Suse Rotolo and Bob Dylan’s Left Period

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Editor's note:  This is a slightly edited version of what was originally published in American Communist History, pp. 77-87 (April 2010)

Introduction

Long reticent about her relationship with the protean and transformative exponent of American popular music, Bob Dylan, Suse (Susan) Rotolo’s evaluation of her relationship with Dylan is modest, and undoubtedly true: “Our time together fed his work. I know I influenced him. We marked each other’s lives profoundly. He once told me that he couldn’t have written certain songs if he hadn’t known me.... I served as his muse during our time together, and that I don’t mind claiming.” (p. 290) A Freewhellin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties covers the years from 1961, when Dylan arrived in New York City, until 1965, when after his achieving enormous celebrity, they parted. This period of Dylan’s career was critically important to American popular culture; during this time, Dylan composed a series of exquisite, politically engaged songs based on a folk music movement identified with the American Left. It concluded with his controversial adoption of more popular, depoliticized modes of music performed on amplified instruments in place of the traditional acoustic instruments. Rotolo’s intriguing work is the best place, to date, to assess the intense, albeit brief, encounter with the Left of a preeminent cultural icon—Bob Dylan.

Suse Rotolo and Bob Dylan’s relationship started when a seventeen-year-old girl, who was hanging out in Greenwich Village, met her first love, a twenty-year-old who, in less than five years, rocketed into the firmament of America’s rich musical culture. A Freewhellin’ Time does not retrace the tale of Romeo and Juliet; it is a less common story whose deeper meaning is the narrator’s insistence on maintaining her separateness, her integrity, even at the cost of losing her lover. Fearful of becoming a sidekick to a celebrity, Rotolo withdrew from a relationship others could only dream of possessing. Tragically for Ms. Rotolo she seems to have derived no clear benefit from her brave decision. She senses that she has been “forever enshrined and entombed, also, beside the legend of Bob Dylan.” (p. 3) For all but her family and a circle of close friends, her greatest value continues to be as a source of information about one of the most dominant, and inscrutable, figures of American popular culture. This memoir, which should serve as a means of converting this depressing legacy into a gain for herself, has earned a place on the shelf of must-read books for anyone attempting to fathom this transformative figure.

The reader of A Freewhellin’ Time is pulled back and forth from Rotolo’s semi-tragic loss to bemusement as to why she forsook a promising and truly freewheeling life  for the meager attention of a misogynistic misanthrope. Rotolo sums it all up, by saying, “[Dylan ] was not known for his generosity.” (p. 158) Sadly, for this reader, she clings to a memory: “Bob gave me a handmade, embroidered Romanian sheepskin jacket.... It was beautiful and very warm. I loved it.” (pp. 268-269). Dylan’s extraordinary sense of entitlement and all-around arrogance is distilled in a couple of sentences. “When I was with him, he seemed to take my presence for granted.  I was expected just to be there by his side as he went about his business.” (p. 183) Nothing in A Freewheelin’ Time  contradicts the assessment of Dylan by Suse’s older sister Carla, “[He made] no effort of any kind to be polite to anyone.” And then there was Dylan’s blatant womanizing; with Joan Baez and others. Can “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and other songs that immortalize their love compensate for Dylan’s narcissism? The calculus of this relationship is best left to the individual reader. However, few would disagree that Rotolo’s memoir is an important feminist text.

A Freewhellin’ Time is rich in insights and information about a number of compelling (and less often discussed) topics. It presents an insider’s view of a high point in the performance of American folk music and its ultimate marginalization by commercialization, and (even more fatally) its absorption into a more eclectic, transmogrifying musical modality. In addition, the author chronicles the brief transitional period between the unraveling of the Old Left and the ascendancy of the New Left, a period that neatly coincided with Rotolo’s relationship with Dylan. Interwoven with this strand, A Freewhellin’ Time provides a glimpse of the overlooked story of Italian American radicalism. As might be expected from devoted Communists, Rotolo’s parents transmitted aspects of this movement’s politics and culture to Suse (and to a lesser extent Carla), who in turn shared this heritage to a force majeure of American culture. This last theme is the least explored in the vast biographical literature on Dylan; it is also the least satisfactorily treated part of this otherwise compelling memoir, where it had the best chance of coming fully to light.
 
Greenwich Village

A Freewhellin’ Time’s subtitle, A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, refers to the place (and what was becoming known as the East Village) and time that this story unfolded: both.of which provide a wider context for her story. In lieu of attending college (Dylan spent one year attending the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis), Rotolo “took the subway” and entered what was for her an enchanted urban village offering refuge from the miasma of the McCarthy Era and its debased culture. At times, it seems that she is not as regretful about the collapse of her relationship with Dylan as she is nostalgic for a community that offered endless possibilities for sociability and creativity (and where cheap apartments abounded).

Typical of Little Italies everywhere, the Village was a district where commercial uses mixed with a wide variety of types of housing. Denoted by names rather than numbers and largely outside Manhattan’s grid, the streets of the Village are generally narrow; they curve and run diagonally. Along these storefront-lined streets, its residents conveniently shopped for fresh bread, fruits and vegetables, fish, and other daily needs. The community clustered around the parish of Our Lady of Pompeii through whose doors, every summer, the Madonna was carried outside to preside over a weeklong festa. The Italian community in the Village was neither as large nor as self-contained as Manhattan’s other two Little Italys—Italian Harlem and the Lower East Side’s Mulberry Street District. Moreover its housing stock was more modern and its population less dense than Italian Harlem and Mulberry Street’s. Nonetheless, the Village bore the salient characteristics of Little Italys everywhere. The inward-looking, tight-knit, predominantly Italian residents were indifferent to (or at most mildly curious about) the goings-on of their exotic neighbors—including those who were gay. As the landlords of the tenements and many smaller dwellings and the proprietors of the commercial establishments, they also benefited from the patronage of those rejected elsewhere. More than for any other outsider community (arguably even the gay and lesbian community), the Village was a community that tolerated behaviors and lifestyles treated with opprobrium elsewhere in America.

Donald Tricarico, who wrote the most important study of this community, commented, “the students and artists living in the vicinity were essentially an appendage of the Italian community.... For all purposes and intents, they were guests of the Italian population.” It was the Italians who stayed while others passed through on their way to celebrity, or much more frequently, assimilation into more predictable and conventional identities. Although Rotolo seems very much in touch with her Italian heritage—as evidence by her devotion to grandparents, for example, and later by her extended stay in Italy where she learned the language—she expresses little interest in this aspect of Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village provided a nurturing environment for folk music artists and their devotees. It offered venues where alternative entertainment took root and thrived. Gerdes Folk City (where Rotolo first saw Dylan), the Gas Light, the Bitter End, the Limelight, all located within a few blocks of one another, presented new and established performers to eager audiences. It was a place (and admittedly, an age) where Dylan could simply roll into town and begin performing. With a sharp eye and a deft touch, Rotolo sketches many major figures of the folk music revival—Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Jack Elliot, Tom Paxton, Ian and Sylvia [Tyson], Joan Baez, Gil Turner—and relates ways in which they interacted. Rotolo notes, “Many did what they loved to do and became known for it far and wide, and others did what they loved to do and managed to make a living at it. Still other burned out and lost their way.” (p. 131) Only one, Bob Dylan, emerged from this small crowd to acquire immortality in the world of American popular music.

Rorolo makes an insightful evaluation of Dylan’s music. “Bob’s songs were in the folk idiom yet they were definitely and undeniably written in the present. The writing was timeless and timely—explosively so—and the audience gasped in recognition.” (pp. 231-232) Nonetheless, aside from some banal musings about his good work habits and ability to concentrate, Rotolo gives no hint as to what she observed during their five-year relationship, which coincided with his most formative years, that might explain how he bypassed all the others. Dylan’s lyrics place him in the prophetic tradition of the Bible, Walt Whitman, and William Blake. Did Suse Rotolo know whether Dylan actually read any of those sources? Did he own a Bible, copies of Leaves of Grass, or The Collected Works of Blake? Did he discuss extracts from these works? Did he channel the spirits inhabiting the Old Testament prophets from his studies for his Bar Mitzvah?  Was there an especially talented English teacher or two in Hibbing, Minnesota’s high school who exposed him to Whitman and Blake? Whatever Rotolo may know about these and similar questions does not appear in the book.
 
Family Politics

Joachim (Pete) Rotolo and Mary Testa (Mary used the Anglicized version of Maria for her first name and the surname of her first husband, who died in a freak accident in 1937)  were immersed in the Communist Party. Like other Communists of that period, Suse notes that her parents earned working class incomes but engaged in a culture that bore little relationship to their working and lower-middle-class neighbors and her father’s workmates. She recalls, “The culture I lived in [meant] being around interesting adults from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of music, and all those books.” (p. 34) Although Suse does not link her parents to the folk music movement, she mentions their frequenting Café Society, a cabaret located in the Village, where in addition to Billie Holiday and other great jazz artists, featured folk musicians such a Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. In any case, her associations with other children of Communist parents and her work as a counselor at the Communist-sponsored Camp Kinderland thoroughly acquainted her with the folk music world. Long before she met Dylan, Rotolo points out, “Most of us were children of Communists or socialists, red-diaper babies raised on Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. We had listened to Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival on radio while still in our cribs.” (p. 45)

Suse Rotolo’s Italian-born father arrived in America at the age of two. His parents were prosperous skilled workers (a seamstress and a decorative iron worker) who eventually bought a brownstone in South Brooklyn. They provided the motivation and material support to guarantee their three children passage into the American middle class—Pete graduated from high school and attended Pratt Institute on a scholarship. At least directly, Pete was untouched by poverty or discrimination. Together with his wife (and many other Italian Americans), the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 contributed to his embrace of Communism. His path to Party membership was through the John Reed Clubs, clubhouses the party established to disseminate social realist art and encourage workers to write. Pete’s artistic endeavors were laid aside for what Suse defines as “his duty, his ‘Communist work.’” (p. 29) Pete worked in a linotype factory, where he became a shop steward for the union. Questions that arise from the informaton Suse Rotolo gives the reader go unanswered in her memoir. Was Pete one of the select cadre the Party assigned members to work in factories?  Suse doesn’t name the union for which her father served as a shop steward. Was it a Communist-led union like the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America? Clear answers to these queries would have significant bearing on her father’s tenacious connection to a job for which he was clearly overqualified. One suspects throughout the book that Suse didn’t do much research to find sources outside of memories and family lore, which could challenge, substantiate, and most importantly, contextualize her own information base. She reports that Pete, whose politics were known to his coworkers, was well liked by them. After he became too sick to work, many of his shop mates visited him on weekends and made a collection to buy him a television, something hitherto excluded from their home where the phonograph had pride of place in the living room. His infirmity yielded one benefit: Pete resumed his artistic endeavors. In 1958, while starting up his car for a visit to Ralph Fasanella, a Party comrade, Suse’s father suddenly died. 

Mary Testa was the third of the four surviving children of the eight to whom her mother gave birth. After her father, Sisto Pezzati, died of tuberculosis when she was three, Cesarina, their widowed mother, raised Mary and her siblings in a series of abysmal tenement flats in and around Boston under conditions of extreme poverty. Cesarina took in laundry and cleaned houses; her older brother left school to work full time. Mary and her younger brother, Albert, the sibling with whom she remained closest to throughout her life, scoured the railroad tracks in search of lumps of coal for the kitchen stove and chased after the ice wagon to gather ice chips to cool the food in the icebox. The Pezzati children ate polenta every night and were subject to taunts and beatings by local Irish kids. Later in life, her mother refused to eat polenta, and Suse adds, she also “had trouble digesting the Irish.” (p. 71) Mary’s older brother, Pietro, became a successful portrait painter working in the Renaissance style; Josephine, the older sister lived her life as a liberal Catholic. 
 
In advance of Mary, Albert, of whom Suse speaks little, joined the Communist Party. Had Suse conducted some additional research, she would have found out that he did important work as a Communist. He ran for State Senator for the American Labor Party in 1940, and later served as secretary-treasurer of the International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers’ Union, which was expelled from the CIO in 1949 for its Communist leadership. He was indicted under the Taft-Harley Act for falsely signing an anti-Communist affidavit in 1956. Albert served as the spokesperson for his union in the fight against silicosis, a deadly disease afflicting hard-rock miners, and demanded the establishment of a National Industrial Health Institute. Perhaps it was not coincidental that Albert’s struggle to save the lungs of the workers he represented was associated with another rapacious lung disease of the poor, tuberculosis, which killed his father before Albert had a chance even to remember his face.

Suse glosses over her mother’s heroic political career. From 1937 to 1939, Mary Testa was deeply involved with the Party’s illegal work. She traveled to Paris, where she met major leaders of the Italian Communist Party including Palmiro Togliatti. During her travels, Mary acted as a courier carrying concealed passports gathered from Italian Americans; in Europe the passports were doctored to provide passage for underground cadres in Italy to travel into Spain to join the International Brigades. These passports later gave safe passage to Italian Communists trapped in France after the defeat of the Spanish Republic. Mary, who traveled to Fascist Italy and war-torn Spain, had placed herself in mortal risk. This work also entailed the possibility of imprisonment in the United States, at a time when the federal government was indicting and convicting Communists (including the Party’s General Secretary, Earl Browder) for passport violations.

In 1940, upon her return from Europe, Mary, who had never finished high school, became the founding co-editor of L’Unità del Popolo, a weekly, which was the successor of four previous Communist Party-sponsored Italian-language newspapers—L’Alba Nuova, Il Lavalatore, L’Unità Operaia, and Il Popolo. In 1942, shortly before her first daughter, Carla, was born, she resigned from this position. Thereafter her political work centered on giving speeches and writing articles, in English and Italian, promoting the American Labor Party and helping to elect its sole Congressman, Vito Marcantonio, whose East Harlem district included Italian Harlem. Suse Rotolo remembers that Mary took Carla and her to Marc’s headquarters, where they helped stuff envelopes for mailings to his constituents.  On November 19, 1950, Mary Testa chaired a banquet that attracted four-hundred friends and comrades of Michael Salerno, the editor of L’Unità del Popolo, who gathered to say arriverderci before his imminent deportation, accompanied by his American-born wife and son, to Italy. (Salerno never returned to the United States.)

In A Freewhellin’ Time there is no indication that Suse has applied for copies of her parents’ FBI files, which however heavily redacted before their release, would have provided much information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was greatly interested in all the members of he Communist Party and especially those who, as did Suse’s parents, had genuine influence. Their files are almost certainly voluminous. Among other things, they would reveal if they had been placed on the list for detention during a time of national emergency as defined by the Attorney General and detail the extent of their political activities. Rotolo never notes how her Italian-born father obtained citizenship. If he had been naturalized, he was at risk for deportation. (She mentions that the parents of her red-diaper friend Pete Karmen were held on Ellis Island for deportation even though his mother had entered the United States as a child.) A complete run of L’Unità del Popolo is deposited in the New York Public Library. Yet, there is no evidence that she read the paper her mother edited and for which she frequently wrote. Had she done this work, Rotolo might have been able to view her parents with greater equanimity. It might also have allowed her to let go of her need to sanitize her parents as members of “the idealistic, as opposed to the hardcore Stalinist, wing of the American Communist Party.” (p. 33)

“Parents were baggage.” (p. 250) With this three-word sentence, Suse Rotolo imagines that she has simultaneously justifies Dylan’s rejection of his parents and her dismissal of her mother as preoccupied with drinking her way through her second widowhood. Elsewhere, she speaks more positively of Mary Testa. “[Mother] taught us about equality, that all men are created equal, and instilled in [Carla and me] a sense of justice.” (pp. 211-212) While still attending high school, Suse traveled to Harlem where she worked in support of the initiatives of the Congress of Racial Equality. She also helped organize for The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy Committee—organizations her mother and father would have felt very comfortable supporting. In 1964, Suse struck out on her own by joining others in defying a United States government ban on travel to Cuba. After returning back to the United States from this two-month experience in political tourism, Rotolo found herself unable to repay Cuba’s hospitality with political work on behalf of the beleaguered island. When at the end of a “break the blockade” rally at a college in Boston it came her turn to give a rousing speech, she was unable to rise to the occasion. “I was in a gloomy frame of mind that evening [and] in general I had lost a good deal of my enthusiasm for politics.” (p. 330)

Suse Rotolo and others around Dylan discovered his identity through rumor and a not-too-polite disclosure in a newspaper article that he was not a runaway from a traveling circus, named “Bob Dylan,” but Robert Zimmerman, the oldest of two sons of second-generation Jewish parents who owned and operated a clothing store in Hibbing, Minnesota. He concealed his true identity from his friends and associates and his whereabouts and nascent career from his parents. Mary Testa sensed from her first encounter with Dylan that neither his name nor his purported background were accurate. Royolo reports, “Mother had a hunch right off the bat that the tales he told about himself, not to mention his name, were bogus.” (p. 104) Suse gives no credit to her mother for her prescience, which surely represented a fringe benefit from her life in the Party and especially from her engagement in its illegal work, where identifying infiltrators was literally a matter of life and death. Suse still doesn’t quite get what is so wrong about someone presenting himself, especially within the context of an intimate relationship, as someone other than who he is. Her continued protectiveness of Dylan, especially once she crossed the Rubicon and put her pen to the first line of her memoir, is difficult to comprehend.

At her mother’s behest and by her largess, Rotolo traveled to Italy, ostensibly to study Italian. But we hear little about her studies and how they later enriched her life. She does not even chronicle the typical high jinks typical of a ‘60’ American student in Europe. A Freewheelin’ Time has no Epilogue, so the reader doesn’t learn that later, Suse returned to Italy where she found the true love of her life to whom, along with their son, the book is dedicated. This knowledge, withheld by the now unreasonably taciturn Ms. Rotolo, also establishes the rectitude of her mother’s motives. For her daughter, who did not attend college, studying Italian had multiple benefits, including something fairly rare in America, continuity with previous generations.   

American Folk Music and the Left

Rotolo’s entrée into the small, but absorbing, world of folk music was not through any musical talent; it was facilitated by a cultural inheritance from her Communist parents with its attendant subculture. The devotion of American progressives—Communists and those influenced by the Party’s cultural outlook and activities—to folk music flowed directly from Georgi Dimitrof’s insistence in 1935 in The United Front against Fascism that Communists, “not relinquish all that is valuable in the historical past of a country, [and that they help create a] truly national culture that is national in form and socialist in content.” From the enunciation of the Popular Front until the Cold War repression, the Communist movement had widespread influence on American “high” and popular culture. Michael Denning—in his authoritative, The Cultural Front, which documents the pervasive influence of the Communist movement on all aspects of American culture—states, “The folk music revival was spearheaded by Communists.”  They were responsible for creating an infrastructure including an organization, People’s Songs, a magazine, Sing Out, and an organization of practitioners of this art form, People’s Artists.  Major figures in the folk music world were Communists, including Woody Guthrie  and Pete Seeger;  they along with musicologists and performers sympathetic to the Communist movement, agreed that “the people,” its longings and lives should be the focus of progressive music. Rotolo notes that in practice folk music movement “included everything that wasn’t easily classifiable, all of which was freighted, most often implicitly, with left politics. [It was] an amalgam of other genres: bluegrass to country to blues to gospel to traditional.” (p. 128) Rotolo earlier reminds the readers how much international music (for example, the Armenian-American oud player George Mgrdichian and the Israeli singer, Ron Eliran,) was a part of this scene. The international music countered the dominant nativist and chauvinist ideology of that decade, and the “folk” of the folk music were “the workers,” who (unbeknownst to themselves) had created songs deemed inherently oppositional to the dominant culture. The songs’ subjects and underlying assumptions, in fact, rejected the individualism, romanticism, and consumerism of the dominant culture. However, this was much more due to their origins in a pre-industrial society more than any association they may have had with socialism. There were overtly Left songs, which set to traditional (often religious) tunes had lyrics rousing the workers to join unions or memorializing industrial accidents, but they were few in number. Be that as it may, these songs helped sustain a besieged community. 

Rotolo’s Contribution to Dylan’s Career

Suse Rotolo greatly underestimates her contribution to Dylan’s enthronement in the pantheon of American cultural giants. It was neither Dylan’s raspy voice nor his strumming technique that stopped a generation in its tracks. A short list of political anthems that he composed during his time together with Suse Rotolo enraptured a new generation of political activists. His first album, Bob Dylan, included an eclectic and uneven collection of traditional ballads presented by a very young Woody Guthrie wannabe, who had some je ne sais quoi. His second album, A Freewheelin’ Time—which featured “Blowing in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” – and his third album’s, The Times They Are a-Changin’” – whose soon-to-be classics “The Times They Are a Changin’,” “With God on Our Side,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “ When the Ship Comes In,” and “Chains of Freedom” were composed at a moment when American youth were poised to repudiate the domestic cold war and mobilize a massive antiwar movement. This short list of songs gave immediacy and gravity to Dylan’s music; it launched his work into the special space reserved for those few performers/composers of American popular music who create classic American popular music.

Suse Rotolo not only introduced Bob Dylan to the Left movement, she also took him to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso’s Guernica, encouraged him to listen to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Three Penny Opera, and exposed him to other aspects of the Old Left’s cultural amalgam of folk and high culture. “Pirate Jenny,” from The Three Penny Opera, provided Dylan with the framework for “The Times They Are a–Changin’.” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which was based on a front-page article published in the Leftist weekly, The National Guardian, suggests that the murder of Medgar Evers was determined by a culture where the ideology of white supremacy manipulated poor white Southerners into foregoing their own economic interests, might be the single most Marxist song composed in the United States. The refinement of the lyrics of “When the Ship Comes In,” the larger framework of the song, its apocalyptic vision, elevate Dylan’s song to a higher category than, for example, the blithely optimistic ditty of the contemporaneous “If I Had a Hammer” composed by Pete Seeger. 

Conclusion

Suse Rotolo’s memoir represents an important addition to the vast literature on Bob Dylan, who is arguably the largest single influence on American music to emerge from the 1960s. It also documents the transmission of the culture of the Communist Left, to the wider culture—a topic that deserves further attention from the burgeoning field of American Cultural Studies. At its heart, it is story of one young woman’s quest for an elusive autonomy from the complex inheritance of heroic parents and a celebrated partner. Suse Rotolo did something noble when she chose her own integrity over being a satellite of a blazing star. However, she has not yet entirely worked out the complexities of inheriting a rich parental legacy and later attaining a larger degree of acceptance of the satisfactions of participating in the construction of an American legend. Perhaps her next volume should be about her parents, their own families, and their very large, and less ambiguous, impact on her life.

Notes:

[1] Suse Rotolo, A Freewhellin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (New York: Broadway Books, 2008).

[2] Gerald Meyer, “Italian-Americans and the American Communist Party,” in The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture, pp. 205-227, eds. Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003). 

[3] On Italian Harlem see: Richard Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Gerald Meyer, “Italian Harlem: Portrait of a Community,” pp. 57-67 in, The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement (New York: New York Historical Society and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, 1999). On Mulberry Street’s Little Italy see Donna Giababacia, From Sicily to Elizabeth Street: Housing and Social Change among Italian Immigrants, 1880-1930 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).

[4] Caroline Ware, Greenwich, 1920-1930: A Comment on American Civilization in the Post-War Years (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963), pp. 152-202; Donald Tricarico, The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community (New York: Center of Migration Studies, 1964), pp. xvi, 2, 103.

[5] The tolerance of Greenwich Village did not extend to racial and ethnic minorities. In 1950, in its three most Italian American census tracts, the number of African Americans numbered only 40 out of 4,116; by 1960 there were 138 living there. From 1960 to 1980; during this same period, the number of Puerto Ricans living in this area actually declined from 327 to 114. Tricarico, Italians of Greenwich Village, p. 76.

[6] It is possible that Mary retained the surname “Testa” so that her connection with Pete was not so immediately apparent. As editor of L’Unità del Popolo, her Party affiliation was undeniable. With few exceptions, those Communists “colonizing” factories had to conceal their membership. Hence, by keeping her first husband’s name she was protecting her husband’s anonymity.

[7] In his autobiographical novel, Going Away: A Report, a Memoir (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962), Clancy Sigal argued that the Communist Party attracted working class youth and transformed them into bookish petite bourgeoisie, thereby over time separating them from the working class.

[8] David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000), pp. 40-41. Founded in 1938, Café Society, became New York City’s first truly integrated nightclub, which “marked the emergence of a Popular Front cabaret blues, a fusion of jazz and political cabaret.” After being targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it closed in 1948. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997), pp. 323, 360.

[9] Gerald Meyer, “Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti: Their Legacy,” Voices of Italian Americana, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2008), p. 64.

[10] Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), pp. 221-230, 271-273, 281-283.

[11] Victor Grossman (Stephan Wechsler), Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).         

[12] Fasanella, who had been reduced by the McCarthy repression to working in his brother-in-laws gas station, was soon to achieve great acclaim for his copious production of social realist paintings many of which are part of the permanent collections of major museums. Patrick Watson, Fasanella’s City: The Paintings of Ralph Fasanella with the Story of His Life and Art New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

[13] Robert Shrank, Wasn’t That a Time?: Growing Up Radical in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 313-314.

[14] Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 406, 408.

[15] Nunzio Pernicone, “Introduction,” special issue devoted to the Italian American Press of The Italian American Review (Spring/Summer 2001), p. 5.

[16] Gerald Meyer, “L’Unità del Popolo: The Voice of Italian American Communism, 1939-1951,” Italian American Review (Spring/Summer 2001): 121-156.

[17] Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989).

[18] Meyer, “L’Unità del Popolo, pp. 126, 139. The weekly ceased regularly publishing on August 11, 1951. During the McCarthy Era, the Justice Department indicted, at least, fifteen editors of pro-Communist newspapers (including those publishing in Italian, Korean, Yiddish, Greek, Chinese, and Finnish) under the Smith Act for the purpose of allowing the federal government to seek their denaturalization and deportation. David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 239.

[19] Georgi Dimitrof, The United Front against Fascism (New York, New Century Publishers, 1950), pp. 78, 81.

[20] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997), p. 283.

[21] Robbie Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

[22] Ronald Cohen, “Woody the Red?,” in Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, pp. 138-152, eds. Robert Santelli and Emily Davidson (Hanover, MA: Wesleyan University Press, 1999).

[23] Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, director, Jim Brown (2007).

[24] Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon, pp. xix, 53.

[25] Suse’s two-years-older sister, Carla (who, like so many other red diaper babies, was named after Karl Marx), worked for Alan Lomax, the renowned folk music collector; she also contributed to Dylan’s musical and political education, but Suse’s memoir does not include this part of the story. Although she gives her no credit, Carla must have contributed to her younger sister’s involvement in folk music. Dylan vilified Carla in “Ballad in Plain D” when he hurled at her the epithet “parasite.”

Photo: Shht, Flickr, cc by 2.0

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  • actually her name is mispelled in this article. it's Suze.

    Posted by dylanfanandy, 06/04/2010 11:42am (4 years ago)

  • well researched and well written. I like that you have gone even further than Suse Rotolo especially in researching her parents' backgrounds and their involvement as communists. I also agree that Rotolo undermines her influence on Dylan during this period. Other Dylan biographers give her a lot more credit than she gives herself. your research on Dylan needs work though. "Chains of Freedom" should be "Chimes of Freedom" and is on a different album. Look it up.

    Posted by dylanfanandy, 06/03/2010 2:19pm (4 years ago)

  • concerning post nº 1: and what about calling Dylan´s second album "A freewheelin´time"?

    Posted by José, 06/03/2010 1:44pm (4 years ago)

  • I've got to wonder if the author was that familiar with Dylan's music from the era he refers. To name one the songs from the The Times They Are A Changing the "Chains of Freedom" has got to have Dylan fans rolling in the aisle.

    Posted by Jim Barnhart, 06/03/2010 10:44am (4 years ago)

  • Listen, Mike Jones, if you want to start dedicating things to victims of state abuse, have a quick read of Howard Zinn's 'People's History of the United States'. There you'll find a few more victims of fascism MUCH closer to home. Or don't they count, because, after all YOU had 'God on your side'? Agreed, there are LOTS of victims of so-called communist states, but many more of capitalist ones - after all, you've been at it longer.

    Posted by Brian , 06/03/2010 4:56am (4 years ago)

  • Wow communists are so adorable. What with their red diapers, folk guitars, and homicidal rage. Thanks so much for the article Ger Bear.

    I would like to dedicate this posting to the 11 million victims of Nazism who have so long found themselves overshadowed by the 94 or so million victims of Commuinsm. Serioulsy can we build those people a friggin' museum or something. Anyways, go red team go!

    Posted by Mike Jones, 06/03/2010 1:30am (4 years ago)

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