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Lawrence Gellert, Black Musical Protest & White Denial: An Interview With Steven Garabedian

Historian Steve Garabedian has just published A Sound History: Lawrence Gellert, Black Musical Protest, and White Denial, which digs into the life of Lawrence Gellert, whose pathbreaking work collecting songs in the Jim Crow south of the 1930s is at once hugely important, but the subject of controversy. Aaron Leonard corresponded with him via email to dig into this further.

AL: African-American culture contains a treasure trove of wonderful music. Yet there is this entire category of song that seems to have disappeared from history. I’m thinking about the song In Atlanta, Georgia with the line, “I’m gonna get me a pistol and hide behind a tree / shoot everybody been messin’ with me.” This is a lyric with a far different sentiment than “We Shall Overcome,” but I don’t know that many people have ever heard it. What kind of songs did Gellert uniquely bring forward?

SG: Yes, your question called to my mind the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja. And I certainly take your point. The strident -- I’ll use the term “radical” -- nature of the some of the lyrics in the Gellert field archive is precisely what raised eyebrows, approvingly and disapprovingly. It seemed new and different. That is, the songs appeared so distinct from a “We Shall Overcome” sentiment. In the Gellert collection, there are songs of open defiance, of disdain, and as well songs including lines threatening retribution against white oppression and exploitation.

Then again, we know that “We Shall Overcome” itself is a song with a multi-faceted history, from sacred tradition to twentieth-century labor militancy to modern Civil Rights. In the big picture, “In Atlanta, Georgia” is both very different, and not so different really, from “We Shall Overcome.”

Gellert was in fact dismissive of mainstream press outlets in the 1930s, like the New York Times, that lauded this current of song as “new.” He rejected the idea that he had unearthed something previously unknown to the world. He had come to see such music as part of a broad ongoing culture of resistance that one could trace from antebellum spirituals into Depression-era topical song. In the 1960s, he placed the material documented in his archive within the same continuum of expressive protest as the “freedom songs” of the Civil Rights Movement.

I encourage people to listen to some of the original field recordings at the digital supplement portal that I prepared with my publisher and the Archives of Traditional Music. [The URL is http://umpressopen.library.umass.edu/projects/a-sound-history.] One needs to simply scroll down the page to find the digital material.

AL: Who  was Lawrence Gellert and what made him undertake this work?

SG: Lawrence Gellert was an independent white music collector from the North who gathered hundreds of songs from everyday Black working people in the South in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s primarily. He was born in 1898, the fifth of six children in a Jewish-Hungarian immigrant family. He grew up in and around New York City, but traveled south in, probably, 1922.

Gellert went south because of personal and health concerns, not out of any prior interest in folk music or Black culture. Quite plainly, he stated that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and needed to get away from it all. A doctor, recommended he relocate to the “sunny South,” as it were.

Gellert adopted Tryon, North Carolina as his base. He worked on the local newspaper; he acted in the local theater company, and he developed friendships with key local influencers. An iconoclast with a disarming personal charm and wit, Gellert appeared able to say what he wanted and do what he wanted with relative impunity. He earned favor in the white socialite community, and as well in the Black community as a “safe” white man. In the mid-1920s, he started to collect Black vernacular music in written transcription and on homespun sound recording discs. The material he collected was lauded by African American luminaries such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. As Brown put it, Gellert was among those rare white outsiders who was afforded access into a “verboten” song tradition typically withheld from the dominant culture.

Gellert wasn’t politicized in his collecting until the 1930s, when he began to radicalize on the Left and to publish the “Negro Songs of Protest” that he documented in periodicals like New Masses. In the 1920s, he said he took down songs purely out of a kind of rebel curiosity. He said he found it fascinating the way the Black community was putting one over on whites.

AL: The title of your book is “Lawrence Gellert, Black Musical Protest, and White Denial” What do you mean by ‘white denial’?

SG: I always used the term in the general sense in which I knew it first from critical whiteness studies and African American studies. In this formulation, somewhat common to popular discourse now, “white denial” refers to the blinders, self-satisfaction, and double-standards endemic to white racial advantage in America, past and present. James Baldwin called it the “lie” of whiteness, a philosophy of supremacy and entitlement that enabled white exploitation and oppression and denied Black humanity and agency. This lie was hardly sustainable, Baldwin pointed out, and had distorted white conscience to the point of inhumanity.

More specifically, in my book, I reference the term to Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, which is all about blinders and mass delusion. Alexander led me to sociologist Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial. Cohen writes of denial as a pernicious element of individual and social psychology. He identifies it as at once “knowing” and “not-knowing” hard truths, both a kind of gnawing awareness and mental repression. In his treatment, the term relates to the personal denial of uncomfortable realities and the collective and institutional denial of state injustice. In my perspective, denial characterizes the complicated ways in which white collectors prior to and during Gellert’s time both documented and dismissed evidence of Black musical protest. In the 1920s, for instance, Howard Odum and Guy B. Johnson, also collecting in North Carolina like Gellert, acknowledged that there were many “songs about the white man,” as they called them, but they showed no real interest in pursuing the subject and tended to trivialize the material as novel and ultimately unimportant.

AL: Could you talk about the controversy surrounding Gellert, who at one point was embraced by his left-wing comrades, but found himself harshly dismissed as a fraud. Similarly certain academic critics initially upheld his work, but ended up questioning it. What is going on here?

SG: Gellert made a point of highlighting Blacks songs of protest. But it is relevant to stress that a large portion of his field archive is what we might call “non-protest” in its lyricism. It is familiar material from the common stock of African American southern vernacular music; it’s work songs, blues, spirituals. Moreover, the allegation that Gellert’s material was singular to the point of being suspicious is misplaced. There are many parallels -- indirect and direct -- to the folklore collections of predecessors and peers, like Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, Dorothy Scarborough, and the famed Lomaxes (father and son, John and Alan) of the Library of Congress.

The Lomaxes are an interesting case in point. A song like “Ain’t It Hard” -- with the lyrics “Ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard to be n----r / For you can’t git yo’ money when it’s due” -- is in both of the Lomaxes’ popular songbooks from 1934 and 1941, American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country. But, in American Ballads, for instance, the Lomaxes included it in a section of “Reels” between the songs “Pick a Bale O’ Cotton” and “Shortenin’ Bread.” Gellert by contrast labeled “Ain’t It Hard” under the title “Negro Songs of Protest.” He spotlighted this material as political expression rather than folklore, and his print transcriptions were published in articles in the leftwing New Masses and through Communist-affiliate entities like the American Music League, which published his first songbook in 1936.

What is also interesting to track is Gellert’s acceptance and then eclipse. In the second joint Lomax songbook, Our Singing Country from 1941, Gellert’s work is included in the bibliography among other respected texts. However, from then on, Gellert’s name was absent from Lomax bibliographies. One can track a similar visibility and absence in the pages of Sing Out! magazine and the Journal of American Folkore from the 1930s and ‘40s to the ‘50s and ‘60s.

What happened? What explains the turn on Gellert? I detail a number of overlapping forces, from regular old personal rivalries and academic territorialism to the more significant factors of World War II and Cold War political realignments, mass American anti-communism, the rise of neoliberalism, and the institutionalization of folklore studies in the post-War. As a vociferous independent, with a kind of glee for radical provocation, Gellert had few attachments to keep him “in check” or career-minded. He lambasted John and Alan Lomax, W.C. Handy, Irwin Silber and others. He alienated some of the major figures in post-War U.S. folklore studies and the folk music revival.

AL: As I got to the end of your book I could not help but wonder, what songs are we not hearing today. In that regard what are the abiding lessons in the Lawrence Gellert story?

SG: I suspect I/we are not hearing, not encountering, all manner of real-time grassroots music and art of resistance emergent in marginalized communities right now. Not hearing it, not seeing it, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not out there, sometimes in great force. Sometimes, we’re not meant to hear it; it is for internal sustenance. And, sometimes, we’re not listening, or don’t know to listen until the energy and expression of the grassroots rises to a crescendo. “Black Lives Matter,” after all, was hardly new when it achieved mass visibility in 2020.

Musically, I think the obvious parallel between “Negro Songs of Protest” and the present is hip hop. Politically, I think the lesson of Gellert and Black musical protest is one about the value of dominant culture allies to communities in struggle, cross-cultural coalition and its perils, and the stultifying haze of mass white delusion and denial when it comes to the realities of systemic injustice and the long fight to undo it. A contemporary of Gellert’s, African American playwright Theodore Ward, called it the “big white fog,” a pack of lies engulfing people of color and blocking out the light of truth. I found it so compelling a metaphor that I included it in my book. Ward’s play Big White Fog is from 1938, but the metaphor certainly resonates today.