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‘Historical materialism in ¾ time’

Published May 12, 2005 3:23 PM

Long before Harry Hay made his landmark contribution to a historical understanding of how sexuality and gender diversity evolved over the millennia, he honed his theoretical tools by delving into a deep and comprehensive study of Marxism—particularly the historical materialist view of the past patterns of changes in the organization of human society.

Hay carefully studied anthropology from a Marxist vantage point and applied and developed this knowledge in his teachings on the history of folk music.

“During his years in New York City, between 1939 and 1942,” observed editor Will Roscoe, “when he had access to the [Communist] Party’s library, he read the historical writings of Marx and Engels and took advanced classes in Marxist theory with the intention of becoming a Party educator.” (“Radically Gay”)

In addition, Hay turned to anthropological studies. Biographer Stuart Timmons noted, “Many Marx ists, particularly Europeans, published extensively in the fields of history and anthropology in the thirties and forties, and Harry read their books avidly.”(“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

As early as 1933, Hay found Robert Briffault’s “The Mothers,” which contrasted the important social role of females in ancient, cooperative societies to the oppression of women in class-divided societies.

By 1945, Hay was studying the findings of Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe. He also read the works of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray and Robert Graves. Hay remarked that he found the writings of the British Marxist scholar George Thomson, who wrote “Studies in Ancient Greek Society,” to be “an absolute eye-opener.” Hay was also influenced by British Marxist Christopher Caudwell. (Roscoe)

“Harry’s teaching put him in contact with information that later influenced his gay thinking,” noted Timmons. “While digging through books about the historical development of economics in Europe, he amassed data about pagan religion, the oppressive campaigns of Christianity, and roles seemingly assigned to gay men in certain former societies. (The latter subject was, of course, a secret study.) He rediscovered Edward Carpenter in ‘The Making of Man,’ by V.F. Calverton, an anthology of anthropological articles. Carpenter and Edward Westermarck discussed these roles.”

Hay also found information about sexuality/gender/sex diversity among Native nations in North America. The umbrella term “two-spirits” is the language chosen by many Native activists today to describe sex/gender/sexuality-variant people in their nations.

Roscoe, who has himself written extensively about two-spirit people, stressed, “[Hay] was particularly impressed by (and often cited) Ruth Benedict’s account of Two-Spirits in ‘Patterns of Culture.’ As Benedict relates, Two-Spirits enjoyed a reputation not only for excellence in crafts and domestic work, but in many tribes they were religious specialists as well.”

Hay: ‘Theoretician of People’s Songs’

While living in Manhattan, Hay became excitedly swept up in the left-wing folk music movement.

The impact of the African American struggle was so enormous that, Roscoe stated, “Leftist performers and folklorists began to collect and record Black spirituals, folk songs and jazz music. Because this culture had emerged from the chrysalis of a struggle against oppression, progressives argued that it was a valuable resource for present-day movements, as well.”

Roscoe added, “Hay dates his own interest in folk music to the summer of 1937, when he worked on his grandfather’s ranch in central California and helped organize a dance for local people where he heard a variety of traditional music. In 1940, while living in New York, he met Pete Seeger and followed his efforts to revive folk music. Five years later, after he had returned to Los Angeles, he attended an early ‘hootenanny’ organized by Earl Robinson, Ray Glazer and Bill Wolfe.”

Together with those three men, Hay established Los Angeles People’s Songs in early 1946, which later affiliated with Pete Seeger’s New York-based “People’s Songs, Inc.”—which had been set up to make folk music accessible for left-wing organizing campaigns and struggles.

That same year, the People’s Educational Center—which unionists and other progressives set up as part of adult education programs—asked People’s Songs to develop a music history class.

Hay enthusiastically took up the challenge. He began with a 10-lecture series, but it quickly expanded to 20.

By the fall of 1947, Timmons explained, “Harry had outlined and begun to teach his music class, ‘The Historical Development of Folk Music.’” In retrospect, Hay called it “a survey of historical materialism in three-quarter time.”

Historical materialism is the lens with which Marxists view stages of human economic development. Increasing efficiency of human labor in producing food, clothing, shelter and other necessities of survival lies at the root of changing social organization.

Hay’s research, Roscoe stated, armed him with the historical data and theoretical tools he would need to draw on less than a decade later in organizing the Mattachine movement—the first successful mass homosexual emancipation organization in the U.S.

Folk music: barometer of class struggle

According to progressive composer Earl Robinson, who wrote “Joe Hill” and “That’s America to Me,” Hay became “the theoretician of People’s Songs.”

In response to an e-mail query asking if the lectures are still preserved in any form, Timmons wrote back: “Unfortunately, Harry’s lecture series was never recorded in any form to my knowledge.”

All that exists is an outline, which is included in the book of Hay’s writings entitled “Radically Gay,” edited by Will Roscoe. (Hay and Roscoe, Beacon Press, 1996)

“Radically Gay” provides the following information.

In his lecture notes for Session 1 on Music and Survival, Hay wrote: “To all of history and to two-thirds of the world today, music is a language, an encyclopedia of patterns, a science—or organization. A method of communicating, organizing, educating, mobilizing in ways beyond the scope of language or static illustration.”

He added, “But it talked to you only because you knew its patterns and no matter where you encountered the pattern you recognized it.”

Hay looked at the inextricable relationship of music to group labor in early folk—or cooperative—societies.

“The vast majority of music that we know is the social production of the world’s people—and 90 percent of it was never written down,” he observed. “Yet the forms, the patterns, the melodic ingredients have been remembered and passed on, as we shall see, for at least 5,000 years. Why? Because they were used, were needed, were vital, were basic to survival.

“Most folk collectors find that folk singers can remember neither words nor tune without doing the ‘movement.’ Thus the form and pattern of the dance-song are the production-tools of the work required—and not products of the fun. And the people preserved these patterns as long as the work these patterns produced was necessary to the struggle of daily existence ....”

Roscoe stressed that while Hay was not the first Marxist musicologist, “Hay’s approach to the study of folk music was unique, however, in treating it as an example of dialectics in action—the same way Marxism viewed science, as a comprehensive system to knowledge and communication. Somewhat parallel to the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist who developed structural anthropology, Hay sought to derive the ‘message’ of folk music from an analysis of the musical form itself.”

As a Marxist, Hay studied the earliest and longest form of human economic organization: communal societies. He refers to them as “matriarchal” or “matriarchate.” Today these terms may conjure up the image of a society based on the television cult classic “Xena, Warrior Princess” or Amazons, hatchets in hand, ruling over men.

In reality communal societies are more precisely defined as matrilineal, meaning blood descent was traced through females as mothers, not males as fathers, and matrifocal, which means that the extended family lived in the collective household of the mother’s bloodline, not the father’s.

Struggle to defend communal life

Hay traced the resistance of collective farmers against attempts to turn them into serfs, forced to till the earth as laborers by the land-owning feudal class. Since the work and music of the folk farmers were tightly woven, Hay argued that the battle to retain folk ways—including rituals and music—was part of the struggle against the emerging threat of economic domination.

Roscoe explains, “In cultures without written records, Hay argues, music serves not only to preserve information, it provides the means of implementing knowledge as well, through songs and dance steps that organize work functions. For this reason, it was impossible for the folk to separate the tasks of planting and harvesting from the rituals that had always surrounded these acts. Consequently, European tribal villagers clung to their pre-Christian customs and cultural forms, including music, not only to preserve their social identities, but because these forms were indispensable to their modes of production.”

Hay also appeared to believe, as did Marxist Christopher Caudwell, that what are referred to as “magical beliefs” in pre-class societies were an early attempt to understand the patterns of nature and humankind’s relationship to it. In other words, they contained both supernatural beliefs and scientific knowledge about nature.

Hay believed the pre-class rituals and belief systems that survived into feudalism still reflected communal values. “Ritual and magic are usable only on a group level, and serve to promote unity, to maintain identity, and even to offer the collective security needed to continue the struggle for survival so long as the group maintains a daily drive to maintain integration between all of its components.”

Music of resistance

Hay traced the communal struggle to hold on to the old belief system and its rituals against feudal ruling-class religion, which sought to ideologically justify the enslavement of peasants and the brutal exploitation of their labor. In Europe, the demonizing of “pagans” and “witches” was in reality a bloody weapon against free farmers and rebellious serfs.

Roscoe noted, “In the context of feudalism and Christianization, these cultural forms took on an added dimension, becoming modes of political resistance and cultural survival as well.”

He described, “Hay often had participants do exercises, such as composing and singing their own rounds or developing variations on a ballad to demonstrate how cultural and political resistance could be communicated beyond the spoken word.”

Hay pointed out that folk songs can communicate beyond the lyrics alone. He stressed that the tune later known as “Bergen-op-Zoom” was used as an organizing tool in 1622 to unite the Dutch against an invading army from Spain. They had no common tongue with which to speak to each other because they had grown up in different regions with distinct languages.

Roscoe concluded, “They all had their own words for the song, but its rhythms were everywhere associated with the same dance steps, which included, at one point, the formation of a double file—exactly the organization needed to start the soldiers on their march to rescue the town of Bergen-op-Zoom from the Spaniards.

“The song was also used by the Dutch resistance during World War II.

“At Hay’s suggestion, the Mattachine organizers adopted it for their membership initiation ceremony.”

Next: ‘Bachelors for Wallace!’