Irwin Silber, who became a key figure in the revival of folk music beginning in the 1950s as editor of the magazine Sing Out!, has died. He was 84.
Silber, who was also a producer and wrote and edited several books on music and other subjects, died Wednesday at an extended-care facility in Oakland, his stepdaughter Nina Menendez said. He had Alzheimer's disease.
Pete Seeger and others. It became an influential publication that covered 1950s stars such as Seeger and Woody Guthrie, then in the '60s included such upcoming artists as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many others. It also provided a political avenue for Silber, a longtime left-wing writer.
"He wanted to change the world for the better," said his wife, singer Barbara Dane. "His vision was global and historical."
Sing Out! "was the Life magazine of the folk revival," said Ed Pearl, a longtime friend and the founder and operator of the Ash Grove, a legendary music club in Los Angeles that operated from 1958 to 1973.
Author Mark Lane, who said he had known Silber almost all his life, said Sing Out! under Silber's leadership "changed the way America looked at folk songs. It was amazing and significant. That's American history and who we are, and they were talking about where we came from, who were are and what we believed in."
According to the magazine's website, such songs as "Sixteen Tons" and "Rock Island Line" were first published in Sing Out!
Silber was born Oct. 17, 1925, in New York and before he turned 18 had joined such groups as the American Student Union and Young Communist League. At Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1945, Silber formed the American Folksay Group, which mixed music and dancing with politics.
After college, he became executive director of People's Songs, an organization created by Seeger and others to promote the American labor movement's music.
"He became interested in folk music because of his interest in society and how music and culture worked together," Dane said.
The group fell apart financially after being heavily involved in the third-party presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948. Silber became editor of Sing Out! after a few issues. He also wrote a column.
The publication was named after "The Hammer Song," written by Seeger and Lee Hays. The third verse of the song, now known as "If I Had a Hammer," includes: "I'd sing out danger, I'd sing out a warning, I'd sing out love between all my brothers (and my sisters) all over this land."
In 1958, Silber was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A New York Times article said Silber, who was identified as a press agent for Avon Publications, refused to tell the committee if he had been a member of the Communist Party but told reporters he wasn't.
Lane, who said he had protested alongside Silber and his wife on several occasions, said Silber's politics "were costly to him in many ways. He had almost no income and he was marginalized."
In 1964, Silber criticized Dylan in Sing Out! for what he saw as a change in Dylan's musical direction, away from the politics of folk music. Silber later said he had come to accept Dylan's changes, and Dane said the incident was merely a small part of her husband's career.
"It wasn't important for him to say what the next popular trend was. He had this strong sense of what this music was really all about," said Mark Moss, current editor of Sing Out!.
Silber left the magazine in 1967.
In his later years, he focused on analyzing "the old Soviet-style communism and Maoism" to find "what would be serviceable to move our society forward," Dane said. He wrote "Socialism: What Went Wrong" in 1994. He also wrote for a time for the Guardian, a left-wing publication in New York. Silber and Dane also founded the Paredon recording label.
Silber's non-music work included "Press Box Red," the 2003 biography of Lester Rodney, who was a columnist and sports editor of the Daily Worker, the nation's largest communist newspaper.
Silber also edited "Songs of the Civil War" in 1960, "Songs of the Great American West" in 1967 and, with Fred Silber, "Folksinger's Wordbook."
In addition to his wife and stepdaughter, Silber is survived by children Nina Silber, Frederic Silber and Josh Silber; stepchildren Pablo Menendez and Jesse Cahn; two grandchildren; a step-grandchild; and two step-great-grandchildren.
Services are pending.