Ellie Bluestein, an old friend of my mother’s, sends out interesting articles and tidbits to her e-mail list, which I am on. Recently she sent a YouTube URL for a video of a Finnish rock band performing an American song in Russia with the Red Army Chorus singing backup. It’s pretty weird, but if you grew up with an album of the Red Army Chorus singing Russian folk songs back when they were our ally in World War II, it’s even weirder. 

Now I had just been writing a chapter in my book about the beginning of People’s Songs right after the war, and started it by describing some of the albums we listened to as a family—and I had forgotten about the Red Army Chorus! Not only that, but putting them in provided the perfect segué to the next paragraph. Here’s what the beginning of the chapter looks like now, thanks to Ellie:

I remember several albums (of 78s) that we had at home and all listened to. Two of them came out while we lived in Berkeley but my memories of listening to them are from the brown shingle house on Elm Street in Long Beach. One was Ballad for Americans, Paul Robeson and a chorus singing a cantata about American history and values. The words were by John Latouche and the music by Earl Robinson. The piece had debuted on CBS in 1939, and the album came out the following year. So I grew up listening to my country being represented in song by the voice of a black man (the cantata ends with Robeson singing, “...and you know who I am—America!”). A lot of other people did too; the album sold more that 40,000 copies by the end of 1940. Another album was Talking Union by the Almanac Singers. Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes (who later formed half of the Weavers and made hit records of folk material) formed the group in 1941 with Millard Lampell (lyricist and screenwriter) and John Peter Hawes (Bess Lomax Hawes’ brother-in-law—she and her husband also later sang with the group). They put out two records that year. The first, Songs of John Doe, issued during the time of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, was against the United States entering the war, but after Germany invaded the Soviet Union the Almanacs started singing pro-war songs. Talking Union was their second album, singing their own union and progressive lyrics to traditional tunes. Later Woody Guthrie joined the group (his “Union Maid” appeared on Talking Union but his “This Land Is Your Land” is better known now). 

The third album my mother purchased later: The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, a French jazz group featuring Django Reinhart on guitar. I also remember listening in Long Beach to an album of Richard Dyer-Bennett singing old English or Appalachian ballads. My mother knew him in college; maybe we had the album before Long Beach. I also have memories from Long Beach of listening to an album of songs by the Red Army Chorus—one of them was ”Meadowlands,” a folk song with new words (sung in English) about the heroes of the Soviet Union’s army. “Meadowlands, meadowlands, through you heroes now are treading/Red Army heroes of the na-a-a-tion/Heroes of the mighty Red Army, ahhhh.”

As the cooperation with the Soviet Union during the Second World War began to give way to the cold war, and cooperation between labor and management for the war effort gave way to long-delayed strikes, Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president during his third term and was Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, decided in 1946 to run for president in the 1948 election on a third party platform of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, civil rights, and the rights of workers to organize. . . .

The trouble I have with sorting, both my own stuff and the material for the book, is that I find something that looks interesting and start reading and there goes the day. This time it was copies of interviews David Dunaway did for his biography of Pete Seeger, among them an interview with my mother. Dunaway is interested in the early days of People’s Songs in LA (the late forties) and asks Malvina, “Were you involved in the PSI [People’s Songs Incorporated] campaigns in behalf of Wallace?” She replies: “On the West Coast, I was active in the Henry Wallace campaign, but not so much as a singer/songwriter. I don’t think I wrote a song for the Wallace campaign. But I sure as hell circulated petitions to get his name on the ballot.”

As it happens, I remember part of a song she wrote about the Wallace campaign. I don’t know if it was ever used except maybe by Malvina, very locally. It expressed—not very well—a sentiment she articulated much later in the film Love It Like a Fool: “Besides the fact that it’s good for the cause, it’s good for you too, because you become part of a community that is working to change, and that’s a very healthy thing. You’re not just grousing and complaining, but you’re working. That’ll take away your...your blues.”

Here’s what I remember of the song:

Since the people’s party got under way
Hope is the order of the day.
You’ll find yourself singing 
While the doorbells ring,
Work with Wallace and relax. 

I remember the tune of that bit, too, and I need to write it down. I don’t remember hearing the song I posted on August 12th, but in the same set of lyric sheets were some I think I can reconstruct the tunes of, more or less, from memory. I’m going to write them down so they don’t get lost. 

I realize my other immediate task is to write about that part of my mother’s life that I remember, so I will be working next on that period that Dunaway was asking about, when I was in junior high school and high school. Later I can write about her life before I came into it, because if something happened to me, someone else could write it, But nobody has the memories I have of her in that period after she got serious about songwriting but before she became well-known.

My faithful blog reader, singer and autoharp virtuoso Adam Miller, notes the resemblance between my mother’s “We Hate to See Them Go” and Edgar “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics. “He and Malvina were of the very same generation, born and died within 48 months of each other,” Adam writes. “It made me wonder if Yip's songs (Brother Can You Spare a Dime, If I Only Had a Brain, When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich, Over the Rainbow, Lydia the Tattooed Lady, etc.) were a direct or indirect influence on your mother, the composer.”

Harburg is best known as the lyricist for the songs from The Wizard of Oz, but he also wrote songs for the Wallace campaign. I don’t remember being aware of that at the time, but I was aware of Harburg. When I was in my early teens, I went with my parents to see Finian’s Rainbow at the Hollywood Bowl (it remains my favorite musical). The plot involves a union organizer, a bigoted Southern Senator, and a leprechaun’s stolen pot of gold. Sonny Terry was in the cast. The lyrics are by “Yip” Harburg. At some point in the show we saw, the heroine’s petticoat fell off, and I admired the aplomb with which she kicked it aside and went on singing. My mother, who had done some little theater, speculated that it had probably happened once for real and now they had set it up on purpose. So I can testify that she certainly knew Harburg’s songs, and she has said herself in interviews and in her autobiography that she was influenced by popular music at least as much as by folk music.

   Malvina singing “We Hate to See Them Go” ©1958     

©2008 by Nancy Schimmelhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lNFRLrP014http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballad_For_Americanshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millard_Lampellhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bess_Lomax_Haweshttp://www.folksinging.org/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonny_Terry
Monday, September 22, 2008
Now the Red Army Chorus is available on DVD, but back in the day, we listened to them on 78s.