THE ROOTS OF THE PROTEST ERA: MCCARTHYISM AND THE ARTIST’S VOICE IN 1950S AMERICA
How were musicians and artists affected by McCarthyism in 1950s America?
The so-called “Protest Era” in the United States is largely associated with the Civil Rights movement and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. But the roots of the protest era, and even some of the songs associated with it, came out of the late 1940s, during the early years of the Cold War.
By the end of World War II in 1945, America’s diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union, once its wartime ally, had grown strained. During the late 1940s, the Soviets expanded their influence across Eastern Europe and built up a stockpile of nuclear weapons—technology that had previously been in the exclusive possession of the U.S. military. Many people in the United States came to view the Soviets, and the Communist Party that controlled the Soviet Union, as a threat to America's newfound economic prosperity and position as world leader. In that tension between Soviet and American powers, the Cold War was born—and with it, the U.S. entered into an era in which the flipside of an unprecedented economic boom and rise in world power was the “Red Scare,” a widespread fear and suspicion of Soviets and their ideas, which many viewed as a potential threat to American life.
At the center of the Red Scare was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, who by 1950 had become the face of a national campaign to identify communists in American society. McCarthy enflamed America’s uneasiness about Soviet power. “McCarthyism,” as his crusade became known, emerged from the worry many Americans shared that the Soviets might drop an atomic bomb on U.S. soil, a threat that led communities to practice air raid drills in preparation for an attack. But McCarthyism also fed off the anxiety that communist ideas could infiltrate the hearts and minds of American citizens. In the early 1950s the U.S. government began to produce films about the dangers posed by the Soviets and their beliefs. These films included information on how to recognize communists by their opinions and activities. Concurrently, McCarthy and his followers compiled—and in some cases publicly read and published—lists of suspected communists in various professional fields, including the entertainment industry. One of these lists appeared in Red Channels, a 1950 newsletter that named 151 entertainers whom its right-wing editors accused of associating with the communist party. The list included composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Miller, and folk singer Pete Seeger -- all outspoken artists who, under McCarthyism, were labeled as “subversive,” no matter their actual political affiliations or ambitions.
McCarthyism propagated an extreme version of communism that focused on the political and social control the Soviet government held over its state and people. This monolithic version of communism did not account for the multiple variations in communist ideas and practices that had existed for decades, both in Europe and in the United States. Several government programs and professional organizations in America, including social security, public education, and labor unions, had roots in socialism -- a social and economic system based on equal and fair treatment of all people that had connections to both capitalism and communism. But at the height of the Red Scare, any member or supporter of an organization that could be connected to communist ideals, no matter how tentatively, was vulnerable to being branded as a supporter of the Soviet Union.
McCarthy was only one of many political figures determined to expose communist “traitors.” As early as 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began a series of public hearings intended to uncover communists in the United States. Artists known for their political activism were particularly at risk of being targeted by HUAC. Among the hundreds who were subpoenaed by the committee were Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, co-authors of the activist Folk song “If I Had a Hammer.” Seeger and Hays had first performed the song in 1949, at a dinner hosted by members of the American Communist Party. In Seeger’s 1955 HUAC hearing, the committee interrogated Seeger as to where, and for whom, he had performed the song. Rather than answering, Seeger refuted the committee’s line of questioning outright on the grounds of his right as an American to freely express his opinions through his music. Hays, too, refused to cooperate. Both Seeger and Hays were held in contempt and were subsequently “blacklisted” in the entertainment industry. For the next several years, they were denied the opportunity to appear on television, to release music on major record labels, and to perform in many of the country’s top venues.
Unlike many other artists whose lives were destroyed by McCarthyism, Seeger remained a popular act in the 1950s and early 1960s, even with limited support from the mainstream entertainment industry. He frequently performed small informal concerts, released records on the independent “Folkways” label, and cultivated an audience of young people who admired his Folk songs -- audiences who would come of age in the 1960s and often adopt their own activist causes. Seeger’s musical spirit, and his style of activism, carried into the protest era and well beyond. Artists including Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and Richie Havens, and later, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, continued the example set by Seeger that popular artists could, and should, speak freely on issues of social and political injustice. Large scale musical events, such as George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, Live Aid, and Artists United Against Apartheid, provide further examples of ways that artists have banded together to confront unfair power structures not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.
This lesson focuses on McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and how artists were targeted by HUAC during the Cold War. Students will view several government-produced “educational” films and television interviews from the 1950s, and will participate in a group reading of HUAC’s interrogations of Seeger and Hays, discussing how activist artists championed the civil liberties of American citizens.
Video pages: Bob Marley - Get Up, Stand Up (1980) | Pete Seeger - If I Had a Hammer (1963) | Pete Seeger - Interview (1963) | Public Enemy - Fight the Power (1989) | Interview with Dr. Corliss Lamont (1952) | Interview with Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (1952) | Newsreel - New York City Air Raid Drill (1950s) | Recognizing a Communist (Armed Forces Information Film No. 5) (1950s) | The Challenge of Ideas (Excerpts) (1961)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
[Note to teacher: This assignment is intended as an exercise to simplify various political ideologies so that students can compare them to one another. Its purpose is to help students first understand some of the ideals of communism in relation to other political and economic systems.]
1. Ask students to research the following four terms: capitalism, socialism, communism, and totalitarianism (remind students to use reputable sources for their references). In a separate session preceding the lesson, each student should bring to class a short definition (about two sentences) for each of these terms. Definitions should be written in the student's own words.
2. Display four large sheets of poster paper, each labeled with one of the terms above. Instruct a few students at a time to come up and to write any part of their definitions on the corresponding posters. If any students find a definition previously written by a classmate that sufficiently reflects his/her own ideas, that student should add a checkmark next to the preexisting definition.
3. Once everyone has added his/her comments, briefly analyze each poster with the class to explore recurring themes and to help clarify any information about that political ideology.
4. Discuss as a class:
5. As needed, help students to understand that these political ideas are complex. While the government of a country such as the United States is founded on the principles of capitalism, some elements of socialism have also appeared in American domestic policy, such as welfare, social security, police and fire departments, and public education.
1. Play audio clip of the Hip Hop group Public Enemy performing “Fight the Power,” a song released in 1989. As they listen, students should write down any words that reflect the tone of the song.
2. Next, play a clip of Folk singer Pete Seeger performing “If I Had a Hammer,” a song he originally recorded in 1949 and performed here in 1963. Once again, students should write down any words that reflect the tone of the song.
3. Discuss as a class:
1. Play montage of clips from The Challenge of Ideas, a film about the Cold War and the ideological battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Students should take notes on how the film depicts life in the United States versus life in the Soviet Union, and any ideological differences between the two nations.
Discuss as a class:
2. Ask students: if a so-called “hot war” is defined as a battle between nations using combat and weaponry, discuss how we might define a “cold war.” Why might a cold war have conveyed as much a sense of fear and danger in the United States as a war involving armed conflict?
3. Play a newsreel clip documenting an air raid drill in New York City in the 1950s. Students should take notes on how the film presents the threat of nuclear war to American audiences.
4. Play a clip from Recognizing a Communist, a film produced by the U.S. Armed Forces in the early 1950s. Students should take notes on how a person might recognize a communist, as according to the film.
5. Explain that in the early years of the Cold War, the hysteria over the perceived threat of communists living in the U.S. became known as “The Red Scare” -- “Reds” being a term used to describe communists, due to their allegiance to the red Soviet flag.
6. Arguably the most high-profile anti-communist of the late 1940s and 1950s was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. Due to his frequent appearances on television and radio, McCarthy’s public campaign to expose communists in the U.S. came to be known as “McCarthyism.” Play clip of a television interview with Senator McCarthy from 1952. Students should take notes on McCarthy’s position about the government’s role in identifying communists.
7. Play clip of an interview with Dr. Corliss Lamont from the same television program as the McCarthy interview. Tell students that Lamont was a leader in the American Civil Liberties Union who also ran for the New York State Senate in 1952. Students should take notes on Lamont’s opinions regarding Senator McCarthy.
8. Distribute Handout 1: “If I Had a Hammer” Lyrics. Once again, play a video clip of Pete Seeger performing “If I Had a Hammer,” a song he co-wrote with Lee Hays. Both Seeger and Hays were members of the Weavers, a popular folk music quartet during the late 1940s-early 1950s. They were also both outspoken artists who lent their musical talents to a support a variety of causes, including organized labor, African-American civil rights, and disarmament. Students should examine the entire lyric sheet and the quote from Pete Seeger at the bottom of the page.
9. Tell students that Seeger and Hays first performed “If I Had a Hammer” in 1949 at a dinner supporting members of the American Communist Party.
10. Distribute Handout 2: Red Channels. Explain that Red Channels was a right-wing newsletter published in 1950 that listed 151 entertainers in television and radio who its publishers accused of associating with the communist party. Among the figures listed were composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Langston Hughes, playwright Henry Miller, and Pete Seeger. Students should examine the excerpted pages from Red Channels and read the descriptions of the organizations it cited as being "communist."
11. Explain that Red Channels is an example of a “blacklist.” People who were blacklisted were publicly identified as “subversives,” or troublemakers. Many of those who were blacklisted lost their jobs or were unable to get hired, ruining their careers and reputations.
(Note to teacher: blacklisted musicians were generally not able to perform in the nation’s most prestigious or lucrative concert halls, they could not appear on network television, they could not release music on major record labels, etc.)
12. People who were suspected “subversives” were also subject to being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an investigative committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that interrogated hundreds of Americans accused of treasonous activities during the era of McCarthyism. Those who refused to cooperate with the committee faced the possibility of prison time.
Break students into small groups, and distribute Handout 3: HUAC Trial Transcripts. Groups will perform a dramatic readthrough of excerpts from the 1955 HUAC testimonies of folk singers Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who had both been accused of being communists.
Students should decide who will read for each role and arrange their desks so that the students representing the HUAC congressmen are facing the defendant (Seeger or Hays).
13. As students finish the role-playing exercise, groups should discuss the questions:
When groups have finished their discussions, ask volunteers to share out their observations with the class.
Display the following two quotes:
“I think those of us who have been elected by the American people to man the watchtowers. Unless we have the intelligence to recognize the traitors, and...unless we have the guts to name them, we should be taken down from those watchtowers and should not be representing the American people.”
-- Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, September 29, 1952
“I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known and some of my opinions make me any less of an American.”
-- Pete Seeger, August 18, 1955
Ask students to write a paragraph comparing these two quotes. Why does McCarthy believe it is the government’s duty to recognize and name traitors? Why does Seeger “decline to discuss” the people he has known and sung with? Who do you think makes a more persuasive argument, and why?
1. Show students a clip of Bob Marley & the Wailers performing “Get Up, Stand Up” live in 1980. Students should conduct independent research into Bob Marley, focusing on his career as a Reggae musician and an activist.
Ask students to imagine that they attended both the Pete Seeger concert in 1963 (where he performed “If I Had a Hammer”) and the Bob Marley concert in 1980. Write a one-page review of the 1980 concert, commenting on how Marley compares to Pete Seeger as an activist, and how Marley’s performance of “Get Up, Stand Up” compares to Seeger’s performance of “If I Had a Hammer.” Be sure to address any changes in the musical style and audience reception in addition to the song lyrics and message.
2. Assign students to watch a 1963 interview with Pete Seeger, in which he discusses why he believes that folk music “has a certain kind of teeth in it.” Have students conduct independent internet research into Seeger’s biography and career between 1955, when he testified before HUAC, and 1963, when this television interview occurred. Point out to the students that as a result of Pete Seeger being blacklisted in the U.S., this appearance was on Australian television - not American television.
Write a 1-2 page report focusing on how being blacklisted shaped Seeger’s career during the 1950s and 1960s. Be sure to discuss the records and songs Seeger recorded, the venues in which he appeared, the kinds of audiences for whom he performed, and how he interacted with those audiences.
3. Research and write a 1-2 page report on Paul Robeson, an African-American actor, singer, and left-wing activist who, like Pete Seeger, was also subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted during the height of the McCarthy era.
Students should locate the transcript for Robeson's HUAC testimony, delivered on June 12, 1956. Reports should provide background on Robeson's political and artistic life both before and after his appearance before HUAC. Students must also compare Robeson's testimony to the testimonies of Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, using direct quotes when necessary. Possible areas of comparison include: tone of delivery, race politics, references to the U.S. Bill of Rights, etc.
Imagine that you are an outspoken filmmaker, playwright, or songwriter in the 1940s and 50s. Suddenly, your name has been published in Red Channels as a suspected “subversive.” You have been called before HUAC to testify and to give names of others in your industry who may be communists. Using the testimonies of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays as your guide, write a one-page prepared response to read during your HUAC trial. In your testimony, include the following:
As a follow-up activity, set up a mock HUAC trial and invite students to come forward and “testify” before the committee. Afterwards, discuss as a class:
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Speaking and Listening 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
Core Music Standard: Responding
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.