No publication chronicled the rise and fall of the popularity of folk music better than "Broadside." With an aim to "circulate as many songs as possible and get them out as quickly as possible," "Broadside" published almost every significant folk and topical song from 1962-88. Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger all first graced "Broadside's" pages. Part protest pamphlet, part underground tabloid and part songwriting magazine, "Broadside" teemed with the issues that defined those nearly 30 years, including civil rights, Vietnam, nuclear power, ethnic conflict and equal rights.
Smithsonian Folkways' excellent new box set "The Best of Broadside 1962-1988" provides an audio counterpart to "Broadside's" radical printed history. This five-CD, 89-song set contains some of this country's most vital protest songs, including "Blowin' in the Wind," "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "Hell No I Ain't Gonna Go." This box set is both beautiful and comprehensive and has the look and feel of an oversized spiral-bound notebook, with the CDs located in slits in the five section dividers. Besides several excellent essays on the formation of "Broadside," the set also contains dozens of archive photos, song histories and reproductions of many of the letters and pieces that originally appeared in "Broadside's" pages.
"Broadside's" radical spirit was an extension of its founders, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen. Friesen was an author who had been blacklisted in 1948 for being a communist. Cunningham was a musician and shared with Friesen an interest in music, a poor Oklahoma upbringing and a history of supporting socialist causes. "Broadside" began in 1962 out of their apartment in New York City as a crude collection of mimeographs stapled together that sold for 35 cents. But it soon gained underground credibility for publishing songs that were too controversial or cutting-edge to print in conservative magazines.
As a result, listening to these songs is like getting a lesson in American history. Besides the numerous songs addressing Vietnam and civil rights, "Broadside" also memorialized many small figures who may have otherwise been forgotten. Phil Ochs' "Ballad of Jim Worthy" tells of a CBS news journalist who was jailed in 1961 for defying travel bans to communist Cuba and China. One of Dylan's many songs in this collection, "The Ballad of Donald White," is about a Seattle convict who was released from prison because of overcrowding and then killed a man, unable to cope in the outside world.
Although most of the earlier songs are typical acoustic numbers, later cuts run the gamut of musical styles. Matthew Jones and Elaine Laron wrap the popular antiwar chant "Hell No We Won't Go" in a bit of Detroit soul, while the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick's "The Cities Are Burning" commemorates the Watts Riots in a bit of nasty Delta blues.
Yet after its rise in the late '50s and early '60s, folk music went underground again, never really coming back up. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, folk music not only lost an icon, but it heralded the rise of rock & roll as the voice of teen-age protest. Yet because of its idealistic allegiance to the folk scene, "Broadside" rarely published topical songs from "rock" artists, and so it lost some of its edge in the '70s and '80s. In 1988, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen published their last issue of "Broadside."
Today the spirit of "Broadside" lives on in the grass-roots folk of artists like Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg and the uncompromising ideals of bands like Rage Against the Machine. In fact, any musician who puts their ideals in their songs owes a small debt to this humble magazine and the artists who graced its pages.