Irwin Silber, Former Editor of Sing Out!, Dies at 84

Activist, editor of Sing Out! folk journal
Silber scolded Dylan for abandoning protest songs

By Christopher Morris

Irwin Silber, the musical activist and editor of folk journal Sing Out! who famously scolded Bob Dylan for abandoning overtly political songs, died Sept. 8 in Oakland, Calif.He was 84, and had been in failing health.

A committed leftist, Silber was involved in the 1945 formation of People’s Songs, a New York organization founded to “create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people.” Founders included Pete Seeger, his Weavers colleague Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie and folk bluesman Josh White.

The group’s magazine People’s Songs Bulletin morphed into Sing Out! in 1950. Silber edited the publication, which became the left-leaning house organ for the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, until 1977.

Silber, a former Communist Party member, was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958, but escaped prosecution.

After Dylan, viewed as the most prominent “protest singer” of the early ’60s, unveiled an impressionistic repertoire at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Silber chided the singer-songwriter in an open letter published in Sing Out! that November.

The editor attacked the new material as “all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self-conscious–maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion,” and added that Dylan had “somehow lost contact with people.” Silber later recanted his criticism in a 1968 piece for the Guardian.

In his 2004 memoir “Chronicles Volume 1,” Dylan wrote that he “couldn’t relate” to Silber’s criticism, comparing it to the heat Miles Davis took for his electric album “Bitches Brew.”

During the ’50s, Silber also worked with Moses Asch, who backed Sing Out! financially, at the prominent New York independent label Folkways. He edited songbooks for the label’s in-house book line Oak Publications.

In the ’70s, Silber and his wife, folk singer Barbara Dane, operated the activist indie label Paredon. The company’s 50-album catalog now resides in the Smithsonian Folkways collection.

Silber’s books included “Lift Every Voice” and “Folksinger’s Wordbook”

His survivors include Dane.

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1 Comment »

  1. Oliver Walls said

    Hi, I loved the old Sing Out magazine and learned a number of songs from it. Was never really aware of Irwin Silber as such but would just be one of many influenced by his work. Thanks.

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