Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2010

Suze Rotolo’s “A Freewheelin’ Time”

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

If there’s any kind of book that makes it to the head of the line on my reading queue, it is one that deals with the folk music revival. When I got to Bard College in September 1961, it was in full swing as this frame from my memoir illustrates. I am the nerdy 16-year-old in suspenders to the left. Don’t ask where the artist got the idea for the suspenders.

These are the books that I have read that cover this period. Except for the first one, I have also written reviews.

1. Robbie Lieberman, “When We Were Good: the folk revival”

2. Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” (Dave van Ronk bio)

3.  David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street (About Dylan and Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Fariña. Mimi was Joan’s sister.)

(2 & 3 were reviewed here: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html)

4. Bob Dylan “Chronicles volume 1”, reviewed here: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html

I am now reading Suze Rotolo’s “A Freewheelin’ Time: a memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties”, which is absolutely first-rate. If you are a Bob Dylan fan, you’ll know that she was his girl friend when he was first coming up in the early sixties. You can see her on the cover of “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, hence the title of the book.

Rotolo’s book is not really the typical book written by someone fortunate or unfortunate enough to be the lover or mate of a celebrity. The book is much more of an attempt to capture the spirit of the age and to put Dylan into that larger context.

Furthermore, Rotolo was a red diaper baby and in a unique position to describe the role of people like Pete Seeger in helping to create an alternative to mainstream culture, in much the same way that the beat generation had done.

Finally, as should be obvious from this excerpt, Rotolo is a first-rate writer:

McCarthyism reigned supreme during the 1950s, its influence—like a slowly retreating flood—permeated the decade, and the damage left in its wake was evident in the beginning of the next one. In the span of ten years Stalin had died and the Rosenbergs had been sent to the electric chair. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, was elected president in 1952 and served two terms. A notable act he was responsible for, in addition to deny­ing executive clemency to the Rosenbergs, was completely desegregating the armed forces.

Since we didn’t own a television set until 1957, the radio and the phonograph held sway. The music we listened to included recordings of folk music from around the world, the Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday records my mother loved, opera arias my father sang along with, classical music, and Toscanini conducting the NBC Radio Or­chestra. A program called Make-Believe Ballroom delivered mostly bland popular music until the day the DJ placed a single titled “Sh-Boom” on the turntable, inaugurating the arrival of rock and roll on mainstream radio.

Folk music had been sidelined as being for radicals, especially after the nationally known folk group the Weavers, with the Communist Party member Pete Seeger on banjo and vocals, had become victims of the blacklist, making it impossible for them to appear on TV or in concert halls and clubs. The Cold War had hit its stride.

My sister Carla was seventeen in 1958, in her first year at Hunter College. She had a group of friends whose families had a political background similar to ours. I was a with­drawn fourteen-year-old, and our mother might have asked her to take me under her wing. For whatever reason, she de­cided to bring me along to a party she was going to. She and a girlfriend put a few tissues in my bra, undid my ponytail, and gave me a cute skirt to wear so that I’d look less like a kid. I was still very awkward, but progress was being made. They schooled me in a few dance moves and made sure I knew the words to the Gene Vincent song “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” I was happy. Usually my sister treated me like a bug she needed to swat away, but life had radically changed a few months previously with the death of our father, and now I was getting some friendly attention.

I had a great time at the party. There was no way to hide in a corner with this group. Right away a few boys headed my way, to my amazement. In school I was another sort of bug, to be avoided by boys and even some of the girls. In con­trast, this party was heaven. I felt less like an outsider with these people. We actually had things to talk about. One boy read the same poetry I did and told me he was learning to play classical guitar. The other boy liked opera; I didn’t think anybody knew about opera but my family, some of our friends, and the man who played it on the radio. He invited me on a date (a date!!) to go to the Amato Opera House on the Bowery to see a performance of La Boheme the following week. The boy who read poetry looked a little miffed. I lied and said I was fifteen when he asked my age and for my phone number. He was sixteen, and I thought he was very intelligent.

After that life definitely improved. I was more confi­dent and my circle of friends gradually grew over the next few years. Most of them lived farther out in Queens than I did or out on Long Island. Because we went to different high schools, we would arrange to meet in the Square (as Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was called) to listen to the folk musicians who gathered there to play on Sundays. Folk music was the antiestablishment music, the music of the left. In addition to traditional folk songs there were songs about unions and fighting fascists, about brotherhood, equality, and peace.

Most of us were children of Communists or socialists, red-diaper babies raised on Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. We had listened to Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festi­val on the radio while still in our cribs. The pop radio stations played ridiculous treacle, the worst of which was a song called “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” sung by Patti Page.

Late at night Carla and I would listen to WWVA, a coun­try music radio station out of Wheeling, West Virginia. We heard Les Paul and Mary Ford, Hank Williams, Faron Young, the Everly Brothers, and others on a program called Grand Ole Opry. This was new and exciting for us; I adored the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams, especially.

The atmosphere in Washington Square Park was lively. Groups of musicians would play and sing anything from old folk songs to bluegrass. Old Italian men from the neighbor­hood played their folk music on mandolins. Everyone played around the fountain and people would wander from group to group, listening and maybe singing along. A banjo player gave me an ebony banjo peg and I wore it on a string around my neck for a long time. There were poets reading their poems and political types handing out fliers for Trotskyist, Communist, or anarchist meetings and hawking their newspapers. Children played in the playground while their mothers talked together on the benches. The occasional re­ligious zealot held forth, waving a Bible, haranguing sinners about redemption. Everything overlapped nicely.

1 looked forward to Sunday in the Square with my friends and to that particular atmosphere. On Friday or Saturday nights we would meet and go to folk concerts—hootenannies—at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, and a concert hall that no longer exists and whose location I no longer remember, the Pythian. Pete Seeger, who personified the power of folk song, was the draw, heading the roster of a list of perform­ers that included his sister Peggy Seeger and her husband, Ewan MacColl, who sat on a chair on the stage with his hand cupped around his ear singing Scottish ballads and sea chanties a cappella.

5 Comments »

  1. In 8th grade, when all the other kids were listening to the Monkees, I was a huge Bob Dylan fan. Of course I was massively in love with Suze Rotolo. I’ll bet you were too.

    Comment by John B. — July 26, 2010 @ 1:11 am

  2. Absolutely charming!The only times I’ve wished to be just that little bit older are when reading memoirs like this — I was 2 or 3 years too young for this scene.

    Comment by john scott — July 26, 2010 @ 3:58 am

  3. E

    Comment by Burghardt — July 27, 2010 @ 1:13 am

  4. the suspenders:artistic license: have a nice sort of “grapes of wrath” innuendo that works

    pete seeger: ran into the old boy watching “polis is this” on you tube – a docu about Charles Olson – a connection that I was unaware of – it was Olson, via Seeger who gave Woody Guthrie his writing “in” that eventually became “Bound for Glory”.

    Harry Smith – they tell me he supplied the leaven for the folk/greenwich sandwich – and he was an occultist crackpot, not a hegelian…i ask myself:
    “what does this mean?”

    great reminiscence – you should write an autobio of the time

    there’s something about the title of “Red Diaper Babies” that drives my kids crazy whenever they see the book on my shelf – i tell them to read it…..

    Comment by marc — July 27, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  5. […] Excerpt from Suze Rotolo memoir Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

    Pingback by Suze Rotolo, dead at 67 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 1, 2011 @ 3:00 pm


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