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BOOKS Musical scares

SCOTT COSTEN applauds a book that demonstrates the breadth of state surveillance against musicians in the US

Whole World in an Uproar: Music, Rebellion and Repression – 1955-1972
by Aaron J. Leonard
Repeater Books, £12.99

SURVEILLANCE, censorship and deplatforming may be hallmarks of the digital age, but they existed long before the advent of Facebook and Twitter.

Consider the case of the young Bob Dylan, scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on May 12, 1963. 

Told he couldn’t play Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues, a satirical indictment of the virulently anti-communist John Birch Society, the folk singer walked off the set rather than perform something else. Days later, the song was stripped from his forthcoming second album by nervous record executives.

Aaron J Leonard explores this and other cases of censorship in his outstanding new book Whole World in an Uproar: Music, Rebellion and Repression – 1955-1972.  

Building on the foundation he laid in his previous work, Folk Singers and the Bureau, the author demonstrates how musical artists who challenged the status quo in the 1960s were routinely targeted by state, corporate and media interests.

Leonard describes how a wide range of musicians – from the Beatles to Johnny Cash, and Miriam Makeba to Phil Ochs – had to wrestle with “forces highly motivated to keep them or their work out of the public square.” 

“It was only through meeting the challenges thrown at them that their art was realised,” he writes, “or failing that, constrained, if not abandoned entirely.”

Red-baiting persisted throughout the 1960s and musicians continued to be persecuted for their connections to the Communist Party. However, as the counterculture grew and the protest movement expanded, a host of new offences against the mainstream emerged. 

Musical artists who sang in favour of civil rights, who denounced the Vietnam War, or who participated in the era’s drug culture, risked having their songs banned from radio stations, their concerts busted up by police, and their freedom of movement restricted.

Leonard has established himself as a leading expert when it comes to accessing and researching FBI files. He deftly sorts through these documents to demonstrate the breadth of state surveillance against musicians who offended those in power. 

The FBI had an 80-page file on Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, who was arrested for draft evasion in 1967. The bureau’s file on folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a tireless left-wing activist, amounted to nearly 600 pages.

The author notes that some files, like the one on trumpeter Hugh Masekela, have yet to be released. Others, like those pertaining to Sam Cooke, Richie Havens and Nina Simone, have been sadly – if not suspiciously – destroyed.

Whole World in an Uproar is anti-establishment history at its best. It unveils a multi-pronged campaign to suppress artistic expression and deflate revolutionary sentiment during one of history’s most tumultuous decades. 

Scott Costen is a freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read more of his work at www.scottcosten.ca

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