The 1992 film Bob Roberts dealt with an upstart Republican senate candidate (Tim Robbins) campaigning against the incumbent Democrat (Gore Vidal). The screenplay written by Robbins had the strange twist of his character being a conservative folk singer. I remember Gore Vidal being great in his role, but the Robbins Bob Roberts character left me bewildered. I realize the film was satire and meant to be a faux documentary, but still the idea of a conservative folk singer was anathema to me. After all, like most people I considered folk singers left of center especially those of the 1960's variety. But to my astonishment, I recently found out by reading an article in the December 20th issue of Rolling Stone that right wing folk singers actually existed.
Freedom Is A Hammer compiled by writer/music producer/Cold War expert Bill Geerhart documents the little known movement with songs like Poor Little Left Winger, Fascist Threat, Commie Lies, Comrade's Lament,and Join The S.D.S. These songs sung by Janet Greene, Tony Dolan, and Vera Vanderlaan were originally recorded between 1966-68 at the height of Vietnam, racial and political turmoil, and the insurgence of the counter culture.
Janet Greene became the right's answer to Joan Baez. Greene was a star of a popular children's program in Columbus,Ohio when she fell under the influence of Dr. Fred Schwartz and an anti-communist organization that he led. Greene would set Schwartz's blistering tirades to song. After three years of working for Schwartz, Greene left his organization in 1967 and began a 30 year career as a lounge club singer. It appears folk songs were not part of her nightclub act.
Vera Vanderlaan and her husband William were Vermont dairy farmers when they decided in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War protesters by releasing their own brand of folk music America Awake. For three years, they performed their music and gave lectures.
Perhaps the most prominent singer of the three included on Freedom Is A Hammer is Tony Dolan. He was heavily influenced by Barry Goldwater after reading Conscience of a Conservative. Dolan was a Yale undergraduate when he came to the attention of The National Review and Firing Line host William F. Buckley Jr. His right wing musical adventure was called Cry, the Beloved Country. Buckley wrote the liner notes for Dolan's album and promoted it in a syndicated column he wrote. He would perform on both The Dick Cavett and The Merv Griffin shows. His connections would help land a job as Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter while he was president.
A group not included on Freedom Is A Hammer, but no less interesting were The Goldwaters. As you might surmise, the groups name was taken from Senator Barry Goldwater – the failed 1964 Republican nominee for president. The group was formed by two Nashville area brothers – Buford and Mark Bates. Mark was head of the Nashville office of Billboard magazine at the time the group formed in 1963. His prediction that Goldwater would be the eventual nominee only helped to bolster the group's stature. The brothers would rewrite lyrics to traditional folk songs and record an album called Folk Songs To Bug Liberals. They toured and performed at Goldwater rallies wearing their matching red AuH2O (the periodic table symbols for gold and water) sweatshirts. They once even shared a stage with Janet Greene. According to one group member, the band even had its own groupies! But with the landslide loss of Senator Goldwater, the group found no reason to continue and quickly disbanded.
Even with the recent reexamination of right wing folk music, the movement will not be treated kindly by musical historians and deservedly so. And while the singers themselves possessed excellent singing voices (at least from what I've heard), the lyrics and melodies don't stand up well especially when compared with mainstream folk of that era. Artists like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Peter Lafarge were master songwriters. The music contained on Freedom Is A Hammer comes across as ideological screeds set to folk music. The best music from the left did not come across that way. Listen to songs such as There But For Fortune, I Ain't Marching Anymore, Blowing In The Wind, The Ballad Of Ira Hayes, and With God On Our Side just to name a few. A liberal point of view sure, but the sentiments expressed were more thought provoking and more nuanced than those expressed by their conservative counterparts. The right thought the status quo just fine, the left did not and those buying folk music overwhelmingly sided with the left. The conservatives love the marketplace and when it came to 60's folk music, the marketplace seems to have gotten it right. Maybe folk music never was the right vehicle to covey conservative ideology as Dr. Fred Schwartz had hoped it would be. Even the Goldwaters had to add Beatle songs to their set in order to make their performances more listener friendly. Talk radio appears to be the format for that dissemination. Liberals have failed repeatedly to make any progress in that regard. Does anyone remember Air America? Popular conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity does provide music to the faithful. An announcer welcomes listeners to "the Revolution!" followed by bumper music from country music star Toby Keith…will stick a boot up your ass. It's the American way. It makes me long for the good old days of Janet Greene and Tony Dolan. At least Dolan had a legitimate point to make with his song Remembering Bloody Budapest.