A Folklorist of Black America

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Brian Dolinar

African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics:
The Lawrence Gellert Story
By Bruce Conforth
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013, 265 pages plus illustrations, $75 cloth.

THIS NEW BOOK explores the curious career of a white collector of Black music. The kid brother to Hungarian-born Hugo Gellert, probably the best-known Communist artist in his day, Lawrence Gellert was a folklorist who collected some of the earliest field recordings of African American music in the South. Written by Bruce Conforth, one-time curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and professor at the University of Michigan, this is the first published biography about a man who also helped popularize the “protest” song several decades before the 1960s.

Spending his youth as a bohemian in Greenwich Village, Gellert crossed paths with numerous artists and intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. Although not as deep into the Communist movement as his brother Hugo, Lawrence was undoubtedly close to the Party and remained a lifelong radical. Conforth has spent some 30 years sifting through hundreds of recordings done on primitive equipment, dozens of interviews with contradictory accounts, and numerous letters from the many famous people who knew Gellert to reconstruct the life of this early folklorist.

Due to questions among scholars over the veracity of his recordings, his feuds with other folklorists, and legal battles he waged with musicians, Gellert’s reputation has been tarnished and the originality of his work neglected. Gellert’s collection remains, in Conforth’s words, “one of the great scholarly tragedies of the 20th century.” This book hopes to set the record straight about Gellert’s major contributions in the field.

As often happens in a person’s later years, Gellert embellished many details about his life. Conforth surmises he may have felt like he lived in the shadow of his brothers — Hugo, the artist, and Otto and Ted, wealthy businessmen who funded his excursions.

Looking back, Gellert claimed he ventured into the South concerned with the plight of African Americans. As Conforth found, this is not entirely accurate.  To cure him of emphysema, a doctor had ordered Gellert to recuperate in a more hospitable climate. He moved to the South for better health, not to confront Jim Crow.

Nevertheless, when he arrived at a small town in South Carolina, word quickly spread among the African American community that he was “talking good things about our people.” Before long he developed a rapport with local Blacks, was invited to their church, and became entranced when he heard his first spirituals; “they were terrific.” This was as early as 1922, a decade before John and Alan Lomax made their field recordings of Black music in the South.

Years down the road, when asked about how he became interested in recording protest songs, Gellert said he was “dragged into it.” In 1923 or 1924, he sent a letter to Hugo about the songs and stories he had been writing down. “Jesus Christ, get this stuff down, get it down,” his brother wrote back, and shipped aluminum discs for capturing recordings.

Hugo showed the songs to Mike Gold, proletarian writer and editor of the left-wing journal New Masses. Gold dubbed them “Negro Songs of Protest,” and the label stuck.

Chronicler of Culture and Protest

As he travelled deeper into the South, Gellert recorded the songs he heard in jails, prisons, and on chain gangs. He looked for songs suitable for New Masses — about the electric chair, a mean boss, or hard living — but also collected many other songs from different genres.

In November 1930 his first article appeared in New Masses, including one of the earliest known recorded versions of the blues standard today known as “Delia.” Gellert’s version begins: “Cooney told Delia, I love you all my life / Woman if you don’t marry me, I’m bound to take your life.”

Returning to New York, Gellert caught the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a consultant on Zora Neale Hurston’s 1932 play The Great Day and recorded one of its singers. He had an affair with Nancy Cunard, British heiress and editor of the 1934 book Negro Anthology, who introduced him to the writers Sterling Brown and Eugene Gordon.

He went on a road trip with Langston Hughes, who had decided to take “poetry to the people” throughout the South. When they reached Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Hughes was met by controversy for a poem he had written about the Scottsboro boys, eight Black youth who were sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women.

Gellert himself helped to raise funds for the Scottsboro boys. Additionally, he published folk songs about the Scottsboro case and Angelo Herndon, a Black communist sentenced to a chain gang for organizing the unemployed in Atlanta, Georgia (which others charged Gellert had written himself). While collecting songs in Alabama, he also spent time with organizers of the Sharecroppers Union.

In 1936 Gellert published his first book, Negro Songs of Protest, a first of its kind. The introduction was written by Langston Hughes, who said the songs were “of inestimable value.” Heavily promoted in the left-wing press, as well as The New York Times and Time magazine, the book established Gellert as a leader in the field of folklore studies.

Yet because he was largely self-taught, Gellert was frowned upon by scholars like Harvard-educated John Lomax. The two men were “dueling collectors,” writes Conforth. This growing notoriety put Gellert in contact with folk legends Aunt Molly Jackson and Woody Guthrie. It also got him jobs with the Federal Writers’ Project and Federal Theater Project, where he worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem.

The Difficult Years

By the late 1940s, Gellert was in financial straits and living out of a suitcase. As he became desperate for money, several actions sullied his reputation. He published a collection of supposedly “lost” plays by Eugene O’Neil without the author’s permission and which may have been stolen. He became involved in a number of legal entanglements with Black folk musicians like Josh White and Harry Belafonte, claiming that he, a white collector, had copyright of traditional African-American songs.

In recounting these years of obscurity, Conforth makes no mention of the anti-communist blacklist or how it may have affected his precarious living conditions. The FBI had opened a file on Gellert in 1938 after the release of a Moscow edition of Negro Songs of Protest, and followed him into the 1960s. A trained ethnomusicologist, Conforth is not to be faulted. He is more concerned with academic debates than political ones.

Conforth only sees the Left as having a detrimental impact on Gellert’s career. Although celebrating his “protest songs,” he views them as “merely agitpropaganda.” Rather than seeing Gellert’s interest in social movements as sincere, Conforth views his subject as either an “unwitting or identity-hunting dupe” of the Communist Party.

In the tense years of the Cold War, Gellert supported Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign for president, published songs like “Atomic Blues,” and maintained friendships with blacklisted radicals like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.

During the 1960s, he was at the center of the folk music revival in Greenwich Village where a new generation was writing its own protest songs. He became a fixture at Israel “Izzy” Young’s Folklore Center and the two would often go collecting together. Remaining an activist, Gellert was present for the 1967 antiwar protest when the Yippies attempted to levitate the Pentagon.

In the late 1970s, Gellert disappeared after being a suspect in the abduction of a six-year-old boy. Years later, another man confessed to the crime, but Gellert’s death, like much of his life, remains a mystery.

This is a book that will explain for scholars some of the unanswered questions of Gellert’s life and work. Those who want to know more about the history of the Left will also find this a fascinating read. With this book, Gellert receives his due credit as a pioneer collector and interpreter of African-American folk music.

January/February 2015, ATC 174


  1. This is a refreshing review. It points out the ideological pitfalls of the kneejerk red-baiting that mars so much “liberal” work in our U.S. academe, while also acknowledging the positive aspects of Conforth’s biography.

    I knew Hugo Gellert pretty well in his old age in the mid to late 1970s. Hugo was a superb artist and as kind, brilliant, brave and wise a person as I’ve ever met. (You can see him in a small part in Warren Beatty’s “Reds.”) Hugo related how he and his brother had opposed fascism in their native Hungary and helped launch one of the first anti-fascist movements in USA. I did a series on him for the Daily World, showing the link between the rise of abstract expressionism and the interests of finance capitalists.

    Communists like the Gellerts stood up against fascists, racists, imperial wars, neo-colonialism, profiteers and opportunists when it was a risk to life, limb and career to do so. Hats off to Dolinar to adding that context to his review.

  2. Hello,

    I just discovered your review of Bruce Conforth’s biography of Lawrence Gellert, and John Woodford’s response, which I much appreciated. I wanted to write in to say that there is another Gellert researcher out here in the world. I’ve been studying the man and his collection, and publishing on the subject, since my first visit to the Gellert archive at Indiana University Bloomington in 1999. At this point, Conforth and I are at odds in our interpretations of the man and his work. Unlike Conforth, I do not believe the record of primary evidence (Gellert’s field recordings, writings, interviews, and correspondence) document a man without sincere political convictions. Gellert was not a joiner; he was more the restless bohemian than a dedicated activist. But, in my judgment, he was — as you say, and John Woodford recalls — a sincere radical. Late in life, in interviews from the 1960s, he was still arguing that socialism would prevail as the superior system. He was an autodidact with a rare expertise in African American history and culture, and he was — I believe — an honest collector of black vernacular expression. I do not agree with Bruce Conforth’s assessment that Gellert fabricated some of his protest material. That position, Conforth’s argument in the biography, puts him in the tradition of Gellert detractors going back to at least the Cold War. It is a surprising reversal from Conforth, who was, in the 1980s, the leading champion of Gellert as a crusading radical folkorist. Gellert was not a saint, nor must we make our historical subjects hero figures. But, he and his archive deserve a fairer hearing than the treatment given by Conforth in the biography.

    For readers who are interested in another perspective on the man, I wrote on Gellert in my dissertation of 2004. Additionally, I published a research article in American Quarterly in 2005.

    Increasingly, it seems, the old claim that Gellert fabricated his material is being renewed by attention to Conforth’s biography. The current Wikipedia page on Gellert has an entire subsection from the last couple of years with the heading “Fabrication of Protest Songs.” It also includes claims that Gellert was “an inveterate fabulist,” “a chronic invalid and then alcoholic,” a womanizer, and “had no interest in politics.” Newcomers to this subject who share a left orientation need to understand that the substance of Conforth’s treatment is that the radical left of the 1930s was crassly opportunistic and that Gellert was equally opportunistic and insincere. I do not see any reason for these harsh and dismissive characterizations in my own research.

    Recently, I posted the following at Mudcat, the online traditional music forum, which has a Gellert thread of some length.

    Hello All,

    This thread has been quiet for a couple of years. But, I’m writing in anyway.

    To this point, I have refrained from addressing the topic of Lawrence Gellert in anything but my formal published academic writing. Many people, including contributors to Mudcat, know the name of Bruce Conforth as it relates to Gellert’s biography and archive. Picking up the trail after the early inroads by the great Richard Reuss, Dr. Conforth was the pioneering researcher who opened up Gellert studies in the 1980s. Two years ago, his book, “African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story,” came out with The Scarecrow Press. He has been more and more active in recent years as a blues and folklore expert, and his teaching and writing is highly credited.

    I am finally writing in at this forum to speak up for myself and my own research on Lawrence Gellert. I am an academic as well, and have been researching Gellert, African American blues protest, roots music revivalism, and the cultural left of the 1930s and 1960s since the late 1990s. I have published on Gellert myself, and am working on a manuscript involving the man and his collection.

    As I see Conforth’s take on Gellert show up more and more, I want to say that it is one view, and that I am a researcher of some credibility myself who has a very different view. There is still room for a open discourse on Gellert, and there is still room for additional interpreters and researchers.

    No scholarship is definitive, and my own will no doubt have its limitations. But, I can say that I fundamentally dispute Conforth’s position on Lawrence Gellert as an apolitical careerist, with no genuine social convictions of any real degree. I also dispute Conforth’s dismissive view of the political left of the 1930s and ’40s as purely opportunistic. Moreover, I do not think it is “cased closed” that Lawrence Gellert or his Communist handlers fabricated material.

    In his many hours of taped interviews with Richard Reuss and Izzy Young from the late 1960s, Lawrence Gellert speaks with authority and emotion about world politics, leftwing cultural policy and figures in the 1930s, and issues of social injustice. As an older man, in these interviews from the ’60s, he is still quite emphatic that he believes socialism will prevail over capitalism because it is a “superior system.” He also shows a detailed level of knowledge about black history, resistance, and culture that is rare for someone of an age that predated African American Studies as a formal discipline with a canon easily accessible to all. Gellert was an autodidact from an intelligent family of thinkers and arguers. Yes, Gellert was eccentric, but I don’t think, as Conforth seems to suggest in his book, that Gellert’s main motivation in black vernacular music research was an identify and inferiority complex that drove him to want to make a name for himself out of the shadow of his older brother Hugo. I don’t see any reason to psychologize Gellert in these terms. Really, he seemed as intact and as screwy as any of the rest of us, particularly when it comes to writers, artists, bohemians.

    Was Lawrence Gellert an alcoholic, as it now states on his Wikipedia page? In sixteen years of research, I’ve seen no evidence for or against such a characterization.

    Was Gellert an acute womanizer? How do we judge such a thing? There were several women with whom he had relationships over the course of a long lifetime. Aside from adding to a profile of the man as unprincipled, I don’t see why it is necessary to the discussion. I admit that I have not looked into his romantic life, but I can say that it has never stuck out as a topic needing investigation either.

    This is not the place for a disquisition. And, I will keep working on my book and hope it comes out before the door is closed on Lawrence Gellert by interested parties. But, let me give one example of a specific inaccuracy from Bruce Conforth’s book that is the kind of thing that matters. In his book (p.118), Conforth highlights as primary evidence a 1935 Gellert article published in the leftwing journal “Music Vanguard.” He employs this evidence to further assert his ongoing position that Gellert had no interest in politics and was simply willing to allow the left to use his material in order to build a name for himself. Conforth relates some of the details of the 12-page piece by Gellert and stresses that — aside from the title “Negro Songs of Protest,” which was applied by leftwing editors apart from Gellert’s own hand — Gellert himself, as author, never uses the word “protest” once in the published article text. But, I have and know this same article well, and the primary evidence reads otherwise. Gellert includes the word “protest” in his prose at least three times, quite directly. He also uses the words “revolt” and “insurrection,” for instance, to refer to black vernacular song tradition in his time and before. I agree with Conforth that the title “Negro Songs of Protest” likely came from Mike Gold at “New Masses” starting in 1930. But, I disagree that Gellert wasn’t a willing participant of genuine conviction in the movement culture of the Old Left. I submit that Gellert used the word “protest” in this article because, like his leftwing editors at “New Masses” and “Music Vanguard,” he meant it and he cared.

    I have never argued that all of Gellert’s field archive is all protest, and I have never argued that only protest blues is the real blues or the only blues that matters. I have never defined “protest” as necessarily supporting only formal leftwing organizing campaigns, causes, or people, and I have never argued, as Conforth presents it in his book, that the blues in the Gellert collection are “anticapitalist.” The songs I highlight show resentment toward exploitation under a racialized system of capitalism; that’s what I argue in my writing. I never go so far as to say they are “anticapitalist.”

    Anyone who wants can read my 2005 Gellert article in “American Quarterly” to decide whether I’m nuanced and careful or reductive and exaggerated in my interpretations. I believe I’m the former and grounded responsibly in the evidence; Conforth characterizes me in the book as a radical “revisionist” who is “overpoliticizing” the blues based on my own contemporary views (what I want to see, not what is).

    I also think it is important to mention that the Gellert archive (taped interviews, correspondence, writings, and field recordings) is available for all at a public repository, the Archives of Traditional Music and Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington. This is the primary evidence base from which I draw conclusions in my writing, and it can all be traced to its public source. The material has been available to all since the 1980s. It is not lost, obscure, or unavailable. It is as easily accessible as any other public archive. This extends to the field recordings themselves, which have been digitized in full (505+ audio items) and can be ordered on CD or as a zip file over email to interested researchers.

    There is no reason why a single viewpoint (or even our two viewpoints) on Lawrence Gellert should be the last word. I look forward to any feedback from folks who have investigated the Gellert material on their own, who have read Conforth’s book, or who have opinions about my own writing.

    Steve Garabedian

  3. I respect Steve Garabedian’s opinion and accept that we can disagree on certain things, however I believe he get a number of things wrong.

    First, I can’t imagine where the idea that Gellert was an alcoholic came from – certainly not my book. I never mentioned such a thing, and in fact I have no knowledge of Gellert ever taking a drink.

    I never stated that Gellert was never a sincere radical. I think at one point he actually did believe in leftist ideology. The case I made, and the evidence is quite clear, was that Gellert did not start to collect songs for political reasons. He stated that many times. He was interested in the natural beauty and cultural aesthetics of the music. It wasn’t until his brother Hugo and Mike Gold alerted him to the idea that this music could be used as a great propaganda tool that he then began to collect the material for that purpose, and, as his fame in left-wing circles grew he took advantage of that position.

    Garabedian states that in the late 60s (Gellert) was still arguing for socialism prevailing over capitalism. That didn’t make him a radical activist. Remember who was interviewing him and about what! Dick Reuss, who I knew quite well, went to Gellert specifically looking for tales about his involvement with the left. Gellert was nothing if not a great storyteller. Should we really expect Gellert to have downplayed his role when he had spent much of his life building it up in ways that were quite often false?

    Garabedian did not have the advantage of interviewing Gellert’s brothers – Hugo or Otto. I did. They both were quite adamant that Larry was never much of a joiner, that he was never involved in leftist or union organizing, and that he was more prone to leave the scene when situations got tense than to stick around and fight. They would have no reason to falsify this. Hugo, by this time, had even appeared as a “witness” in Warren Beatty’s film “Reds”. Both brothers spoke freely about Larry’s activities and although he liked to paint a picture of himself as the quintessential radical it simply wasn’t true. Gellert even admitted this himself in his own letters. He often said that he wasn’t interested in politics and didn’t want to be around when there was trouble.

    In addition to not having been able to interview the people who knew Larry best, Garabedian did not have access to the thousands of pages of Gellert’s manuscripts and notebooks that I was given by Otto and which are still in my possession.

    As per Gellert fabricating his material, again Garabedian did not have the opportunity to see this material or to interview scholars or friends who knew him back when he was collecting. Folklorist Herbert Halpert informed me (and part of this is in my book) that Gellert admitted to him that he “created” a goodly part of the more overtly political material. He would go into a situation and if he didn’t hear the kinds of songs he wanted he would teach his informants a song and then record them singing it. There is even a disc in the collection I have that shows him doing precisely that. For Garabedian to assert that he does not believe that Gellert fabricated some of his material is simply to deny the actual facts.

    Harold Courlander also was well aware that Gellert was falsifying the more political material. And why did he do this? Because it gave him greater standing within the left, and got him temporarily out of his brothers’ shadows.

    I never saw the left of the 1930s and 40s as purely opportunistic as Garabedian asserts, but to assume that the left did not use things to its advantage would be ridiculous. All political parties, no matter how “noble” use situations to their advantage, and the left of the 20s, 30s and 40s was certainly no exception. Similarly Gellert used the left to bring himself a degree of fame and attention.

    As per Gellert’s use of the word “protest” that was Gold’s invention. Gellert may have used it a few times but he primarily used other terms.

    With regard to Gellert’s work being tied up largely in trying to establish a sense of identity from a huge inferiority complex, that idea was actually first put forth by Dick Reuss. I asked his brothers about this and they absolutely concurred that Larry always felt in the shadow of his older brothers, and was largely dependent upon them his entire life. They financed his trips to the South. They paid his bills. They gave him an allowance. They took care of him his entire life (Otto even helped him “disappear” in the 1970s). Larry was always trying to find a way to make a name for himself to create a unique identity. That is why he took advantage of Hugo and Gold’s notion that the songs he originally had no political interest in could actually be important. It is also why he engaged in such ill-conceived and poorly executed ideas as publishing some of Eugene O’Neill’s first plays under the title “Lost Plays of Eugene O’Neill.” He was roundly and severely criticized for publishing works the playwright never intended to be made public. For Garabedian to say that one of Gellert’s primary reasons for doing the things he did was not to get out of his brother’s shadows shows, quite simply, that Garabedian simply did not have access to the family and acquaintances who, to a person, related how inferior Larry felt his whole life and how he took every opportunity for self-aggrandizement.

    Garabedian may not have actually used the word “anticapitalist” but he certainly danced around the term by saying that Gellert’s material was “explicit black disaffection, rage and rebellion with regard to white racial oppression and capitalist exploitation.” (pp 193-194 of his work)

    Also, I never said that even the songs Gellert did not fabricate did not employ a sense of identity, and perhaps even protest. As any contemporary blues scholar knows Black music came from and often expresses dissatisfaction. But I do maintain, and not in a derogatory way, that Garabedian’s work is revisionist apologetics for the failure of much 1960s blues scholarship to identify and accept the political element of the music and culture. He swings the political pendulum too far to the left, especially since there is concrete proof that Gellert did fabricate his more political pieces.
    And it still fascinates me that Garebedian, in his article and dissertation, never once cited the admonition of the great scholar Lawrence Levine that:
    “There has been an unfortunate if understandable tendency in our political age to conceive of protest in almost exclusively political and institutional terms. This group consciousness and a firm sense of the self have been confused with political consciousness… To state that black song constituted a form of black protest and resistance does not mean that it led to, or even called for, any tangible or specific actions… but rather (was a way)Negroes… could assert their own individuality, aspirations, and sense of being.”

    But what is most important, and what Garabedian does not mention in his criticism, is one of the main points I try to make in my book: the VAST majority of songs Gellert collected had nothing to do with his kind of protest. They were traditional blues, spirituals, and folk songs, and it is this great mass of folk song and folk LORE (stories, proverbs, sayings, vernacular speech) that makes Gellert’s collection so important – not the few protest songs, fabricated or not.

    I wish Garabedian luck with his work, although without access to his brothers and the others who knew Larry best, I don’t know how he can complete a thorough document.

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