Countdown: The Cold War Hit Parade
We know of the great songs to have come out of the Civil War (We’re Tenting Tonight On the Old Camp Ground); and the Revolutionary War (Yankee Doodle), and the First World War (I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier) and the Second World War (The Sinking of the Reuben James), and the Vietnam War (Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation); but the Cold War? Since the battlefield was more like a chessboard, and the casualties were truth and faith in one’s government, what great songs would one point to give some kind of equal nobility to the cause for which so few died in vain?
That’s the question that vexed me as I spent several months preparing for a Pasadena library show on the subject of folk music during the Cold War. I knew the peace songs I had grown up on—Strangest Dream, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall—but I had no idea there would literally be hundreds more—on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and that they would lead me to a broader understanding of the cultural response to the looming Mushroom Cloud that overshadowed our childhoods in the 1950s.
But there they were—scattered throughout a dozen songbooks and old LPs, and collected on a new Bear Family Boxed Set called Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security, with a list price of $186. I printed out the track list and was amazed to see so many songs I had never heard of before, like Jesus Is God’s Atomic Bomb and Atomic Baby and Radioactive Mama. Who knew? Out of 140 songs only three were in my preordained set-list: Old Man Atom by Vern Partlow, We’ll All Go Together When We Go by Tom Lehrer, and Sir Lancelot’s Atomic Energy.
But the real revelation was to discover that in addition to the Joan Baez I knew—who sang Malvina Reynold’s What Have They Done to the Rain, inspired by above-ground nuclear testing, there was an “Anti-Baez” named Janet Greene who penned the satiric lament Poor Left-Winger to warn potential student dupes of Dylan and Baez not to be taken in by their “peddling their Communist corn.” It was like falling down a rabbit hole and waking up with Alice in Wonderland. And from a program that would have been frankly rather pedestrian my attempt to account for forty-five years of music inspired by fear of the music-shaped cloud on the one hand and the red menace on the other turned into a fun-filled journey through what poet Theodore Roethke called “A Dark Time,” noting that “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
What I discovered was that the singer-songwriters of the 1960s folk revival who were uniformly horrified by the prospect of nuclear annihilation were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of musical responses to the Cold War. Most songwriters—yes, the great majority—had no political or moral axe to grind, they simply wanted to use the images that were out there in the public sphere to write whatever songs they could, and did: Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb, My Teenage Atomic Queen, Crawl Out of the Fallout, and so on. Most of these songs did not care one way or another about the prospect of World War III, so there was no reason for Bear Family to include Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues, or Hard Rain. Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Bobby McFerrin’s Ode to Joy was the underlying theme of most all of them.
But far from diminishing my admiration for the songs that surfaced within the peace movement through its cultural ambassadors like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie, Joan Baez and Malvina Reynolds—on the contrary it raised it even higher, for their prophetic utterances were like life boats in a vast sea of indifference, keeping what Lincoln called “The better angels of our nature” afloat in a time when the commercial music industry was simply happy to make a buck on the “Eve of Destruction.”
My favorite newly discovered atom bomb song was left out of the massive Atomic Platters boxed set; written by Michael Flanders of Flanders and Swann, the British comic songsmiths who gave us the famous Hippopotamus chorus:
Mud, mud, glorious mud
nothing quite like it for cooling the blood…
Flanders came up with 20 Tons of TNT in 1967—and put it in their Broadway show At the Drop of Another Hat. Agnes Friesen rescued it from nuclear oblivion and put it in the third book collection of Broadside Magazine, where I discovered it on my own shelf:
I have seen it estimated
Somewhere between death and birth
There are now three thousand million
People living on this earth
And the stockpiled mass destruction
Of the nuclear powers that be
Equals for each man and woman
Twenty tons of TNT.
And I also recovered Tom Paxton’s buried treasure from an old tape cassette Bulletin, which came out in 1983—in which he made some improvements on the Neutron Bomb–The Perfect Bomb:
Some friends and I have worked for years in deepest secrecy.
The work went on around the clock in our laboratory,
We’ve built the perfect weapon, we’re unveiling it today,
It turns the tanks to butter, but the people walk away.
The bomb, the bomb, we finally built the perfect bomb.
It’s impossible to stop, I can hardly wait for it to drop.
The bomb, the bomb, we finally built the perfect bomb.
I’ll tell you what I’m counting on, the bomb, the bomb.
The late great Utah Phillips contributed his great 1991 song Enola Gay—the bomber named for pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets’ mother that dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima:
Look out, look out, from your schoolroom window
Look up young children from your play
Wave your hand at the shining airplane
Such a beautiful sight is Enola Gay.
Phillips tells the whole story from the point of view of young children looking up at the sky as he remembered having done growing up in Ohio, when passing military planes would dip their wings as they passed a schoolyard. How chilling it was to see the atom bomb (ironically code-named “Little Boy”) from the point of view of the children it was about to destroy.
The song which announced the dawn of the nuclear age, however, was not written by a professional singer, but by newspaperman Vern Partlow, who helped organize the Newspaper Guild as a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News in the 1940s. He got an assignment after the war to interview a number of scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and developed the bomb to see what they now thought of it and how we might prevent a nuclear disaster. After working on the story for several months he began to get alarmed at the information he was hearing and wondered whether he might be able to write a song to get the word out. The idea kept growing and he finally decided on the framework of a spoken word sermon “so as not to leave the religious people out,” he said. Thus was born the Talking Atomic Blues, or Old Man Atom.
I’m gonna preach you all a sermon ‘bout Old Man Atom
And I don’t mean the Atom in the bible Adam,
I don’t mean the Adam mother Eve mated
I mean the thing that science liberated
You know Einstein says he’s scared
And when Einstein’s scared, brother I’m scared.
Life used to be such a simple joy
The cyclotron was a super toy
Folks got born, they’d work and marry
And atom was a word in the dictionary
Then it happened…
Them science guys from every clime
They all pitched in with over time
Before you know it, the job was done
They’d hitched up the power of the goldarned sun
Put a harness on old Sol
While the diplomats was splittin’ hairs.
It may have been the most unlikely hit song of all time, but when marine biologist and folk singer Sam Hinton recorded it for Columbia Records it started proliferating like—well, like nuclear weapons. Nuclear fission hit the airwaves in a big way—four out of every five nickels people dropped into the juke box played Old Man Atom, with its concluding couplets:
Here’s my moral, plain as day,
Old Man Atom is here to stay.
He’s gonna hang around, it’s plain to see,
But, ah, my dearly beloved, are we?
We hold these truths to be self-evident
All men may be cremated equal.
And then the Socratic kicker: Listen, folks, here is my thesis
Peace in the world, or the world in pieces.
That’s what did it; suddenly there was a backlash to the song, record companies—even RCA Victor, which had put out a version by no less than The Sons of the Pioneers—and before you can say E=MC2 those same companies started recalling their own records like General Motors—preventive censorship, you might say, before the government could even get a word in.
It was breathtaking: instead of banning the bomb, we banned the song about the bomb.
As H.L. Menckin so acutely observed, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Both RCA and Columbia pulled their records off the shelves at the first whiff of controversy. Who came to the defense of freedom of speech? Who breathed new life into the 1st Amendment, when all about them were running scared and the “marketplace of ideas” was about to go bankrupt? Who refused to be cowed by the growing intimations of anticommunist hysteria?
The People’s World?
The Daily Worker?
Think again. Philip Luce’s Life Magazine, that’s who! They ran an editorial on September 11 of 1950 that stands as a shining beacon of light in what Roethke called “A Dark Time.”
Here is what they wrote:
NO PRIVATE CENSORS
As everyone knows, this page is agin’ communism. It’s agin’ the phony Stockholm Peace Appeal which the communists have been circulating. It’s agin’ letting commies get away with masking themselves as ‘liberals.’ But it’s also in favor of a sense of humor; and it doesn’t like the Ku-Kluxish turn which the Campaign Against Communism has recently taken in some quarters…
And just as specifically, if not more so, we don’t like the private censorship that has resulted in the withdrawal, by RCA Victor and Columbia Records, Inc., of ‘talking blues number’ Old Man Atom, presumably on receipt of complaints that it parrots the communist line on peace. The song happens to have been written five years ago by a Los Angeles newspaperman named Vern Partlow, before there was any ‘communist peace offensive.’
[A line in the song says] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men can be cremated equal.” That’s practically what everybody was saying back in 1946. It’s not in line with the latest military views of the atom bomb’s effectiveness, but that’s no reason why any private group of censors should be allowed to keep the rest of the US people from buying, or refusing to buy a recording of Old Man Atom as they choose.”
The repercussions of this withdrawal of Vern Partlow’s song, however, were far-reaching and emblematic of the Red Scare that descended in this country as impenetrably as the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. In February of that same year, in Wheeling, West Virginia Senator Joseph McCarthy made his declaration of war on his “list of communists in the U.S. State Department—which did not end until he himself was censored by the United States Senate subsequent to the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954—the hearings which are most memorable for attorney Joseph Welch’s dramatic question, “Have you no decency, Senator, at long last have you no sense of decency?”
Vern Partlow lost his job, was blacklisted, subpoenaed to testify before HUAC, found in contempt for refusing to cooperate with their investigation, and never worked again as a newspaperman—the profession which he had mythologized with another hit song—Newspapermen Meet Such Interesting People; and all for writing a song warning us about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
But not only him: Sam Hinton, who made the song a hit, was also blacklisted and subpoenaed to testify before California’s version of HUAC—State Senator Jack Tenney’s Committee on Un-American Activities. His record was pulled off the shelves and from then on, instead of recording for Decca Records and seeing his work available for commercial distribution he could only record for Folkways—the small independent folk label started by Moses Asch to publish the work of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Fortunately Sam was able to continue working for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography as a marine biologist, where I am sure he tried to warn the fish of their enemies as well. On a personal note, he became one of my good friends and we presented many a workshop together at folk festivals from San Diego to Claremont to Los Angeles.
Old Man Atom proved to be the kiss of death for everyone associated with it—both its author and recording artist paid a heavy price for sticking to their principles. That is why I chose this song as Number 1 on my personal Hit Parade of songs from the Cold War. It was more than a hit song: it was the hallmark of an era, and described in heart-stopping, chart-topping detail what humanity had gotten itself into:
For the atom’s international, in spite of hysteria,
Flourishes in Utah, also Siberia.
And whether you’re white, black, red or brown,
The question is this, when you boil it down:
To be or not to be!
That is the question. . .
Isn’t that what Bob Dylan had in mind when he concluded that the answer was blowing in the wind?
Here then, is the final set list, as actually performed on August 9, the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; (there were some small variations from my prepared set list due to audience interactions and requests, but it’s close to what I had planned:
1) Red Diaper Baby Boomer—Ross Altman, my song about growing up during the McCarthy era in an Old Left family (my father was an unfriendly witness before HUAC in 1952 who refused to name names);
2) Furusato—Ishigi Astu/Ewan MacColl, a Japanese song about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;
3) Thanksgiving (1956)— e.e. cummings, about the Soviet invasion of Hungary;
4) August 1968—W.H. Auden, about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia;
5) What Have They Done to the Rain—Malvina Reynolds (as sung by Joan Baez)
6) Poor Left-Winger—Janet Greene (the Anti-Baez)
7) It’s a Small World—Richard and Robert Sherman for Disney, written for UNICEF as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962;
8) Let Me Die In My Footsteps—Bob Dylan
9) Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues—Bob Dylan, the song he was not allowed to sing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 for which he walked off and never looked back;
10) Old Man Atom—Vern Partlow (as sung by Sam Hinton)
11) The Perfect Bomb—Tom Paxton
12) The Merry Minuet—Sheldon Harnick
13) Changes—Phil Ochs
14) Goodnight Irene—Huddie Ledbetter/The Weavers, the song that launched the folk revival in 1950, on top of the Hit Parade for 13 straight weeks—the record until 1975. Then the Weavers were blacklisted, a major musical casualty of the Cold War.
Author’s note: Countdown: The Cold War Hit Parade was produced by Terry Cannon for the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library as a part of their year-long series Critical Mass: The Culture of the Cold War. This is the third in a series of shows I have done for librarian Terry Cannon; the first was for the Woody Guthrie Centennial in 2012, and the second for the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington in 2013—The Musical Legacy of the Great March. This essay is dedicated with appreciation to Mr. Cannon for his support and encouragement of my work.
On Sunday August 31 at 10:15am Ross Altman performs his 33rd annual Labor Songs Day at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill St in Ocean Park, 310-399-1631;; free and open to the public.
Ross Altman performs Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads in Dust, Drought and Dreams Gone Dry with Prof. Peter Dreier at the Pasadena Public Library in the DRW Auditorium at 285 E. Walnut St. Pasadena, CA 91101 626-744-4066; 1:00pm on Saturday, Sept 6. Free and open to the public.
Ross Altman may be reached at email@example.com