We received the news last night that Irwin Silber, the long-time editor of Sing Out! (from 1950–1977), passed away yesterday (September 8th) at 2:30pm P.S.T.
I didn’t know Irwin well, having come to Sing Out! almost 15 years after he had moved on, but was a big fan of his work for the first 17 years of the magazine, as well as his work as Executive Secretary of People’s Songs from the late 1940s, and his work with Oak Publications during the boom years. It was an honor to have worked with him several times through my editorship and to have shared kudos with him and other Sing Out! editors when Folk Alliance honored Sing Out! with a lifetime achievement award early this decade. (Irwin, Happy Traum, Bob Norman and I accepted the award together, and it was really cool to hear the stories about Sing Out!’s early days and folk music’s intertwining with the HUAC hearings and more.) Irwin’s “Folksingers Wordbook” was something of an inspiration for “Rise Up Singing,” and his “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People” remains one of the essential guides to the music that rose out of the great depression … there’s no question that his impact on the history of our music is immeasurable.
We’ll be running a full obit in the next issue of the magazine, of course …
AN OPEN LETTER TO BOB DYLAN, Sing Out! November, 1964
It seems as though lots of people are thinking and talking about you these days. I read about you in Life and Newsweek and Time and The Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle and Cavalier and all such, and I realize that, all of a sudden, you have become a pheenom, a VIP, a celebrity. A lot has happened to you in these past two years, Bob—a lot more than most of us thought possible.
I’m writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours as well.
I don’t have to tell you how we at SING OUT! feel about you—about your work as a writer and an artist—or how we feel about you as a person. SING OUT! was among the first to respond to the new ideas, new images, and new sounds that you were creating. By last count, thirteen of your songs had appeared in these pages. Maybe more of Woody’s songs were printed here over the years, but, if so, he’s the only one. Not that we were doing you any favors, Bob. Far from it. We believed—and still believe—that these have been among some of the best new songs to appear in America in more than a decade. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Hattie Carroll,” “Restless Farewell,” “Masters of War”—these have been inspired contributions which have already had a significant impact on American consciousness and style.
As with anyone who ventures down uncharted paths, you’ve aroused a growing number of petty critics. Some don’t like the way you wear your hair or your clothes. Some don’t like the way you sing. Some don’t like the fact that you’ve chosen your name and recast your past. But all of that, in the long run, is trivial. We both know that may of these criticisms are simply coverups for embarrassment at hearing songs that speak directly, personally, and urgently about where it’s all really at.
But—and this is the reason for this letter, Bob—I think that the times there are a-changing. You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob—and I’m worried about it. I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way. You travel with an entourage now—with good buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing and drink wine with you and insure your privacy—and never challenge you to face everyone else’s reality again.
I thought (and so did you) of Jimmy Dean when I saw you last—and I cried a little inside me for that awful potential for self-destruction which lies hidden in all of us and which can emerge so easily and so uninvited.
I think it begins to show up in your songs, now, Bob. You said you weren’t a writer of “protest” songs—or any other category, for that matter—but you just wrote songs. Well, okay, call it anything you want. But any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write “protest” songs. How can he help himself?
Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self- conscious—maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it’s happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now—rather than to the rest of us out front.
Now, that’s all okay—if that’s the way you want it, Bob. But then you’re a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.
Perhaps this letter has been long overdue. I think, in a sense, that we are all responsible for what’s been happening to you—and to many other fine young artists. The American Success Machinery chews up geniuses at a rate of one a day and still hungers for more. Unable to produce real art on its own, the Establishment breeds creativity in protest against and nonconformity to the System. And then, through notoriety, fast money, and status, it makes it almost impossible for the artist to function and grow.
It is a process that must be constantly guarded against and fought.
Give it some thought, Bob. Believe me when I say that this letter is written out of love and deep concern. I wouldn’t be sticking my neck out like this otherwise.
The open letter to Dylan
In the November 1965 edition of Sing Out!, Silber wrote an article called “Open Letter To Bob Dylan”.
“I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people… some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way”.1
Dylan did not like being told how to perform or how to write, and he didn’t really like any criticism much either. He replied by telling his manager Albert Grossman that his songs were no longer available for publication in Sing Out!.
Eventually, in 1968, Silber retracted his criticism in the Guardian (US):
“Many of us who did not fully understand the dynamics of the political changes… felt deserted by a poet”. “Dylan is our poet – not our leader… Dylan .. is communicating where it counts.”
The words quoted above are from page 314 of “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan” by Robert Shelton.
In “Chronicles Volume One” (2004), Bob Dylan commented:
“I liked Irwin, but I couldn’t relate to it. Miles Davis would be accused of something similar when he made the album Bitches Brew… what I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new images and attitudes into them.”
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.
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: ....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.
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.
The continuing presence of Earl Robinson, Alan Lomax, and Seeger, among others, guaranteed folk music’s enduring connection to the 1940s Popular Front Communist worldview. (The Weavers proved resilient enough to enjoy a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, under the professional hand of their former manager, Harold Leventhal, late in 1955.) A few key institutions—above all Sing Out! magazine, cofounded in 1950 and edited by the politically orthodox Irwin Silber—carried on the Popular Front outlook. And the New York folk-song scene would always have a strong leftist bent, which deepened when the southern civil-rights movement began making headway in the late 1950s. But at almost every level, a growing portion of the folk-song community had no strict or formal political connections and demanded none of its artists and performers.