Date of Graduation

12-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in History (MA)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

History

Advisor

Michael Pierce

Committee Member

Robert Cochran

Second Committee Member

Richard Sonn

Third Committee Member

Jeannie Whayne

Keywords

Almanac Singers, Claude Williams, labor history, Lee Hays, Social Gospel, Southern Tenant Farmers Union

Abstract

In 1939, with sixty-five dollars and twenty pages of Commonwealth Labor songs, Lee Hays, youngest son of a Methodist minister, hitchhiked thirteen hundred miles from Mena, Arkansas, to New York City where he found stardom in the Folk Revival movement, first, as a founder of the Almanac Singers then the Weavers. Hays’ biographer Doris Willens and others, viewing Hays’ unabashed socialism, ribald humor, penchant for beer, brandy, and cigarettes as induced by the childhood trauma of his father’s death, argue Hays rejected his father’s beliefs: replacing religion with radical politics. This thesis, in contrast, argues Hays’ upbringing immersed in contradictions of Progressive Era Methodism in the Jim Crow South proved a seedbed for his work with Claude Williams, socialists, and radical social gospelers, which, in turn, undergirded his cultural front contributions to the Almanac Singers, People’s Songs, and the Weavers. Rather than rejecting his religious upbringing, Hays transformed it: representing and depicting a southern religious left fighting for rights of labor, biracial coalitions of sharecroppers, and redistribution of land against Arkansas’ planter-dominated economic system. His life and work illumine a southern route to the cultural front that passed through the portals of radical religion.

Yet, though Hays, by age twenty-seven, had labored in leftist film, drama, music, writing, education, and union organizing, Michael Denning largely absents Hays from the anti-fascist, pro-labor coalition of artists, writers, filmmakers, dramatists, and musicians — The Cultural Front — he argues emerged between 1929 and 1959 from a “material base in the CIO” and the collision of a non-communist-centric, American Popular Front social movement with “newcultural apparatuses of state and industry.” Hays’ collaborative compositional process and resulting Billboard-chart-topping blend of traditional, altered, and freely composed “folk” music are at odds with Denning’s arguments privileging individual cultural auteurs, left wing musical theater productions, jazz, and “cabaret blues” as the movement’s representative musics. Moreover, Hays’ southern religious roots defy Denning’s demographic model positing radical moderns, anti-fascist emigres, and young plebeians from “the immigrant and black working- class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis” as “the heart of the cultural front.”

Instead, Hays points to a nascent southern cultural front emerging from a radical religious pro-labor base extending through labor colleges and southern union organizing. Through his creative output and at once reluctant and enthusiastic embrace of commercial, national, and international acclaim, Hays merged the southern religious left’s messages of social and economic justice with folk and newly composed music in the Cold War Era to meet a new political moment: changing the means and content of political dissent and the trajectory of international popular culture.

Threading through decades from 1914-1981, Hays’ life ties the Progressive Era to the era of Reaganomics: knitting together Old Left and New. Post–World War I and Depression-era Arkansas, labor history, socialism, mainline and radical religious belief, vernacular and commercial music, and the artistic, political, and social milieu of Denning’s Cultural Front all intersect in Hays. His life shines a light on the origins of twentieth-century southern radicalism and its cultural contributors.

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