Michael Denning. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York, N.Y: Verso, 1996)
In Making a New Deal, Liz Cohen devotes her largest chapter to convincingly arguing that working-class Chicagoans maintained ethnic ties in an era of 1920s mass culture. When those ethnic institutions dissolved in the Great Depression, she writes that “experiences workers sharedgoing to the movies, shopping at chain stores, or tuning into the radio tied them tighter to each other than when they had lived in more insular cultural communities.”
However, placed alongside her chapter which argued that the working class were strictly divided along ethnic lines, her section on their sudden unification is somewhat unconvincing.
In a review of Making a New Deal in the Journal of Economic History, Gerald Friedman writes that "Are we to believe that cultural differences [between workers] were important enough to prevent workers from joining together to advance their common economic interests, but a few years of eating Spam and listening to big bands were enough to make them into a cohesive working class?” Likewise, John Harris Howell in Economic History Review: "Cohen is more persuaded than I am that the comparatively enthusiastic response of Chicago's working class to collective action through unions and in city and national politics in the 1930s is a direct result of the processes of acculturation affecting second-generation ethnics after the end of mass immigration in the 1920s.” Finally, Richard Stott writes in the American Studies International "By weakening ethnic parochialism, mass culture unified the working class, setting the stage for the New Deal and the CIO. The emphasis on popular culture is perhaps the most original feature of the book. However, it is not entirely convincing. Cohen shows that there was a correspondence between what was happening in the cultural realm and what was happening in politics and in the workplace, but she does not really demonstrate that a homogeneous mass culture was a cause or precondition for workers' support of the New Deal.”
Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century helps bolster Cohen’s argument and provides some answers to the three reviewers’ concerns. Denning argues that the Popular Front – which he considers an insurgent social movement built from the CIO, anti-fascists expressing solidarity with Spain, Ethiopia, China, and German refugees, Communists, and New Deal leftists – created a cultural front that continued to inform and influence the next several generations. Its influence opened dominant culture to the experiences and ideals of working class Americans – what he calls the “laboring of American culture.”
The phrase refers to the pervasive use of labor and its synonyms in the rhetoric of the 1930s (he calls the 1930s-1950s "the era of the CIO"). He also argues that a “proletarianization” of American culture occurred, which increased the visibility, and ultimate unionization of, working-class Americans in the world of culture and the arts since many of the workers in the entertainment field – writers, artists, composers, actors, critics – came from laboring class backgrounds. Examples include the “Hollywood Popular Front” which drove to unionize the film’s industry crafts in 1945 and 1946 and the failed attempts of live theater musicians in the American Musicians Federation in 1936 to resist recorded technology rendering them obsolete (Robin Kelley’s “Without a Song, New York Musicians Strike Out against Technology” in Howard Zinn’s Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).
He takes issue with the standard “core-periphery model” for understanding the Popular Front. Historians tend to understand the “core” of the thirties as revolving around the Communist Party and the periphery as those who did not carry membership cards. In Denning’s view, this leads to a remarkably inadequate understanding of the depth and breadth of the social movement. Instead, he writes about the Communist-driven 1931 campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine case, and A. Phillip Randolph's unionized Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925), and Adam Clayton Powell’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and successful campaign on the American Labor Party ticket as contributors to the Popular Front. Circulating within this Popular Front were the members of the “cultural” front, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and a young Richard Wright.
He describes that cultural actors participated in the Popular Front in two ways: by association between artists and Popular Front political events (what Denning calls “ cultural politics”) and by progressive “formal elements” of the artistic production themselves (“aesthetic ideologies”). These aesthetic ideologies were not, “middlebrow aesthetics” that were the “apogee” of an easy-listening music that made the Popular Front the “vanguard of commercial culture” as New Left critics in the 1960s denounced. Rather, these aesthetics led to a laboring of American culture. In an example of both cultural politics and aesthetic ideologies occurring at the same time, he cites the 1937 debut of Pins and Needles, a musical revue that ran for three years on became the longest running musical in Broadway history. Sponsored International Ladies Garment Workers Union and performed garment workers, it succeeded because of its sharp satirical targeted radical theater types as well as the wealthy and reactionary, because of its effective portrayal of working-class romance. Another example of both: In 1941 Duke Ellington debuted Jump for Joy with an all black musical cast, using the “Negro musical idiom” in the theater in a way not even George Gershwin did in Porgy and Bess. According to Denning, Jump for Joy’s “aesthetic ideologies” borrowed the political satire of Pins and Needles in order to “take Uncle Tom out of the theatre” and “eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway.” Examples of Ellington’s cultural politics appeared during the fall and summer of 1941 when Ellington appeared at a fundraiser for the Hollywood chapter of the Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade and a dinner to aid anti-fascist refugees. He also lent his name to the cultural front’s Hollywood Democratic Committee and performed parts of Jump for Joy on NBC’s “Salute to Labor” broadcast.
Jazz artists in general speared the musical cultural front. Denning argues that the music of the Popular Front was not folk of Woody Guthrie, Huddle Ledbetter, and Pete Seeger. Rather, young factory and office workers in the 1930s listened to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Carnegie Hall concerts sponsored by the Musicians’ Committee for Spanish Democracy in 1937 and ’38 featured Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Goodman, and Jamie Lunceford. Teddy Wilson led a campaign to elect serviceman Benjamin Davis to New York City Council in 1943. When an anti-communist purge arrested Davis, Charlie Parker played at a “Free Ben Davis” birthday dinner while Dizzy Gillespie played at Communist dances all over Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan.
Barney Josepheson’s Café Society provided a left-leaning headquarters for many of these jazz musicians. In 1938, Josepheson created Café Society to mimic the cabarets of Paris, Zurich, Vienna, and Weimar Berlin, who featured small impromptu stages alternated avant-garde theatrical experiments with satirical songs and monologues. and Café Society’s first bookings included left-wing comedians like Jack Gilford, Jimmy Sao, and Carol Channing alternating with singers such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, and Teddy Wilson.
Songs such as “Strange Fruit” provided the “aesthetic ideology’ of the Popular Front. In “Strange Fruit,” Holiday (and writer Abel Meeropol) mix the satire Popular Front cabaret songs with a brutally realist depiction of Southern lynchings. Café Society also featured Josh White, a Piedmont blues artist who brought African-American vernacular music to the stage and often blurred the lines between folk, gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and Broadway musicals.
Denning convincingly argues that the “cultural front” pervaded beyond the 1930s. In “Monk Meets SNCC” by Ingrid Monson (Black Music Research Journal, Volume 19 #2, 1999), Monson provides examples of Thelonious Monk’s “cultural politics.” She shows the numerous benefit concerts Monk played at during the 1950s and 1960s in order to argue that, although his music might not contain any “aesthetic ideology,” Monk firmly aligned himself with the Civil Rights Movement. By the time she writes, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa, she provides extensive examples of jazz’s “aesthetic ideology,” such as Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite (1960).
In another case study that demonstrates the continuities of the “cultural front,” Judith E. Smith’s Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist Public Radical (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014) traces Belafonte’s burgeoning New York acting career in the the world of the American Negro Theater (ANT) and the Dramatic Workshop. His early years in New York (1927-1948) introduced him to the works of Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, Sholem Aleichem, and Sean O’Casey, as well as the acting, activism, and mentorship of other actors such as Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando. Belafonte’s early career contained both the cultural politics and aesthetic ideologies. By performing early American folk and work tunes, songs from Israel, Afro-Brazilian numbers, sea chanteys, Calypsos, and tunes from the British Isles, he demonstrated a “cultural of unity” that the Popular Front strove hard to achieve and was best demonstrated at Café Society.
As he argues, this “cultural front” has always persisted. He cites Stuart Hall who writes “social forces which lose out in any particular historical period do not thereby disappear from the terrain of struggle.” However, as the Hall quote states, Denning nevertheless believes the cultural front and popular front “failed.” He cites Frederic Jameson (himself citing Walter Benjamin) who writes that “history progresses by failure rather than by success.” Ultimately, Denning argues the Popular Front failed due to extraordinary wartime migration of black and white southerners to the defense plants of the North and West. This largest internal migration in US history “remade the American working class” and changed the CIO membership “irrevocably.” In short, the cultural front failed to adapt to Southern migrants. The left never had the impact on the new working-class musics such as country, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly to the same extent it had on swing and jazz. Because of these large failures (especially after Republicans regained federal power after World War II and the threat of McCarthyism: See Nikhil Pal Singhs’ Chapter 3, “Americanizing the Negro” in Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.), Denning argues that “the failure of the laboring of American culture remains our starting point.”