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Some of the most prominent folk singers of the twentieth century, including Woody Guthrie, ‘Sis Cunningham, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Burl Ives, etc., were also political activists with various associations with the American Communist Party. As a consequence, the FBI, along with other governmental and right-wing organizations, were monitoring them, keeping meticulous files running many thousands of pages, and making (and carrying out) plans to purge them from the cultural realm.
In The Folk Singers and the Bureau, Aaron J Leonard draws on an unprecedented array of declassified documents and never before released files to shed light on the interplay between left-wing folk artists and their relationship with the American Communist Party, and how it put them in the US government’s repressive cross hairs.
At a time of increasing state surveillance and repression, The Folk Singers and the Bureau shows how the FBI and other governmental agencies have attempted to shape and repress American culture.
Aaron J. Leonard is a writer and historian with a particular focus on the history of radicalism and state suppression. He is the author of Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists, A Threat of the First Magnitude—FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration: From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union, and The Folk Singers and the Bureau: The FBI, the Folk Artists and the Suppression of the Communist Party, USA-1939-1956. He lives in Los Angeles.
“Aaron Leonard’s copious and impeccable research uncovers data that even those involved at the time — from musicians to political activists —may not have known about. Based on these findings, Leonard explains how and why American icons like Woody Guthrie became targets of America’s secret police: the FBI. More than that, Leonard’s critical analysis helps us understand the impact on music, social movements, indeed society as a whole, of both the folk singers and the Bureau. This is a must-read for music lovers and defenders of civil liberties alike.”
“Aaron Leonard has opened up a fascinating understanding of the beginnings of the folk music revival through the lens of the particularly zealous FBI. Drawing upon dozens of detailed FBI files, as well as other primary and secondary sources, we now have a groundbreaking approach to the post-World War II destructive Red Scare and the numerous folk musicians who were targeted.”
“Folk singers have long been America’s canaries in the coal mine, singing out danger, singing out warning, singing out love. To examine why a small band of warblers were able to strike such terror into the heart of the FBI, Aaron Leonard has delved into the files, many of them never before seen. Historically informed and impressively contextualized, The Folk Singers and the Bureau is a dark tale of persecution, paranoia, and valiant resistance to tyranny.”
“This book is a valuable and timely study, with new evidence and insights suited to our present moment. Leonard balances primary evidence and secondary source knowledge with deft storytelling. Ultimately, he shows that the image of FBI agents trailing folkies with banjos is no laughing matter. The federal suppression of folk artists should be taken as deadly serious, and fits into a broader context of repression generally as an ongoing norm in U.S. life.”