Friday, July 02, 2004

Remembering Broadside

No Depression has just assigned me an obit for their next issue on Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, who died Sunday in a nursing home at the age of 95. Besides being a notable figure in the history of American folk and protest music, she and her husband Gordon Friesen played a part in my life: they were the first to print me.

That puts me in the august category of people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and any number of other songwriters of the early '60s, except I wasn't writing songs. Sis and Gordon ran a magazine called Broadside, which came out irregularly and was focused on the "topcial song" movement which was emerging when they started it in 1962. I think "Masters of War" was the first Dylan song to show up there, joining a mix of the awful and the evanescent, the rare immortal and the song which faded with the newsprint it was inspired by.

I'd only been in college a few weeks in 1965 when, bored, I submitted my first piece to them. I'm not 100% sure, but it might have been a review of an Elektra album called The Singer-Songwriter Project, on which Patrick Sky, Richard Fariña, Dave Cohen (later David Blue) and a guy named Bruce Murdoch, (who disappeared immediately) were showcased. To my surprise, they printed it and asked for more, so I sent them a review of Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. It never even occurred to me to ask about getting paid, which was good, because I think we all know what the answer would have been. Just seeing myself in print -- even if it was mimeo -- was a rush.

In January, 1966, I moved to Princeton for three months to work at a theater there, and let Sis and Gordon know I was nearby. They asked me if I'd like to do a longer story, a profile of Len Chandler, who had just released an album on Columbia, and I said yes. One bitterly cold day, I rode the train into New York, holding a portable tape recorder and a bunch of spare 3-inch reels I'd borrowed from a roommate, and met Len. I was particularly proud of myself, since Len was one of the rare Negroes in the world of folk music not doing blues, but writing songs of the struggle. He was living somewhere south of the Lower East Side, and we went to his place first to do an interview, and there I met his wife, Judy Collins' sister, who looked like Judy Collins except prettier, I thought.

Len kept looking at his watch, and at one point, he said, "Look, I have another interview to do, but you should come along with me because you might learn some more stuff, and anyway I'd like company." It turned out to be for a Russian magazine, one circulated only within Russia that was, apparently, their equivalent of Life: pictures, extended captions, the occasional article. The U.S. office was the Dakota apartment of the young couple who were its correspondents. They welcomed us warmly and we sat down on some cushions on the floor around a low table on which were various zakuski, or appetizers, and a large bottle of Stolichnaya vodka frozen sideways in a big block of ice, a silver spigot at the end of its neck. Two silver bowls held red and black caviar, and there were tiny silver shot glasses to drink the vodka out of.

I do, in fact, remember some things about this part of the evening, despite the fact that I had never had more than a sip or two of beer before in my life. I remember being shown how to spread a very thin layer of mayonnaise on the dark, slightly sweet, dense bread and then apply a dollop of caviar to it and spread it out without breaking the eggs. I remember being asked where I was going to college and seeing them nod approvingly when I said Antioch: "Yes, we know it." And I remember Len patiently explaining things they didn't want explained: that there were middle-class Negroes in America whose lives were rarely touched by the prejudice and violence that affected the poor; that he didn't feel compelled to make political points in every song he wrote; that his involvement with a division of CBS (his record label) meant that he might be able to reach a lot more people than if he was on Folkways, and that that, after all, was what he was trying to do.

I remember leaving, too, and how good it felt to launch myself with the palm of my hand off of one wall in the hall and catch myself on the other wall. "Got a little tipsy, eh?" Len asked. "Thanks for being there. Those people made me nervous." We got a cab and went downtown to Sheridan Square, to some illegal club where someone drew back a slit in the door and looked at us, and then opened up, grinning at Len. Upstairs, Ronnie Gilbert, once of the Weavers, was singing Billie Holiday songs with a combo that included Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad, on bass. At this point, I began to fade, and I remember crashing on a couch at Len's place and then taking a train back to Princeton very early in the morning, like about 6:30. There was no hangover. I was 17.

I worked like a demon transcribing the tapes, and Gordon called and said that I should just drop off the transcripts and he'd turn it into an article. I went into New York again, and rang at their apartment. Sis answered the door and I introduced myself. She was all business. "So, what did Len have to say?" I told her some of what he'd said to the Russians, and that the best quote I had in there was about how a song should be, first and foremost, well-made, and that if it had a worthy message as a part of it, that made it even better, but a well-written love song was nothing to be ashamed of. "Hmpf," was Sis' comment on that.

Needless to say, the article never appeared.

But I stayed in touch with Broadside for a while, which is how I found myself at the apartment door that summer. I had a manuscript to hand in, and I could have mailed it, but I had a friend along from college, and she was dying to meet the Broadside folks. Her name was Bobbi Fox, and she was a round Jewish girl from Cleveland, passionate about folk music, motorcycles, and her sometime boyfriend, Bob Crumb, who sent her love letters with the most amazing drawings on them. I used to go to New York on weekends, enduring marathon drives so that I could go see my girlfriend, whom I'd met at the end of my three-month stint in Princeton, and who was still going to high school there. A bunch of us would do this, a shifting cast of characters and beat-up old cars, all of us feeling very grown up and Kerouacian.

Anyway, this trip, Bobbi was along, and before I went to Port Authority for the bus to Princeton, I went uptown with her and rang the Broadside bell. This time, Gordon appeared at the door. "I'd ask you in, but the kids are sick, and Sis has her hands full," he said. I handed him the manila envelope with the piece in it, and introduced Bobbi, who professed her love of the magazine. "So," she asked Gordon, "what do you think about Bob Dylan?" Like all of us, she was in thrall to Highway 61 Revisited and the rumors of a new album coming in a few weeks. "Hmm," said Gordon. "I guess what he's doing is okay, but I wish he'd write a good song about Vietnam." Bobbi looked up at him, eyes widening. "Oh, Mr. Friesen," she said. "They're all about Vietnam!"

The times they were a-changin'.

That was the last time I had anything to do with Broadside, although there wasn't any falling out or an ideological clash. I just got distracted by other stuff, like college and pot and my girlfriend and the fact that it was 1966 and there was an amazing amount of great music and other stuff happening all around me. That fall, I'd go to New York and wind up hooking up with a magazine that had (just) moved past mimeo: Crawdaddy!.

As for Len Chandler, he moved to Los Angeles and works in education, as far as I can tell, and he's a past director of the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase. Apparently he still believes that it's the way you write 'em as well as what they say.

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