Lee Hays - The Almanacs and World War II

The Almanacs and World War II

Orval was a grass-roots populist in his early days, and worked at the Highlander school. He was in charge of the sanitary facilities, and he kept it beautiful; he even put curtains up in the windows of the two-holer we had. But what he was best at was shoveling it out, a function which had to be performed periodically. He really put his back into it. Now he's in the Arkansas State House, performing the same function.

Lee Hays to Steve Courtney

As the clouds gathered around Commonwealth College, Hays headed north to New York, taking with him his collection of labor songs, which he planned to turn into a book. But a short stayover in Philadelphia with the poet Walter Lowenfels and his hospitable family turned into a long visit. The German-born Lowenfels, a highly cultured man and a modernist poet, who was fascinated by Walt Whitman and edited a book of his poetry, became another surrogate father to Hays, influencing him deeply. (Together the two men later wrote, perhaps Hays best song, "Wasn't That a Time?") Under Lowenfels' influence, Hays also began to write modernist poems, one of which was published in Poetry Magazine in 1940. He also had pieces, based on Arkansas folklore, published in The Nation, which led to his forming a friendship with another Nation contributor, Millard Lampell.

Arriving in New York, Hays and Lampell became roommates. They were soon joined by Pete Seeger, who like Hays was also contemplating putting together an anthology of labor songs. Together the trio began to sing at left-wing functions and to call themselves the Almanac Singers. It was a somewhat fluid group that included Josh White and Sam Gary and later Sis Cunningham (a fellow Commonwealth College alumna), Woody Guthrie, and Bess Lomax Hawes, among others. The Almanac's first album, issued in May 1941, was the controversial Songs for John Doe, comprising six pacifist songs, two of them co-written by Hays and Seeger and four by Lampell. The songs attacked the peacetime draft and the big U.S. corporations which were then receiving lucrative defense contracts from the federal government while practicing racial segregation in hiring. Since at that time isolationism was associated with right-wing conservatives and business interests, the pro-business but interventionist Time Magazine lost no time in accusing the left-wing Almanacs of "scrupulously echoing" what it called "the mendacious Moscow tune" that "Franklin Roosevelt is leading an unwilling people into a J. P. Morgan war" (Time, June 16, 1941). Concurrently, in the Atlantic Monthly, Carl Joachim Friedrich, a German-born but anti-Nazi professor of political science at Harvard, deemed the Almanacs treasonous and their album "a matter for the Attorney General" because subversive of military recruitment and morale. On June 22, Hitler unexpectedly broke the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact and attacked Russia. Three days later, Franklin Roosevelt, threatened by black labor leaders with a huge march on Washington protesting segregation in defense hiring and the army, issued Executive Order 8802 banning racial and religious discrimination in hiring by recipients of federal defense contracts. The army, however, refused to desegregate. Somewhat mollified, nevertheless, labor leaders canceled the march and ordered union members to get behind the war and to refrain from strikes; copies of the isolationist Songs for John Doe were destroyed (a month after being issued). Asked by an interviewer in 1979 about his support of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Hays said: “I do remember that the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact was a very hard pill to swallow. . . . To this day I don’t quite follow the line of reasoning behind that one, except to give Stalin more time.” According to Hays's biographer, Doris Willens:

That the pact gave Stalin more time was the story then put out; millions around the world didn’t buy it and at that point lost faith in the Soviet Union . . . (Many others had lost faith earlier, during the Moscow purge trials.) But as a disciple of Claude, Lee in 1940 held firm with those who continued to believe that America and Britain were maneuvering not to defeat Nazi Germany, or rather, not just yet, but first to turn Hitler to their desired end of destroying the Soviet Union. ....

In short, 1940 was a bad time to say a good word for “peace.” Worse, the only other voices opposing the war emanated from the extreme right, particularly America Firsters, a group suspected of harboring the hope that Hitler would eventually triumph . . . . Whatever uneasiness the Hitler-Stalin pact churned up, Lee hoped to submerge by throwing his vast energies into the service of the dynamic Congress of Industrial Organizations — the challenger to the fat and lazy and bureaucratic old American Federation of Labor. A singing labor movement, that was the goal. If you got the unions singing, peace and brotherhood had to follow. It seemed so clear and simple.

The Almanacs, who now included Sis Cunningham, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax Hawes, discarded their anti-war material with no regrets and continued to perform at union halls and at hootenanies. In June 1941 they embarked on a CIO tour of the United States, playing in Detroit, Chicago, and Seattle. They also issued several additional albums, including one, Dear Mr. President (recorded c. January 1942, issued in May), strongly supporting the war. Bad publicity, however, pursued them because of their reputation as former isolationists who had become pro-war "prematurely" (i.e., six months before Pearl Harbor). As key members, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and Woody Guthrie joined the war effort (Seeger in the army and Guthrie and Houston in the Merchant Marine) the group disbanded. Hays was rejected from the Armed Forces because of a mild case of tuberculosis; and indeed, he felt sick all the time, missed performances, and developed a reputation for being a hypochondriac. Even before this, Seeger and the other Almanacs found Hays difficult to work with and so erratic that they had asked him to leave the group.

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