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Reflecting on 50 Years of Paredon

By Barbara Dane

At age 93, as I reflect back on the 50th anniversary of Paredon Records, I am as excited and pleased as I was when I and my late husband, Irwin Silber, created the label. Our motivation and goals a half a century ago, all about the relentless human search for justice, peace, and love, keep Paredon relevant today.

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When we founded Paredon in 1970, few record labels were documenting the music that had begun to burst from liberation and resistance movements all over the world. Decades earlier, when I began my own journey as a singer of this kind of music, celebrating the victories of these struggles as well as describing the conditions which motivated them, I was a youngster in Detroit. There, I was confronted daily with the pain and sorrow left behind by WWI as well as the courage and determination of Great Depression survivors everywhere. A vibrant labor movement had emerged in our country, and the exuberance of the post-war era inspired my young mind. The music that came out of the radio seemed ill equipped to deal with all this, mostly concentrating on banal efforts like the rhyming of moon, spoon, and June. I understood early in life that music has a deeper role; it can actually move people and inspire them to action. Throughout my life, I sang at labor rallies and picket lines, peace demonstrations and wherever I was called upon to lend my voice to the struggle for justice, and I also performed and recorded with some of the greatest musicians in blues and jazz, celebrating Afro-American culture with deep reverence. Despite obstacles, I always managed to speak my mind and follow my own path.

To young editor, author, and journalist Irwin Silber, it would seem worth almost any sacrifice to fill the world with songs in the voices of real people, living real lives and surviving the worst as well as the best with the help of their songs. He forged a deep friendship with Pete Seeger, who was immersed in building a national political song movement. When Pete drafted Irwin in the mid-1940s as a leader of both People’s Artists and the Peoples’ Songs Bulletin, he had the right man. Later, the two of them, along with Paul Robeson, Earl Robinson, Woody Guthrie, Betty Sanders, and other supporters, sent Sing Out! Magazine into the world, providing not only a rich source of material for singers but also a dependable tool for organizing ourselves. It became the single most important publication of the folk revival and remained so for decades. In 1953, one of Irwin’s singular achievements, working together with Paul Robeson, was the creation of a book that became a bible for the activist singers of the day, called Lift Every Voice. In 1960, Irwin proposed an idea to Moses Asch, who agreed and became his partner in the founding of Oak Publications, publishing at least 100 titles including most of the folk music books you will find on your grandmother’s shelves today.

Both Irwin and I had independently learned, through our work, to value the power of song, with its remarkable ability to bring people together in struggle as well as in celebration. Once we discovered that our values and goals were so close, we rearranged our complicated lives so that we could become a team, able to support and encourage each other in life as well as in appropriate projects as they came along.

In 1966, a remarkable opportunity came when broadcaster Estela Bravo brought an invitation to visit the newly born Cuban Revolution. It came directly from then-President Dorticos and was initially intended for Pete Seeger, in hopes that he would make a singing tour of the country. Pete declined due to other commitments, but he suggested I might be the singer who could fill the bill. Irwin and I were invited, and we accepted at once. We advised the Cubans that we would apply for the licenses then required by the US government for travel to Cuba, but would advise the State Department that we would be going with or without licenses. In other words, we would be very pleased to accept the invitation unconditionally.

As we saw it, our job was to represent those American people who respected and supported the Cuban Revolution, a task we enthusiastically embraced. Our hosts meant for us to help the Cuban public understand that the slogan “Cuba Si, Yanqui No!” was never to deny the historical friendship between the two countries but to clearly say NO to Yanqui policies, never to the American people themselves. I sang before huge crowds of students and workers all over the country as well as on national TV, and Irwin spoke to gatherings of cultural leaders and intellectuals bringing this unequivocal message. This would not be only time we traveled to Cuba.

In 1967, one of Cuba’s leading cultural institutions, known far and wide as Casa de las Americas, sent out the call to singers and musicians worldwide inviting them to attend a meeting—what was called the Encuentro de Canción Protesta. It was intended to provide a platform for a broad discourse about our work, its sources of motivation, its difficulties operating in often hostile conditions, and its ultimate goals of justice, peace, and freedom. For the artists, the reward would be many opportunities to offer our music to the Cuban public, in the largest theaters and in the smallest town squares.

Artists came literally from the ends of the earth: Australia and South Africa; Italy and the UK were richly represented; and Latin America brought forth Chileans, Argentinos, Uruguayans, and Mexicans. There was even a small cultural troupe from war-torn Vietnam. In short, multicolored voices of the earth were given a historically brilliant moment together, and gave back the sounds of the future. We sang of Che Guevara, last seen in Bolivia, and of Ho Chi Minh, whose people we had begun to believe were invincible. We sang of hard trials and glorious victories. We sang with many voices, but with one heart.

Once arriving back home, I was bursting to share all of this with my audiences. At first I tried to sing some of the songs in their original languages. That didn’t work. Then I wrote some song translations, a bit better but not sufficient. Finally, a clear vision came to me: these times require a record label, a way to make heard the voices of the very people who lived these songs.

As a singer I had recorded in large and small studios, but I had no experience building or running a label. I knew I could find plenty of material that should be known to the world, because everywhere I went to sing, others would appear with great songs and meaningful voices. I formed the habit of asking the best ones if they would want to be recorded on an independent label that had no budget and that would probably find most of its audiences among activists, their friends and followers. The response was nearly always positive.

With no producing experience myself, I turned to Irwin. He had worked with Moses Asch at Folkways Records, where he learned a lot about how to stay afloat on a minimum budget. Asch’s past bankruptcies demonstrated the value of keeping the overhead as low as possible, so we determined to turn our guest bedroom into my office. Irwin would do his bookkeeping and other paperwork in the tiny spare bedroom, where he already worked at his many writing projects. Moe recommended a pressing plant in Jersey that could fill orders as small as 100 without a problem, thus eliminating the need for a warehouse. We visited Artie at the Brooklyn printing house where Moe had all his work done, and he quickly educated me to the economies of printing four album covers at once, as well as the wisdom of using ink colors that could be combined; with two colors, you could achieve many variations.

Irwin took me to meet Ronnie Clyne, the gifted graphic designer who often worked for Moe, and we became great friends and associates. I learned to look for cover art by rummaging through the photo files at the National Guardian, the radical newspaper Irwin had begun editing after his departure from Sing Out!, and by keeping my eyes open for images, no matter how obscure, that reflected the contents of each album-to-be. Of necessity, I also became an art director, and Ronnie’s designs served to make wonderful sense of it all. Last, but far from least, I lucked onto Jonathan Thayer, a wonderfully competent young engineer at a small 14th Avenue studio in Manhattan, who performed whatever recording studio tasks were needed at minimum expense and with maximum dedication. In short, I became a record producer.

Over the years I had become appreciative of the rather erratic booklets included with the Folkways recordings I cherished. Sometimes they would be chock-full of important information, song lyrics, photos, and other material. At other times, they were sketchy and even incomplete. I resolved to give Paredon Records a consistently complete and useful booklet, and this required that I learn to be an editor as well. My menu went something like this: essay about the country and the struggle or campaign that drove the content; essay about the artists, the conditions in which they worked, and about the music itself; photos that illustrate the texts; photos of the artists or speakers; headnotes for each song or speech, with accompanying text; translations into English where required, to be printed opposite the original, making the songs’ meaning accessible and allowing the ambitious reader to acquire some language skills; bibliographic details; resources for lending support and solidarity; information about other Paredon releases if space allowed.

Without a budget, I would call on dedicated scholars, professionals as well as amateurs, to supply the needed information. Folks were only too happy to share their expertise. Sometimes the artists supplied the things I was looking for. These were the easy ones. Often these essays and photos were really difficult to obtain, as were the master tapes themselves. Of the authorship of at least ten albums, I know nothing. On several occasions during the Pinochet regime, it was something like “look for a young man with first two fingers of right hand missing, at XXX coffee shop, at XXX o’clock,” where I would be handed material from Chile. The “Men of No Property” who created the two Irish albums were referred to me by Ewan McColl in the UK, and communicated in complete anonymity, with the group’s name invented by me. The singers on the first recording of the Filipino album made under Ferdinand Marcos’ regime of martial law were intercepted as they sang, their basement taping session confiscated and their punishment severe. Patriotic Filipinos here in the USA persevered by bringing together a group to record the songs again. There are many more such stories.

I learned how to take whatever I could find and turn it into a recording. For example, when I longed for a way to make Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese defense of their country into something young Americans could use as the pathway to building a human relationship between us, I enlisted a couple of comrades to research and select quotations from the poems and essays of Ho, and I gathered previously recorded songs that would help tell the story. I wanted the text read in a voice and accent that could be imagined to be Ho himself, and when I finally heard such a voice speaking at an antiwar rally, I enlisted him. He came to New York in an elevated mood, so happy to be of service to his people, and began to read. Truthfully, he did a remarkable job of rendering the sincerity and seriousness of the material, and the humor too. The only problem was his persistent stammer. Our sound engineer Jonathan spent many hours with a razor blade cutting off the reps of consonants, and in the end it sounds perfect, and the message is still heartbreakingly relevant. The songs are perfect too. You need to hear this recording, and you will learn a lot from the accompanying booklet.

Irwin, meanwhile, was inventing ways of publicizing and distributing these records. He understood that the expected return on direct mailings is usually slim, but there were few other ways to get the information out in those days. He was able to dig up some targeted mailing lists, some from Folkways, some from the National Guardian, and some from peace and justice organizations, and devised a catalog. Out went the mailing and, soon, several orders came in. We took turns packing up the orders and carrying them to the main post office, luckily only a few blocks away. The first mailing at least paid for itself, and from there the only way to go was up. We began showing up at movement meetings and concerts with a couple of boxes of records and usually went home with enough cash to have made a dent in our costs. Some of the better organized groups began to order records to sell at their meetings. And some university libraries and progressive record and bookstores around the country eventually began stocking our releases. Now we could see that our vision had legs: we were providing a way to bring information and cultural tools to people while helping them raise funds for their activities.

All this while, through most of the 1970s, Irwin and I continued with our ongoing work. He authored and edited several important music-related books, as well as several Folkways records including Songs of the Civil War, Songs of the Suffragettes, and more. After leaving Sing Out!, whose stated focus was “Songs of Labor and the American People” and joining the National Guardian, whose masthead read “Independent Radical Newsweekly,” he was able to go beyond the limited lens of folk music and began writing political articles and editorials in a steady stream. Every night, he rode his bicycle home from the Guardian office in Manhattan and over the bridge to Brooklyn, where he would find a nice dinner waiting on the days when I wasn’t off singing all over the USA or in the UK, Spain or Mexico, Japan, the Philippines and Okinawa, anyplace where American GIs were organizing their opposition to our invasion of Vietnam.

At that time, the women’s liberation movement brought forth a new audience and labels such as Olivia began to appear, issuing the work of female singers and musicians focused on conveying the changing gender roles. I was on a somewhat different page. I saw women making strong and relevant music as part of many movements and expressing themselves in many genres, not just what had come to be called “women’s music.” Paredon already featured work by some of the great singers of the day, including Bernice Johnson Reagon, Beverly Grant, Suni Paz, Estrella Artau, Judith Reyes, and Flora Santiago. I created a special catalog to emphasize these artists and point listeners to the opportunities to hear them as offered by Paredon.

I came up with the idea of a song magazine on a record, hopefully to appear with regularity, including the most topical and relevant material I could find from new singers or older ones with new ideas needing to be heard. I called it What Now, People?, borrowed from a drawing by R. Crumb that whimsically mimicked the title of Lenin’s famous What Is to Be Done? We managed to pull together three issues with very satisfying results, but it became clear this kind of thing would require a lot more work than issuing the music of one artist or group. For a quick survey of what was on people’s minds in the mid- to late 1970s, give these three albums a listen. You might be surprised. You might also find an absolutely relevant song to sing!

In the early 1980s, Irwin and I moved to California, where we became part of a movement bent on changing the world but first creating a new bunch of theories to help change it. Irwin began organizing and writing full time. I felt the need to shift my focus from record producing back to my work as a singer. I created a hot jazz group called Good News Bonanza Band and launched other musical collaborations as I continued my work in political song.

As for Paredon, we recruited a stellar collective of volunteers who were handed the reins in the hope that the label could go on indefinitely, but they soon realized that even their combined experience and goodwill did not equip them with the tool bag that Irwin and I had brought to the job. They managed to produce a couple of great live events and the last items in the catalog of what had become approximately 50 albums, but finally and reluctantly had to let it go.

What was I to do if all this music made of real blood, sweat, and tears was to survive in perpetuity, an idea that had always been part of our mission? In a moment of grace, a whole new world opened up when, in a conversation with dear friend and Smithsonian cultural expert James Early, he mentioned that Smithsonian Folkways might be open to acquiring other labels. Remembering Moe Asch’s brilliant idea of a partnership between his life mission, Folkways Records, and the Smithsonian, our nation’s pride and enduring legacy dedicated “to the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” I nearly ran to the telephone to make contact with them, and with astonishing luck, Professor Anthony Seeger, then managing things, was on the line. He immediately warmed to the idea of a link with Paredon, saying he had already been following and using these recordings for a time, since his uncle Pete had called attention to them, and felt they would be an important addition to the Smithsonian’s legendary catalog. With that, Irwin and I donated the label in its entirety with no strings attached other than that magic word “perpetuity.”

Today Paredon’s mission is as timely as ever. We’re experiencing one of the most dramatic moments in human history, with its soundtrack bursting from artists everywhere. People all over the planet are rising up to demand justice, and not just for themselves but for all people. It is my deepest wish that these recordings serve as inspiration for today’s artists and activists—and that some of their voices will find a home at Smithsonian Folkways, where they in turn will inspire future generations with their songs of peace and social justice.