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Gustavus Stadler

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American studies at Haverford College. He writes about race, sexuality, popular music, sound, audio technology, and literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 2010 to 2013, he co-edited The Journal of Popular Music Studies with Karen Tongson. He is currently writing a book titled Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

“Queer People’s Songs”
On December 31, 1945, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other luminaries of the New York protest music scene founded People’s Songs, an organization designed to publicize “songs of labor and the American people” by disseminating information, organizing concert appearances, and promoting communication among leftist musicians. A few months later, a Los Angeles chapter was founded by longtime labor activist Harry Hay, who would in a few years found the Mattachine Society, the first major group to advocate for the minority rights of homosexuals. Hay, whose ex-lover Will Geer was one of Guthrie’s closest friends, became known as the “theoretician of People’s Songs.”

This paper looks at the convergences between Hay’s political development and Guthrie’s. In particular, I examine how a post-Kinseyan politicization of deviant bodies developed in Guthrie’s music at the same time as Hay (over the objections of Geer, who denied any connection between sexuality and identity) was beginning to gather the Mattachines. With attention to Guthrie’s chronic illness, I discuss the ways that folk music both supported and resisted the growing momentum with which a minoritarian discourse was attaching to bodies marked as abnormal. I argue that even as People’s Songs served as an old left incubator for the idea of an identity-based “voice” in new left politics, strains in the music—in vocal style, lyrical content, and rhythmic structure—also resisted the condensation of gender and sexuality into singular, comprehensive identities: a startling manifestation of what has come to be called queer temporality. In other words, the energy of People’s Songs drew in part from the fact that the place Greil Marcus called the "Old, Weird America" is a queer one. Its songs dissipate boundaries separating male and female, kin and non-kin, erotic desire and familial love. In this moment and milieu, I argue, we see an early, formative stage of the debate over minoritizing and universalizing politics that remains central to arguments within the US left.

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