised it by loans and contributions from various record labels -- Jac Holzman, Manny Solomon, people like that. And some of the guitar companies, who relied on Sing Out! as one of their main outlets for advertising. These were interest-free loans, to be repaid when you could. And I don't know that they ever repaid any of them. But that's where the money came from to buy me out. So they started with a clean slate, in that sense.
Q: I think they really needed that cover story interview with Bob Dylan in 1968 to help save them from going under.
IS: I would imagine the interview with Bob Dylan would be a big help because it would boost circulation and put 'em back into the flow. But it took 'em a long time. And they were really teetering on the brink for quite a while. They had to cut back. Pretty much, my recollection is they had maybe one person who sort of managed the office, and I think most of the rest of the stuff was volunteer work.
Q: For you personally, what were the things you liked best and least about folk-rock?
IS: The biggest problem I had with it was that - I can't even say "it." You know, it's not an "it" I'm talking about. It depends on who was doing what. But the heavy emphasis on the rock side of it all interfered with the communication. And I think it -- there was certainly an audience. But it was not an audience that was particular, in my view -- it wasn't related to the politics. I mean, people said some things and if you could actually break down the lyrics and hear them clearly, there were pretty good things, in many cases. But I don't think they had the same kinds of impact on political struggles or movements and so on. Which to me was the function of Sing Out! in the first place. Now, that's an old-fashioned way of looking at it, of course. But that's why I got into it in the first place. I wanted to promote songs as a way of building up the enthusiasm of political activists, and of reaching out to new audiences who would be attracted. My model was the Almanac Singers, to begin with, and then People's Songs. And I saw how that worked. And I didn't feel that folk-rock was doing that. Even the anti-war stuff, most of it didn't come through the folk-rock artists that I could tell. Certainly not in a form that would -- I don't know -- it was lacking that political focus that I thought was important.
Q: But you did like some of it. You interviewed Country Joe McDonald for the magazine, for instance.
IS: I admired Country Joe, 'cause he wrote very political stuff. And he presented it in a way that was very clear. I mean, "Fixin' to Die Rag" was a great song. And of course he came out of Berkeley, and all that, and he was very much influenced by it. So from that point of view, it's clear my problem is not with the concept folk-rock. But really had to do with what people were doing with it. There was a period there where I got very annoyed with Sing Out! for what I thought was, at the height of the anti-war movement, and all these things were going on and so on, an undue focus on traditional music. At the expense of the more focused thing that had that contemporary feel to it. That was part of my disagreement with Sing Out! even before folk-rock made its appearance. That was a source of great antagonism within Sing Out!, and people like John Cohen and others went to Pete Seeger and wanted to get rid of me, and all that kind of thing. And Pete got to be angry at me, too, but that's another story. I did manage to get a lot of people angry, it's true.
Q: You were at Bob Dylan's electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. To your memory, what was the audience reaction?
IS: To a certain extent, that depended on where you were sitting. I find it hard to judge the people who had something to do with the festival or the press, we sat all the way down front. So what was going on way back there at Newport, I mean there were tens of thousands of people there. It's really hard to say. Obviously, some people were very annoyed and let their feelings be known, and some people were extremely enthusiastic. I couldn't for the life of me say 40% this and 60% that. I have no idea. It certainly created great consternation and great enthusiasm on both sides. And not too many people were left neutral in the middle. Although there probably were people who said, "okay, wait and see, let's see what he does, let's see what happens" and so on.
What I recall, is Dylan did this folk-rock set, and then he came back without an electric guitar, and sang some of his older songs, and there was a very positive reaction to that. So it looked like, "oh, OK," sort of breathing a sigh of relief by a number of people. On the other hand, you look at some of the discussions afterwards, and people are passionate on both sides of it. But as I said earlier, even if you were appalled by it or against it or so on, too much has been made of the electricity. I mean, there were people who were playing electric guitars at the Newport Folk Festival who were not treated that way. Like Muddy Waters. So there was a sense that there was something else that was going on.
Q: The story has circulated that Pete Seeger tried to cut the power cable with an ax.
IS: The last thing Pete would ever do (laughs). What's undoubtedly true is that Pete had enormous eclectic tastes in music. I mean, he's familiar with classical music. He experiments with every kind of music, international stuff and things from great composers of one kind or another. Pop music. All kinds of music. His particular love, of course, is folk music. But he was never exclusionary about it. If Pete came across a song he thought was good and it suited him, he'd sing it. Pop, folk, blues, classical. Pete certainly wasn't a purist or a prisoner of categories. He always got criticized by the purists for taking liberties with the folk songs, like Alan Lomax was, with patching them together. Or in Pete's case, for using old tunes with political lyrics and so on. But Pete knew what he wanted to communicate. Pete was - and still is - a communicator. And he was, and is, a fine musician for whom everything was grist for his mill if it would serve his purpose.
Q: He even did a bit of electric recording, which many people don't know about.
IS: He probably shouldn't [record electric], I don't think it's his metier. But yeah, that's normal.
Let's boil it all down. I'm sort of repeating myself. Dylan was such an important figure that whatever he did got attention that nobody else would have gotten at that time. When he first came up and started singing, and was trashed by a lot of the old-timers who said, he's got an awful voice, I can't understand what he's saying, etc. etc. And people who were dubious about his claims to have been all of the various identities that Dylan projected and so on. But he was a catalytic figure, and whatever he did drew tremendous amounts of attention. So that process went on for the longest time. I mean, Dylan had been scrutinized like from examining his garbage to everything else like nobody else in this folk or music scene generally ever has been, so far as I can tell. And every movement he made -- private, public, whatever it was -- came under the glare of the microscope. And when you couldn't find out, there was even more speculation.
So that speaks to the impact that Dylan had at the time. And leads to -- "I'm such a larger-than-life figure" at that point that every action of his is imputed with things that he might not even have been aware of. It's just all played out on that scale, where everything becomes so incredibly intense. And that's, I think really, that's the problem.
Q: Paul Nelson told me that he was afraid you wouldn't print his review of Dylan's Newport appearance because it was favorable, and that he had to sneak it past you to get it into the magazine. What's your recollection of the situation?
IS: I don't recall exactly, but I was the editor. And I knew his opinion. And I think I asked him to write it. I wrote one piece, and he wrote another. And it wouldn't have gone in if I didn't say okay (chuckles). I think Paul said he wanted to write an alternate opinion. I was always for controversy, and it didn't make any difference if it was directed against me or not. So I can't swear that that's exactly the way it happened, but he didn't have a problem getting it into Sing Out!.
Q: There were certainly a lot of passionate or angry letters for and against folk-rock in the letters section.
IS: I love that stuff! To me, that was one of the big weaknesses of the old Communist movement. Everything had to be just so. And the debates were so sterile. And this was live stuff. I'm a journalist. That's really what I set out to be before I got all wrapped up in this folk music stuff. And controversy is the heart of it. Letters to the editor that people read and get agitated about? I can't think of a better circulation builder. So I was also enthusiastic about that.
Q: A few years after your open letter to Bob Dylan, you wrote a piece for the Guardian which was a lot more accepting of his new directions. What was changing your view?
IS: My open letter was written at a moment when I was really disappointed, as I said before. I think what I wrote, I'd stand by, but if I had to do it all over again I don't think I would write it in the same tone and in the same way. Writing it reflected a certain naiveté on my part, that, well, maybe his rush in this direction could be checked or modified, whatever it was. But once what Dylan was doing became a fait accompli, it was clear that this wasn't in the cards. And so three years later, I was ready to deal with the Bob Dylan that existed, and not the Bob Dylan that I remembered from those first years. I don't recall the article particularly, but I know generally, when I wrote about Dylan or made reference to him in anything that I wrote, I don't think I did that much, it was more an attempt to appreciate what he was doing and evaluating that in its own right.
Q: You were part of a folk-rock symposium in the New York Times in early 1966 that was pretty heated, with an exchange of viewpoints between you, Shelton, Nelson, and Nat Hentoff. You were critical of folk-rock for diluting some of the African-American and roots influences it was built upon.
IS: It was heated, yeah. It sounds like something I probably would have said at the time. And there's a certain objective truth to that. I mean, you know, whites covering black material has a long history. Yeah, you get these situations -- the Beatles take Chuck Berry's stuff and they do it. Okay, they pay him for it, and Chuck Berry's very happy that it's done, and so on. Fine. But there's so much attention to white rock and roll, it kind of overwhelms those who are still working at that what was the source, and is still an active arena, for that kind of material. You can't criticize one or another individual, saying you're stealing music from blacks. That kind of interchange goes on all the time. But it's worth noting that in terms of the way the industry operates, I think even still today, that the black musicians get the shorter end of the stick. And I think I was trying to reflect on that, and call to their attention that part of the downside of the scene.
Bob Shelton was a funny figure in all this. He fell into his position at the Times by accident. He worked there in some other capacity. I forget what it was. I think it was a non-writing capacity. And he was smart enough to volunteer to cover the folk scene when it was pretty small, so he'd write the occasional piece. And then the folk boom unfolded, and he was already in place at the New York Times. And so he became an authority for which he wasn't really qualified. But he wallowed in it.
Now, as you can tell, I didn't really care for Bob Shelton. But he didn't care for me, either. But not a personal thing. He wrote a very favorable review of a book I did, The Songs of the Civil War, one of my early books. But there was an arrogance to the way in which he appointed himself, and which everybody had to relate to, because after all it's the New York Times, as sort of the definitive judge when it came to what was good, what was bad, and all those kinds of things. And his judgments weren't always very sound. I think he had a tendency to follow the crowd, to look for things that would make him stand out. I know for sure that he was not above working hand in glove with record producers and promoters in relation to their materials, their acts, and so on.
One of the odd things about Bob Shelton was that he was called before the Un-American Activities Committee by mistake. They were looking for another person with the same name, or close to it, and they landed on him. And so it finally worked its way out. But after a while, given all the stuff that went on in the Left, he began to use it as a cachet, that here's this guy who was called before the Un-American Committee. And at one point, he had the arrogance to accuse me of having 'subpoena envy.' That was the phrase he used. Now I'd been called before the Un-American Committee, because of who I was, not because of my name (laughs). But apparently he didn't even know that, or didn't care.
We had some big fights too, because he then began to try to operate as a political judge, too. At that symposium, he and I got into a bitter exchange over the anti-war movement. 'Cause he was critical of people like me and the activists and so on, who were taking what he considered a far-left position in our militant opposition to the war, to the demonstrations and so on. And he said, "no, these demonstrations don't mean anything, etc. etc." What he was trying to say was "yeah, you know, every decent person's against the war, but you people carry on too much." I can't quote him exactly, obviously. It was a pretty heated exchange about that. And he says, "you know, a more moderate message would reach out to more people." And I remember saying, this does stick in my mind, "Yeah, you're probably right. In fact, if you keep moderating it enough, you can even include the people who are pro-war!" That's where it was headed. That was a cheap shot, but anyway....
I got very annoyed with the way in which he used his position in terms of succumbing to influence, not being particularly well qualified to write what he was writing about, and to the political side of it.
Q: I find it odd that he wrote liner notes to some major folk albums of the early 1960's under a pseudonym.
IS: That's one of the examples, right. I mean, the guy's a music critic for the New York Times, come on! I've written liner notes too, obviously. Folkways Records. But I'd never use a pseudonym.
Q: What sort of relationship did the magazine have with the major folk labels of the time? Particularly Elektra and Vanguard, who also got into folk-rock?
IS: It wasn't an easy relationship. One of the problems was that we were within the Folkways purview. And Moe Asch is my partner, in Oak Publications. Now it's true, when I went to work for Moe and Moe became a partner in Sing Out! with me, we had an understanding that he would have absolutely no say over the editorial content. And I stuck to that pretty strictly. We even had a few run-ins because of things I put in the magazine or wrote. Still, there's an influence, whether you like it or not. I mean, if nothing else, the man has an access to this magazine just on the personal level, and as an employer and so on, that nobody else did. And I think there was a certain amount of annoyance or resentment with that. We certainly probably covered more kinds of things that Folkways did than anybody else. But I think we would have done that anyway. That was really much more our métier, types of material that Moe issued, and so on. It's why I went to work there in the first place.
But I had access to those guys and they to me. We could talk easily. They were certainly helpful and accommodating if we wanted to get interviews with artists that they had, things like that. In 1965, Barbara and I organized this big Sing-In for Peace. And it came about because Sing Out! had booked Carnegie Hall for a hootenanny, and then we decided to turn it over to an antiwar concert because of the escalation and the feelings among so many of the folksingers. I set up a committee that was me, Barbara, Jac Holzman, Art D'Lugoff, and I think Harold Leventhal. Barbara was actually the main one, getting the singers, organizing the program and so on. The rest of us worked on the promotion and the ticket sales, the finances, etc. Jac was very active and enthusiastic in that. I never did ask Manny Solomon. He wasn't that close to us in terms of -- he produced the Weavers and so on, but I always had the sense that the folk music stuff was an adjunct for Vanguard, both in terms of Manny's sentiments and tastes, but also in terms of where their real market was. It was more a classical label than anything else. On the other hand, he was certainly a man of the Left. His big book on Marxism and art or something, whatever's it's called. A very interesting book.
Q: Did you think Moe Asch had any inclination to go into folk-rock with Folkways? He did virtually no folk-rock, except the Fugs' first album.
IS: Moe didn't go by those categories. He put out The Fugs because he thought that what they were doing was unique and carried a statement. I don't think he had any inclination to get into folk-rock as such, certainly not at the level that would have required a huge capital outlay. First of all, he couldn't afford it. I mean, Folkways was a cheapo label. Most people who recorded for Folkways did it because they wanted to get the stuff out. They didn't do it for the money and he certainly didn't pay much in the way of royalties. I'm sure Pete did well, and he'd give Woody money when he needed it, and so on. But Moe's was that kind of operation. I mean, there was a studio right down the hall, he'd go in there and do the recording himself, or a lot of the ethnic Folkways catalog would come from tape recordings that anthropologists had made in the field, and he would just edit them and put them out. I'm talking about real anthropologists. I mean, professors who went into Africa and India and came back with material that made up the heart of the ethnic catalog.
And he was sort of resigned to the fact that if he did get somebody who became a star, they'd probably go somewhere else sooner or later. So I don't think folk-rock was for him. The main thing, however, was a market decision. He once told me - and this is something I never forgot - that he couldn't afford to produce hit records. He didn't have the money or the operation to back them up. You see, he had once gone broke when he got in over his head with a large 78rpm pressing of Jazz at the Philharmonic just at the time when the LP was coming in.
Q: A few Vanguard artists I interviewed felt that the label put more resources into its classical division than its folk or pop one.
IS: Oh, for sure. That was their bread and butter. But they poured it into Joan Baez and, to a certain extent, The Weavers. It's like I did a book not long ago for Simon & Schuster. It was nothing to do with music or politics or anything. It was called A Patient's Guide to Knee and Hip Replacements, because I've had a couple of knees and a hip replaced. Anyway, they published it, but I couldn't get any kind of promotion out of them. When I asked my editor what kind of promotion Simon & Schuster was planning, he said, "look, it's very simple. You put the book out, you see what kind of reviews it gets, you test the market. If it really sells very well, we'll put money into it. If it doesn't, we're not going to put any kind of money into it, but it might still build up its own market." "Your book will do okay," he says, "because it's got a permanent appeal and it's very functional, and it's a good book. But we're never gonna put any kind of real promotional money into it. Don't have any illusions." And I think that's the way it was [at] Vanguard. And with many record labels. Somebody's hot, you're willing to invest the money. If they're just like any other artist, selling well and they're doing okay, well, you've got better places to invest it. I think that's their attitude.
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