Between 1947 and 1960, the American entertainment industry was embroiled in a manufactured scandal. The threat of communism had apparently run amok, artists were forced to testify before Congress, and countless entertainers were blacklisted for their communist ties. While the blacklist was mostly applied to Hollywood screenwriters, many in the music industry were also affected. This hour, we’ll explore the history of the so-called “Red Channels” in music, and hear how it affected singers and songwriters like Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Yip Harburg, and more.
Strange Fruit and Café Society
In the wake of World War II, a certain strain anti-Soviet sentiment began to grow. The Soviets and their communist form of government were seen as strongly opposed to Americans, and their capitalist system. Communism was thought of as a progressive idea favored by the left, and so other progressive ideas that could be grouped with the Soviets were deemed “Unamerican”: this included support for New Deal politics, civil rights, racial integration, and anti-lynching laws.
The seeds of this progressivism in the world of music begins even before the war. No doubt many musicians could be deemed “progressive” in their politics, but likely none more than songwriter Abel Meeropol.
Meeropol was an English teacher by trade, but unlike many who were just accused of being a communist, Meeropol was actually a member of the American Communist Party. He was a strong supporter of progressive ideals, and even adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents were executed for Soviet espionage.
Abel Meeropol was also a poet and songwriter, who sometimes published under pseudonym Lewis Allen. His works were more often than not very politically charged. His most famous song comes from the late 1930s, the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” which he set to music himself.
“Strange Fruit” was a powerful statement, a dark and graphic exposé of horrors of lynching in the south. The song was brought to the attention of Barney Josephson, the owner of the first integrated night club in New York City called Café Society. Josephson gave the song to Billie Holiday, who first performed it there in 1939. “Strange Fruit” would become a staple of Holiday’s sets at Café Society; she closed off every show there with the song, in a performance that was almost like a quasi-religious experience for those in attendance.
The progressive Café Society fell victim to the anti-communist furor. Josephson’s brother was a communist labor lawyer and a Soviet spy. After he was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, the fallout spilled over onto Barney. Bad press caused Barney Josephson to close the club in 1948.
"The House I Live In"
“Strange Fruit” was not Meeropol’s only contribution to the Great American Songbook. Another notable song of his was “The House I Live In” which he co-wrote with Earl Robinson in 1942. “The House I Live In” was a song of inclusivity in America and was repurposed in the 1945 short film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra.
In the film, Sinatra as himself encounters a group of young boys bullying a Jewish boy. He performs this song to the children to teach them a lesson of tolerance.
The film, written by Albert Maltz, was given an Honorary Academy Award and Golden Globe shortly after its release. In 1947, Maltz later before Congress for his communist sympathies, and in a famous testimony, refused to answer the question of whether or not he was a member of the Communist party. For this refusal, Albert Maltz was named one of the "Hollywood Ten," a group of ten filmmakers cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted from the industry for over a decade.
Sinatra was no stranger to progressive causes. Sinatra’s mother was a progressive activist in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Sinatra later supported John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. He was also a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for supposed communist ties, although was never questioned by HUAC, McCarthy, or even blacklisted from the industry. In fact, Sinatra was part of the wave that helped bring down the blacklist in 1960, but more on that later.
"Ballad For Americans"
Abel Meeropol, the co-writer of “The House I Live In,” was nowhere near famous enough to be blacklisted by the entertainment industry, despite being a self-identified communist. However, the other co-writer Earl Robinson was.
Robinson was a composer and arranger, and like Meeropol, many of his works showcased his liberal viewpoints. He was the co-writer of the 1956 Pete Seeger song “Black And White,” a song about integration also sung by Sammy Davis Jr.
But most notably, Earl Robinson wrote “Ballad For Americans,” a sprawling 13-minute cantata showcasing America’s diversity and history from the perspective of Uncle Sam, the spirit of America. The “Ballad For Americans” was written in 1939 and resonated with people on both sides of the political aisle. It was featured at national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties for the 1940 presidential election.
The first and most famous version was sung by Paul Robeson, the African-American opera star. Robeson had been a supporter of progressive causes for many years and was highly critical of fascism and racial segregation. His involvement in organization sympathetic to communism put him in front of Congress in the 1950s. Like Albert Maltz did in 1947, Robeson refused to give into questioning, and he became one of the highest-profile victims of anti-communism and McCarthyism in the 1950s, blacklisted from the entertainment industry, and even barred from traveling by the U.S. government.
The blacklist also had an effect on its writers, composer Earl Robinson and lyricist John LaTouche. Robinson was later blacklisted for his communist ties in the 1950s. Unable to find work in Hollywood, he moved to New York to become the music teacher at one of the city’s first progressive schools.
John LaTouche, who also wrote the lyrics to more benign songs like “Taking A Chance On Love” was one of the people named on the "Red Channels" list for his supposed communist ties. He managed to stay above the fray by working mostly in New York, far away from the scrutiny in Hollywood.
Guys And Dolls and the 1951 Pulitzer Prize
In 1951, new hearings before Congress convened about the issue of communism in Hollywood. The lesson from the 1947 hearings of the Hollywood Ten seemed to be that if you refused testimony or refused to name names, then you would be blacklisted from the industry. Except, that wasn’t always the case. Writer and director Abe Burrows was one of the few who gave into questioning, admitting that he attended some communist party functions in the 1940s and naming others who attended too. However, just having his name associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee affected his career.
The year before, Burrows co-wrote the book for the wildly popular musical Guys And Dolls, with music by Frank Loesser. It was a shoo-in for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1951 and was even selected by the committee. However, the trustees at Columbia University who were ultimately in charge of the Pulitzer didn’t want to be associated with Burrows. So they decided to give out no award for drama that year.
A decade later, after the era of McCarthyism, Burrows and Loesser did end up winning the Pulitzer for his musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Artie Shaw and Hazel Scott
The anti-communist fervor in the entertainment industry also affected instrumentalists who were in support of liberal causes. Clarinet Artie Shaw was always a supporter of progressive issues. In the late 930s, his was the first integrated band to tour the Jim Crow south, bringing along Billie Holiday on tour. He fought fascism, both in the navy during World War II, and on the homefront after the war, by using his fame to support anti-fascist causes.
Shaw’s political views ended up putting him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. After this incident, Shaw became disillusioned by the entertainment industry in America. Instead of being blacklisted, he retired from playing the clarinet and moved to Europe.
Likewise, pianist Hazel Scott, who broke color barriers in both classical music and jazz music, was committed to civil rights in Hollywood. She fought for fair representation of African-Americans on screen but was accused of having communist ties in the 1950s. She denied these ties in front of Congress when she was questioned by HUAC. But a week after her testimony, her television show The Hazel Scott Show was canceled. Like Shaw, she moved to Europe.
Yip Harburg's Fight For Social Justice
Artie Shaw and Hazel Scott weren’t the only socially-conscious musician in the crosshairs of HUAC. Lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was unapologetic about his liberal politics and his fight for social justice. Even as early as 1932, Harburg was the lyricist behind “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” a poignant song about the plight of homelessness in the midst of the Great Depression, a song made famous by Bing Crosby.
Like many great songwriters in the 1930s and 40s, Harburg moved to Hollywood, where he found great success writing the lyrics to musicals like The Singing Kid, Ship Ahoy, Cabin In The Sky, and a little film called The Wizard of Oz. However, in 1947, Harburg’s involvement in progressive groups got him blacklisted from the filmmaking industry.
He set his sights on Broadway instead and channeled his political views into his art. His first big hit was the charming musical Finian’s Rainbow, written with composer Burton Lane. Set in a mythical southern town, the work combines magic and realism while satirizing racial bigotry, southern politics, and the plight of the poor. It was also a wild success, running for over 700 performances, and producing such perennial favorites as “How Are Things In Glocca Morra,” “Look To The Rainbow,” and “Old Devil Moon.”
Finian’s Rainbow was such a success that in 1954, a cartoon version of it began production. For the voice talent, they brought in an integrated cast of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. They all recorded together along with pianist Oscar Peterson. But because of Harburg’s communist ties, and main animator Art Babbitt’s support of labor unions, production of the cartoon was halted, supposedly by Walt Disney himself.
Yip Harburg's follow-up to Finian’s Rainbow dug even deeper into his pro-liberalism, anti-McCarthyism message. The musical was called Flahooley, a satire about a puppet manufacturer that was a conspicuous attack on capitalism and anti-communist fear. It starred Barbara Cook in her Broadway debut. But the show was a spectacular flop, mostly because the plot was too complicated and the political message was too broad.
Harburg’s next musical Jamaica from 1957 was much more successful. The musical still managed to incorporate a liberal political message, but it was much more subtle. The success of Jamaica had much to do with its star Lena Horne. Among New York critics, Horne was universally praised. But out in Hollywood, Horne (the former film star) had been blacklisted for her civil rights activism and her support of communist organizations.
Both Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte had success in the 1950s in music and on film. They even worked together on an album of the music from Porgy And Bess in 1959. However, their consistent support for civil rights and their connection to communist sympathizer Paul Robeson affected their careers during this era. Belafonte's activism nearly kept him off of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1954. But Belafonte appealed to Sullivan's Irish heritage and the fight of the Irish against the British. So Sullivan let him on the show, despite the blacklist against him.
Even after the blacklist was over, Belafonte continued to advocate for civil rights. In 1960, he released an album of old chain gang song called Swing Dat Hammer, drawing parallels between the music of the past and the civil rights struggles of the present.
The End Of The Blacklist
Between 1947 and 1960, thanks to the fear brought about by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Screen Actors Guild with its former president Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood Blacklist was holding strong. The blacklist affected screenwriters, songwriters, actors, composers, and broadcasters in every corner of the entertainment industry. Countless people were denied employment
By 1960 however, the foundations were beginning to crack. It was revealed that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, had been working all along under various pseudonyms. In 1960, he was given the credit for writing the Kirk Douglas film Spartacus and was hired to write the film Exodus for director Otto Preminger.
Inspired by Preminger, none other than Frank Sinatra stepped forward to hire his old friend Albert Maltz to work on a new film with him. If you recall, Sinatra and Maltz had worked together 15 years earlier on The House I Live In, and Maltz was also a member of the Hollywood Ten. Sinatra wanted Maltz to write the screenplay for a film called The Execution of Private Slovik about the only U.S. soldier in World War II executed for desertion. This move by Sinatra was the first time that a major star had publicly broken the blacklist.
Sinatra was his own boss at this point, so he had no fear from the bigwigs in Hollywood. Nor did he seem to care about condemnation from the Hollywood press, right-wing actors like John Wayne, and even sponsors like General Motors.
But what he did care about was his connection to John F. Kennedy. Sinatra was connected to Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and even recorded his campaign song, a reworking of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn song "High Hopes." But a connection to a communist didn’t bode well for the Senator’s bid. According to Peter Lawford, a member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack and JFK’s brother-in-law, when pressure came down from the Kennedys, Sinatra dropped Maltz from the project.
While Sinatra and Maltz never ended up working together, his public denouncement of the Hollywood Blacklist marked its death knell. Within a year, the Hollywood blacklist was no more.
Sinatra and JFK for their part remained unscathed. JFK won the presidency in November, and Sinatra’s album Nice ‘N’ Easy, released amid the Albert Maltz chaos, spent nine weeks on the Billboard charts.
Reynold Humphries, Hollywood's Blacklists (Edinburgh University Press, 2008)
Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide In Plain Sight (Palgrave, 2003)
Steven Suskin, Opening Night On Broadway (Schirmer Books, 1990)
James Kaplan, Sinatra: The Chairman (Doubleday, 2015)
For more information about the Hollywood Blacklist, check out Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This, and her 16-part series on the Hollywood Blacklist