A Folklorist of Black America
— Brian Dolinar
African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics:
The Lawrence Gellert Story
By Bruce Conforth
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013, 265 pages plus illustrations, $75 cloth.
THIS NEW BOOK explores the curious career of a white collector of Black music. The kid brother to Hungarian-born Hugo Gellert, probably the best-known Communist artist in his day, Lawrence Gellert was a folklorist who collected some of the earliest field recordings of African American music in the South. Written by Bruce Conforth, one-time curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and professor at the University of Michigan, this is the first published biography about a man who also helped popularize the “protest” song several decades before the 1960s.
Spending his youth as a bohemian in Greenwich Village, Gellert crossed paths with numerous artists and intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. Although not as deep into the Communist movement as his brother Hugo, Lawrence was undoubtedly close to the Party and remained a lifelong radical. Conforth has spent some 30 years sifting through hundreds of recordings done on primitive equipment, dozens of interviews with contradictory accounts, and numerous letters from the many famous people who knew Gellert to reconstruct the life of this early folklorist.
Due to questions among scholars over the veracity of his recordings, his feuds with other folklorists, and legal battles he waged with musicians, Gellert’s reputation has been tarnished and the originality of his work neglected. Gellert’s collection remains, in Conforth’s words, “one of the great scholarly tragedies of the 20th century.” This book hopes to set the record straight about Gellert’s major contributions in the field.
As often happens in a person’s later years, Gellert embellished many details about his life. Conforth surmises he may have felt like he lived in the shadow of his brothers — Hugo, the artist, and Otto and Ted, wealthy businessmen who funded his excursions.
Looking back, Gellert claimed he ventured into the South concerned with the plight of African Americans. As Conforth found, this is not entirely accurate. To cure him of emphysema, a doctor had ordered Gellert to recuperate in a more hospitable climate. He moved to the South for better health, not to confront Jim Crow.
Nevertheless, when he arrived at a small town in South Carolina, word quickly spread among the African American community that he was “talking good things about our people.” Before long he developed a rapport with local Blacks, was invited to their church, and became entranced when he heard his first spirituals; “they were terrific.” This was as early as 1922, a decade before John and Alan Lomax made their field recordings of Black music in the South.
Years down the road, when asked about how he became interested in recording protest songs, Gellert said he was “dragged into it.” In 1923 or 1924, he sent a letter to Hugo about the songs and stories he had been writing down. “Jesus Christ, get this stuff down, get it down,” his brother wrote back, and shipped aluminum discs for capturing recordings.
Hugo showed the songs to Mike Gold, proletarian writer and editor of the left-wing journal New Masses. Gold dubbed them “Negro Songs of Protest,” and the label stuck.
Chronicler of Culture and Protest
As he travelled deeper into the South, Gellert recorded the songs he heard in jails, prisons, and on chain gangs. He looked for songs suitable for New Masses — about the electric chair, a mean boss, or hard living — but also collected many other songs from different genres.
In November 1930 his first article appeared in New Masses, including one of the earliest known recorded versions of the blues standard today known as “Delia.” Gellert’s version begins: “Cooney told Delia, I love you all my life / Woman if you don’t marry me, I’m bound to take your life.”
Returning to New York, Gellert caught the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a consultant on Zora Neale Hurston’s 1932 play The Great Day and recorded one of its singers. He had an affair with Nancy Cunard, British heiress and editor of the 1934 book Negro Anthology, who introduced him to the writers Sterling Brown and Eugene Gordon.
He went on a road trip with Langston Hughes, who had decided to take “poetry to the people” throughout the South. When they reached Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Hughes was met by controversy for a poem he had written about the Scottsboro boys, eight Black youth who were sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women.
Gellert himself helped to raise funds for the Scottsboro boys. Additionally, he published folk songs about the Scottsboro case and Angelo Herndon, a Black communist sentenced to a chain gang for organizing the unemployed in Atlanta, Georgia (which others charged Gellert had written himself). While collecting songs in Alabama, he also spent time with organizers of the Sharecroppers Union.
In 1936 Gellert published his first book, Negro Songs of Protest, a first of its kind. The introduction was written by Langston Hughes, who said the songs were “of inestimable value.” Heavily promoted in the left-wing press, as well as The New York Times and Time magazine, the book established Gellert as a leader in the field of folklore studies.
Yet because he was largely self-taught, Gellert was frowned upon by scholars like Harvard-educated John Lomax. The two men were “dueling collectors,” writes Conforth. This growing notoriety put Gellert in contact with folk legends Aunt Molly Jackson and Woody Guthrie. It also got him jobs with the Federal Writers’ Project and Federal Theater Project, where he worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem.
The Difficult Years
By the late 1940s, Gellert was in financial straits and living out of a suitcase. As he became desperate for money, several actions sullied his reputation. He published a collection of supposedly “lost” plays by Eugene O’Neil without the author’s permission and which may have been stolen. He became involved in a number of legal entanglements with Black folk musicians like Josh White and Harry Belafonte, claiming that he, a white collector, had copyright of traditional African-American songs.
In recounting these years of obscurity, Conforth makes no mention of the anti-communist blacklist or how it may have affected his precarious living conditions. The FBI had opened a file on Gellert in 1938 after the release of a Moscow edition of Negro Songs of Protest, and followed him into the 1960s. A trained ethnomusicologist, Conforth is not to be faulted. He is more concerned with academic debates than political ones.
Conforth only sees the Left as having a detrimental impact on Gellert’s career. Although celebrating his “protest songs,” he views them as “merely agitpropaganda.” Rather than seeing Gellert’s interest in social movements as sincere, Conforth views his subject as either an “unwitting or identity-hunting dupe” of the Communist Party.
In the tense years of the Cold War, Gellert supported Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign for president, published songs like “Atomic Blues,” and maintained friendships with blacklisted radicals like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.
During the 1960s, he was at the center of the folk music revival in Greenwich Village where a new generation was writing its own protest songs. He became a fixture at Israel “Izzy” Young’s Folklore Center and the two would often go collecting together. Remaining an activist, Gellert was present for the 1967 antiwar protest when the Yippies attempted to levitate the Pentagon.
In the late 1970s, Gellert disappeared after being a suspect in the abduction of a six-year-old boy. Years later, another man confessed to the crime, but Gellert’s death, like much of his life, remains a mystery.
This is a book that will explain for scholars some of the unanswered questions of Gellert’s life and work. Those who want to know more about the history of the Left will also find this a fascinating read. With this book, Gellert receives his due credit as a pioneer collector and interpreter of African-American folk music.
January/February 2015, ATC 174