November 7, 2002, Episode Twenty-Four:  I've Got a Story

Stories and songs provide us comfort and spur us to action.  Telling tales either through words or music both reinforces culture and changes it.  During the 1950s and 60s, the United States government, through the McCarran Act of 1950 and committees in both the House and the Senate, lead the American people in a paranoid witch hunt for members of the American Communist Party.  The mere accusation of being a communist could lead to the end of livelihood and freedom.  

Nancy Hood grew up under this cloud of suspicion and stigmatization. She was what came to be known as a "Red Diaper Baby."  She has decided to tell her story in a 75 minute presentation of music and pictures that she calls "I've Got a Song."  She has put together a short sample of that presentation and allowed us to listen to the audio portion on our show.

We talked with Nancy Hood about her childhood experiences.  We also discussed why her story is an important one to tell in this time and this place.


Arthur Miller's play The Crucible forever set the metaphor for the McCarthy era as the Salem witch hunts. Like the 17th Century oppression of women accused of devil-worship and witchcraft, proof by accusation and association, the abandonment of the assumption of innocence and demand for special exemption from judicial procedure characterize the Red Scare of the mid-20th Century United States.

With the formulation of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and the passing in 1950 of the McCarran Act, communists living in the United States became the target of a witch hunt. A sizable number of people had been and were continuing to be members of the Communist Party in the United States as a result of the Great Depression of the 1930s. These working class families and left-winged intellectuals saw the darker side of capitalism in the collapse of prosperity throughout the western world. The religious right often co-opts the idea of family and children in popular press, so what often got lost in this witch hunt is the fact that thousands of children were living under the threat of their parents being arrested, jailed and executed. Nothing drove this home more for the communist community than the 1953 execution of the Rosenbergs, a husband and wife who were convicted of treason and put to death, leaving behind a family and a community.

Nancy Hood was one of these "Red Diaper Babies." Growing up in Massachusetts, her father, Otis Hood, was an active leader in the American Communist Party. The decision by her parents not to go underground made her life difficult throughout the 1950s and 60s, long after many people thought the red scare had passed. It was actually 1975 before the House on Un-American Activities Committee was finally dissolved, though by that time it was called the "Internal Security Committee" and it was illegal to be a member of the communist party until the mid-1960s.

Several movies and books have been made telling the stories of Red Diaper Babies. Nancy Hood's presentation, "I've Got a Song," connects her personal story to the music of that time, music that was sung by American Communists and leftist activists. As a performer whose love for music was grounded in the use of music during her trying childhood, Hood has created what she calls "A Living History of the McCarthy Era."

Music and storytelling are powerful ways not only to record history, but also to connect people and move them to social action. On today's show, we are going to talk about the role of music and story in creating social change. We will also share a sample of Nancy Hood's story and talk with her about why she has decided to tell her story at this time and in this way.

[Insert scene from The Crucible]


Quote, From the time the American Communist Party emerged in 1919 until it began to fall apart in the late 1940s, an estimated one million Americans - immigrant workers and university intellectuals alike - were communists. And although the causes they stood for, fought for, and in many cases, went to jail for would hardly raise an eyebrow in today's liberated society, in their time these people were considered radicals, vanguard of a new society. They believed in a better life for the working class. They were among the first Americans to perceive the fascist threat of Hitler's Germany. But as anti-communist hysteria swept the country following World War II, people in the communist movement found themselves either denying their principles or defending them before various state and federal committees. They lost their friends, jobs, and sometimes even their freedom, close quote. -- Boston Globe, Mary Thornton, April 30, 1977.


The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established in 1937 and originally investigated groups on both the left and the right. Martin Dies, the first chairman of HUAC, had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, however, and it was not long before right-winged radical groups were ignored in favour of investigations of the American Communist Party and other left-winged organizations. After World War II, HUAC went after Hollywood. In 1947, 41 people were interviewed. These "friendly witnesses" produced a list of 10 Hollywood playwrights and producers who were subpoena but refused to answer questions in front of the committee, evoking their 5th amendment rights. The Hollywood 10 as they were eventually known, were cited in contempt of congress and served between six and twelve months in prison each. Another group of Hollywood producers, fearing they would be arrested and imprisoned, began naming names for the committee. Over 320 people were eventually put on a list of "known" communists and were blacklisted from work.

Hollywood would not be the only target of HUAC. During the early 1950s, the committee's power grew and the red scare went into full swing. The Soviet's acquisition of the hydrogen bomb and the Korean War fuelled a frenzy of fear. The enactment of the Anti-Communist bill, called the McCarran Act, in 1950, made life impossible for the American Communist Party. The bill essentially outlawed the party and then required members to register with the government. Not registering meant being fined. Registering meant being harassed by the government and was tantamount to an admission of treason.

This era is often called the McCarthy era, but Joe came rather late to the witch hunt. In 1953, McCarthy became chair of the newly created Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. His tenure only lasted about 18 months as he crashed and burned with the subcommittee's investigation of the Army. By going after the military, McCarthy provoked Eisenhower into calling for a halt of the investigations. McCarthy didn't have the power to fight Eisenhower, and the committee stopped its most daring witch hunts.

What isn't talked about often in popular histories is that HUAC continued its work on into the 1970s and that Red squads in local police departments in such major cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Boston continued to arrest and harass members or suspected members of the party. The FBI conducted wiretaps, conducted illegal searches and surveillances, blackmailed witnesses, ruined reputations and imprisoned members or suspected members of the party well into the 1960s. By focusing on McCarthy, much of the tone and tenure of the time was lost.


That tone and tenure is beginning to be recovered by the children who grew up in the midst of the witch hunt. So-called "Red Diaper Babies," many of these children went on to be activists in their own right. They often led anti-war and civil rights protests in the 1960s and 70s. In 1998, Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro edited a volume called "Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left." Nearly 50 adult children of the Red Scare shared their stories and memories of the era, including much of the difficulties of being tagged as a "dirty communist." In 1992, Eric Stange produced a documentary about the stories of five Red Diaper Babies. Folk musicians such as Pete Seeger have kept the music from The People's Songbook (first published in 1947) alive through concerts, albums and now CDs. The written word, the spoken word and the song have recorded the history of the Red Scare through the eyes of the children who were affected most directly by the witch hunts.

Telling stories is a powerful recording of history in virtually every human culture. The personal story not only clues the listener into the teller's inner world, but it also connects the teller to the listener to the extent that the story resonates with the listener's experiences. The story of the Red Diaper Babies isn't just a story of political persecution, it is a story of stigmatization and oppression. It is a story of mourning the loss of security and freedom and the consequences of being the victim of such witch hunts.

There are many reasons we tell such personal stories. Confessions are said to be good for the soul, and many tell their personal stories in order to be healed, to find peace and affirmation. Others tell their stories altruistically to provide their audience with confirmation and affirmation that we are not alone. We share a history and an emotional bond of suffering. Stories preserve culture. Stories change culture. Stories remind us what worked in the past and what hurt in the past.

Songs ritualize stories, making them easy to recite and allowing others to share in the telling by singing along. Such ceremonial recitations keep the stories alive and solidify their meanings and tellings.

Arthur Miller told the story of the Red Scare by evoking the story of the 17th century Salem witch hunt. Today we will listen to Nancy Hood's story of the Red Scare. She evokes not only her own confessional history, but also the rituals of songs that others from that era can remember and recite with her. She also provides a history that will be tied up with her own.


We are reminded of Leslie Marmon Silko's description of Ceremony in the book titled such:


I will tell you something about stories, 
[he said] 
They aren't just entertainment. 
Don't be fooled. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death.

You don't have anything 
if you don't have the stories.

Their evil is mighty 
but it can't stand up to our stories 
Let the stories be confused or forgotten 
They would like that 
They would be happy 
because we would be defenseless then.

He rubbed his belly. 
I keep them here 
[he said] 
Here, put your hand on it 
see, it is moving. 
There is life here 
for the people.

And the in the belly of this story 
the rituals and the ceremony 
are still growing.


What she said: 

The only cure I know 
is a good ceremony, 
that's what she said.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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