As musical trends go, it was a well-kept secret. It never rose to the level of a boomlet, let alone a phenomenon. Not enough of it was produced even to fill out the three tabs of iTunes Essentials: Basics, Next Steps and Deep Cuts. Let’s face it: When you’re talking about conservative folk songs from the 1960s — they’re all deep cuts!
And now they’re all in one place! For the attic rummagers among us, nostalgic fans of the golden age of conservatism, there may be no better Christmas gift than “Freedom Is A Hammer: Conservative Folk Revolutionaries of the Sixties,” a new anthology CD issued with a handsome booklet by the Omni Recording Corp.
The chutzpah! Here the open-minded listener will find twenty-nine tracks of Kingston Trio chords married to Goldwaterite rhetoric. The artists who were bravely blowin’ in the wind — or, more aptly, tiltin’ at windmills — were a trio of aspiring folkies from different parts of the country, each bristlin’, bristlin’ at the hegemony the New Left exercised in those years over politics, media, and music.
A slender, smiling brunette who sported dark lipstick and resembled Annette Funicello, Janet Greene was a children’s TV host from Ohio who headed for Los Angeles. In a news conference at the Biltmore Hotel in October 1964, Miss Greene was introduced by two anti-Communist crusaders, Dr. Fred Schwarz and Herb Philbrick, who boasted of having “taken a leaf out of the Communist book.” In their eyes, the co-optation of folk music, then the exclusive province of lefty songbirds and troubadours like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, was nothing short of a tactical masterstroke. “You’d be amazed,” Philbrick marveled to the reporters, “at how much doctrine can be taught in one song.”
Miss Greene debuted two original compositions, “Fascist Threat” backed with “Commie Lies.” Listening to the remastered recordings, which occasionally veer outside the confines of pure folk, one is struck by the incongruity between the throwback production values — think “Bobby’s Girl” by Marcie Blaine — and the jarring messages they were created to deliver, themes popular music had never before embraced. “I think I’ll take a little quiz,” Miss Greene sings cheerfully, sounding like Connie Francis, “and find out just what fascism is.” By song’s end, she has her answer:
Destroy the government with lies,
Seize control and centralize
Very shortly you will see
A fascist state monopoly
The gravest fascist threat you see
Is the Communist conspiracy
Vera Vanderlaan was a guitar-strummin’ newlywed living on a farm in Vermont when she decided to join the counter-counterculture. Blessed with beautiful dark hair, prominent eyebrows and cheekbones, and a quavering tenor, Vera Vanderlaan actually looked and sounded a bit like Joan Baez, the conservative folkies’ bete noire. She also dressed the part of the Lovely Senorita, her long-skirted dresses adorned with Southwestern floral designs running down the sleeves, the whole ensemble topped off by an acoustic guitar that seemed twice her size. One of Miss Vanderlaan’s songs would eventually be covered by Tiny Tim. In “Let’s Pretend,” released on her 1968 LP “Torch of Freedom,” Miss Vanderlaan scornfully adopts the naive mindset she believed to be governing ‘60s liberals:
Let’s pretend the wars in Asia are not as they appear.
All countries have some problems; why should we interfere?
In late 1967, Miss Vanderlaan and fellow songstress Bunny Kop made the local papers, complete with Associated Press wire photo, when they serenaded volunteers opening a Reagan for President office — without the Gipper’s official sanction — in Concord, New Hampshire. There they performed another Vanderlaan composition, which bounces along in the vein of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” entitled “Modern Paul Revere”:
It’s getting very difficult to feel we’re really free
We need a man like Paul Revere who’ll fight for liberty
Ronald Reagan is the guy
Who will arouse the countryside
Americans can point with pride
To our modern Paul Revere
The most successful of the artists represented on “Freedom Is A Hammer” — the title is borrowed from Miss Vanderlaan’s now-forgotten rejoinder to the Pete Seeger classic “If I Had A Hammer” — was Tony Dolan. A Connecticut native and disaffected JFK supporter, Mr. Dolan was a sophomore at Yale who was teaching guitar professionally when he cut his lone LP, “Cry, The Beloved Country,” in late 1967. Billed as “ten timely and provocative songs,” the album sported liner notes by fellow Yalie William F. Buckley, Jr. and offered Mr. Dolan a platform, as he told the Yale Daily News at the time, “to show that conservatism swings.”
Writing from the point of view of the Misguided Liberal, as Miss Vanderlaan had in “Let’s Pretend,” Mr. Dolan defends the House Committee on Un-American Activities in his signature tune, “Abolish, Abolish!”
It violates our rights
We cannot sleep at nights
It would even shave my goatee if it could
It calls the Commies evil
When they’re just misunderstood
It investigates the Nazis
And it asks about the Commies
Did you ever hear of such brutality?
It was used by Richard Nixon
Alger Hiss, our hero, he said so on ABC
Uniquely among the folkies on the right, Mr. Dolan vaulted himself onto national television, with spots on “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” Appearing on the latter in March 1970, alongside such contemporaneous chat-show staples as Virginia Graham and Arthur Treacher, Mr. Dolan must have been surprised to find himself also booked with Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie revolutionary, and actor Mark Frechette, star of the counterculture film “Zabriskie Point.” Tempers flared backstage, and Mr. Frechette clocked Mr. Dolan in the face. “You don’t hit very hard,” he spat, defiant.
After graduating from Yale, Mr. Dolan worked in politics and journalism — and excelled at both. For his exposure of municipal corruption in the pages of the Stamford Advocate, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; later Mr. Dolan joined the White House speechwriting staff of President Reagan, and worked on the historic “Evil Empire” speech of 1983.
“Freedom Is A Hammer” is the latest brainchild of Bill Geerhart, an independent Cold War cultural historian whose website, Conelrad.com, zestfully explores “all things atomic.” Mr. Geerhart’s previous adventures include tracking down and debriefing Monique Corzilius, the middle-aged woman who, as a child actress, played “Daisy” in the infamous television ad released by Lyndon Johnson’s re-election campaign in 1964; and “Atomic Platters: Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security,” a lavish box set (five CDs, one DVD) that collected kitschy songs and videos about bomb shelters and fallout performed by the likes of Fred MacMurray and Ann-Margret.
In his liner notes to “Hammer,” Mr. Geerhart brands conservative folk “hopelessly obscure” and “strangely dissonant” — precisely the attributes, one senses, that attracted him. “Heard today,” he writes, “these tunes only benefit from the distance of time and the overexposure of the folk revival hits that the conservative folk artists were attempting to answer.”
Maybe — but I doubt it. The distance of time serves chiefly, in this case, to reinforce to the latter-day listener how anachronistic these artists really were. After all, by the time of Miss Greene’s debut news conference at the Biltmore, in October 1964, the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five had already revolutionized American popular music. The Folk Revival was passe, and the tactic Schwarz and Philbrick thought they were so savvy to co-opt … had already lost its power! Indeed, a few months later, at the Newport Folk Festival, Mr. Dylan himself would famously “go electric.” Still more years would pass, with pop culture morphing and further fragmenting, before Miss Vanderlaan and Mr. Dolan would attain their minor fame.
Substantively, though — as opposed to musically — they were ahead of their time. Folk faded; conservatism surged. Did these artists play a hand in that revolution? Doubtful; too few purchased their records. Theirs was not a popular triumph but, for each of the three, a personal one: daring to pierce the New Left hegemony that ruled their day. As Mr. Geerhart notes, “They sang out when they felt the times demanded it.”
• James Rosen is Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent and the author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.” He is at work on a book about the Beatles.