THE ALMANAC SINGERS
SONGS FOR JOHN DOE



(Almanac Records Album 102),
recorded late March to early April 1941,
at an unidentified Central Park West studio.
Producer: Eric Bernay.
Released: early May 1941.

LINE-UP | BACKGROUND | SONG LIST | REVIEWS & REACTIONS

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Pete Seeger, vocal/banjo; LEE HAYS, vocal; MILLARD LAMPELL, vocal; JOSH WHITE, vocal/guitar; SAM GARY, vocal


In early March 1941 a group was organized to finance and produce the Almanacs' first record album, "Songs for John Doe." Among its members were veteran record producer John Hammond, Earl Robinson and Keynote label owner Eric Bernay (nee Bernstein). The principals invited potential investors to a Sunday, March 19 Almanac performance at Peter Lyons' home north of Washington Square.
"We want you to come and hear the songs, give your suggestions, and contribute toward underwriting the albums," a letter explained. "Those who join us in pledging money will receive a corresponding number of albums which may be distributed to the cause of peace, and in the cause of a new music which has arisen out of the people." The event raised $300 -- a considerable sum for those days.

The day before the session, Seeger approached Josh White about joining them. Not only could White enhance the trio's music, but he would bring a welcome racial diversity as well. According to Lampell, Sam Gary, the Carolinians' bass singer, also joined the session. Six masters ["'C' For Conscription" & "Washington Breakdown" were recorded as one take] were recorded in a two or three hour session in a small Central Park West studio in late March or early April 1941....

Bernay released the album in May 1941. Fearing political repercussions, he was reluctant to release it on Keynote, so "Songs for John Doe" appeared on the "Almanac" label. On June 22, 1941, Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union. With the non-agression pact broken, pacifism was out of the question. Bernay quickly pulled "Songs for John Doe" and Paul Robeson's Spring Song from distribution and reportedly destroyed the remaining inventory. The songs that launched the Almanac Singers just four months earlier were now hopelessly out of date.

In summer 1942 the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- believing the Almanac Singers' seditious antiwar messages were still offered for sale -- began searching for the company behind its distribution. After months checking pressing plants around New York City, agents learned that the album was a Keynote production. "When the FBI finally walked into the office of Keystone Records," David King Dunaway wrote, "the manager boldly told them the discs were collector's items: 'Things have changed since those were recorded.'"

Ronald D. Cohen & Dave Samuelson, liner notes for "Songs for Political Action," Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL, 1996, pp. 77-78.

 

 

  


REVIEWS & REACTIONS

TIME (no date given):
Honest isolationists last week got some help from recorded music that they would rather have not received... Professionally performed with new words to old folk tunes, John Doe's singing scrupulously echoed the mendacious Moscow tune.
Quoted in Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie, London, 1988, p. 191.
DOROTHY MILLSTONE,
NEW YORK POST:

After hearing that Russia had been invaded, I hung up the phone, and the first thing I did was break my Almanac records.
Quoted in David Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger, New York, NY, 1990, p. 84.
CARL FREDERICK,
ATLANTIC, June 1941:

These recordings are distributed under the innocuous appeal: 'Sing out for peace.' Yet they are strictly subversive and illegal... You can never handle situations of this kind by mere suppression.
Quoted ibid., p. 86

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