Folk advocate Silber dies at 84 By William Grimes / New York Times News Service

Irwin Silber, a founder and the longtime editor of the folk-music magazine Sing Out!, died Wednesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 84.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Frederic said.

Silber was one of the prime movers behind the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and, on a famous occasion, treated Bob Dylan to a public scolding for abandoning his political songs.

Silber, an ardent leftist, found common cause with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and others who regarded folk music as a form of political protest and a way of affirming the dignity of working people. In 1946, with other supporters, they founded People’s Songs Inc., which published a bulletin “to create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people.” Silber became its executive secretary in 1947.

After People’s Songs went under in 1949, having exhausted its meager funds on Henry Wallace’s failed 1948 presidential campaign, Silber, Seeger and others founded Sing Out!

Silber assumed the title of editor within a few issues and continued in that post until 1967, steering the magazine through a heady period in which a growing audience embraced Southern blues singers, guitar and banjo pickers from the Appalachians and a new generation of young protest singers like Joan Baez and Dylan.

Under Silber, the magazine printed, for the first time, “Sixteen Tons,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Bells of Rhymney” and “Cotton Fields.”

Silber, who wrote a monthly column called “Fan the Flames,” kept the pages lively. In an open letter to Dylan in November 1964, he accused him of becoming a sellout more interested in his own image and the entourage around him than in his audiences.

“I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people,” he wrote, referring to that year’s Newport Folk Festival. “It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way.”

Dylan was not amused. Silber is often proposed as a possible target of the Dylan song “Positively Fourth Street.” One line in that song goes: “You say I let you down. You know it’s not like that./If you’re so hurt, why then don’t you show it?”

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Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 10:32 AM  Leave a Comment  

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