People’s Songs was an organization founded by Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lee Hays, and others on December 31, 1945, in New York City, to “create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people.” The organization published a monthly Bulletin from 1946 through February 1949, featuring stories, songs and writings. People’s Songs Bulletin served as a template for folk music magazines to come like Sing Out! and Broadside.
A Quick History
Pete Seeger’s work with the Almanac Singers and trips around the country playing banjo for Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) benefits and other progressive organizations in the 1940s cemented his beliefs that folk music could be an effective force for social change. He conceived creating an organization to better disseminate songs for political action to Labor and other progressive organizations around the country. These plans were put on hold as Seeger was drafted into the army during World War II. Upon his discharge from the Army in 1946, Pete finally got a chance to realize his plans, and convened a group of interested people for a meeting in the basement of his in-laws’ apartment in Greenwich Village. People’s Songs’ founding committee included several former members of the Almanac Singers and other notable members of the folk community in New York and included Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Horace Grenell, Anges “Sis” Cunningham, Burl Ives, Millard Lampell, Alan Lomax, Bess Lomax Hawes, Josh White. and Tom Glazer. Also attending the first meeting were, Jackie Gibson, Ronnie Gilbert, Irwin Silber and David Sear. They elected Pete Seeger president and Lee Hays executive secretary and collected money to rent a small office located at 130 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, which also housed shared a radical drama group Stage for Action.
The organization was loosely modeled as an American version of Great Britain’s Workers Music Association, founded 10 years earlier. It published a the Bulletin with songs, articles, and announcements of Hootenannies and folk dances. It served as a clearing house for progressive entertainers. There were also occasional special issues with relevant songs on an as needed basis geared for specific rallies, strike, and court cases. Soon the booking agency became an offshoot: People’s Artists.
People’s Songs branched out into several satellite locations in addition to the New York offices. A yearly convention was held as a place to exchange ideas and play songs. The first People’s Songs convention was held in 1947 in Chicago, and there was a branch in California headed by Mario Casetta, an army friend of Seeger’s from Saipan, who became a key figure in the West Coast folk and world music scene.
In its first year, People’s Songs met with success, but this was a trying time for the labor movements in the United States, which had a significant Communist ties since its inception. After World War II, the Communist Party of the United States became much more dogmatic, and was indifferent to the use of folk music. As the Red Scare gathered momentum, the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings into supposed subversive activity in the entertainment industry. People’s Songs began to falter financially. In 1948 it put all its resources into the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace, and when that failed everywhere but in New York City, People’s Songs went bankrupt, although its booking agency, People’s Artists, continued for a while. After the financial failure of People’s Songs in 1948, Seeger and Silber put out a final People’s Songs edition and then went on to found Sing Out! magazine.
People’s Songs Bulletin was published monthly from February 1946 through February 1949. The first issue had a circulation of 3000 nationwide. Its musical editor was Waldemar Hille, and featured a selection of seven Union songs ranging from traditional songs like “Casey Jones,” to standards by Joe Hill, to international songs from Spanish soldiers and new songs by contemporary folk musicians like Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie. This was a format the magazine would follow throughout its years of publication.
We are in the process of digitizing the entire run of People’s Songs, including all “special issues” and annotations that Pete wrote for his bound copy, so that it can be viewed right here on this page (as PDF files). More issues will appear here as we have the time and manpower to create the files.
To access any issue (or annotation), simply click the image and the PDF will load in a pop-up window. (From there, you can print or download the issues if you’d like.)