Irwin Silber is recalled as a primary craftsman of the urban folk song revival, which grew out of the 1940s and culminated in the early 1960s. He died on September 8 in Oakland, Calif., from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Founder of the celebrated Sing Out! magazine, Silber was a noted writer, social activist and cultural organizer and like many of his time, he focused on his mission with unwavering eyes, even when it brought him nearly to the point of blows with many inside the movement. His notorious battles with Bob Dylan on the pages of Sing Out!, chiding the songwriter as he strayed away from the acoustic genre and expanded his lyrical spectrum beyond the topical, added to the generational tear between the left — old and new.
Still, Silber’s commitment to progressive ideals remained cherished; in recent decades he came to be seen as a sage who’d been present for many historic struggles for social change and chronicled them in real time.
Silber was born in Manhattan on October 17, 1925, just in time to experience the formative years of the Great Depression. Like many of his contemporaries in New York City’s working-class Jewish community, Silber came to quickly understand the relevance of fight back. Rapidly he developed into an activist, joining the ranks of the Young Communist League and then the Communist Party.
As a student at Brooklyn College, he organized the American Folksay Group, and through his associations with the likes of Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, Silber became an integral part of Seeger’s post-war People’s Songs organization. Here was an independent artist-run collective, which not only sought to publish the songs of veteran left-wing folksingers, but it also grew into a national network for the publicity and management of same. Silber was on the founding committee of People’s Songs, ultimately growing into one of its leaders and became a frequent contributor to its newsletter. The People’s Songs Newsletter was deemed a very important means of communication among folksingers and many important songs were published within its pages.
But by 1948, pressures from the increasingly rightward trend in the nation saw the organization falling victim to red-baiting and ultimately disbanding. By 1950, the newsletter, too, was gone. Silber, recognizing the strength in a national magazine to publish and popularize new topical songs, created Sing Out! later that year. He served as its editor until 1968, publishing articles and songs by Woody Guthrie, Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Leadbelly and many artists found then within college campuses and in coffee houses.
As the icons of the initial folk revival gave way to the next generation of the early ’60s, Silber’s magazine (along with Sis Cunningham’s Broadside) became most noted for its publication of songs by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and other rising stars then selling out folk festivals. Coverage of these artists, as well as having their latest songs in print and available to young people rushing out to buy guitars and banjos, allowed Sing Out! to be seen as the folksinger’s bible. Yet, in 1965, as Bob Dylan went electric, Silber found himself in the midst of battle and his fiery criticism saw Dylan refusing to publish any more songs in the magazine. The confrontation with this most prized celebrity songwriter and Silber’s attacks on other notables of the day, including Phil Ochs, saw him eventually fall into disfavor among the youth movement. He was asked to leave Sing Out! by ’68 due to his hard-line stand-one which appeared to reflect the old left he had already removed himself from; he’d severed ties with the Communist Party by 1955. Ironically, Silber had by then become a driving force in an SDS offshoot, the decidedly Maoist organization, the New Communist Movement, and went on to write and edit their newspaper, The Guardian.
Throughout his life, Irwin Silber can best be described as a cultural worker. When in the late 1950s he was called into questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee , he memorably told the Committee that his work at the Communist Party-led Jefferson School of Social Science was in the teaching of square dancing. During his years with Sing Out! he was sure to publish a progressive magazine and made an effort to focus on songs of protest—topics such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement and any number of struggles for liberation were of primary focus.
In 1964, Silber married jazz vocalist/activist Barbara Dane and the two embarked on a journey to seek out, record and publish songs of revolution around the world. He and Dane maintained their own record label, Paredon, to preserve the music, throughout 1980, at which time it was wholeheartedly given to the Folkways label.
Though Silber published several books on folk music, he also authored a number of works on politics and in 2004 a biography of Lester Rodney, titled “Press Box Red.” Rodney was a sportswriter for the Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker, completing the circle of his avowedly radical life and times.
Photo: Irwin Silber, left, the longtime editor of Sing Out! magazine, was a confidant of Alan Lomax during the 1940s and 1950s; Spencer Moore, a Virginia-born folk singer, right, was first recorded by Lomax in the 1950s.