My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Into the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, by Alix Dobkin, $16.95; Alyson Books; 275 pages
The subtitle of singer/songwriter/activist Alix Dobkin's new memoir just about says it all. But this book is not about her post coming-out life in lesbian music, but rather of her growing up with Communist parents and relatives ( the "red" in red blood ) , becoming a Communist herself before sliding out of that life into the folk music world, having a child with her husband, and then coming out as a lesbian and feminist.
That lesbian-feminist world, which has been filled with many controversies because Dobkin took a hard line on separatism, is only touched upon in the book's final pages. This is a look at a Jewish leftie learning and loving in New York and Philadelphia, with a brief Midwestern stint. She met famed Communists like singer Paul Robeson, and later was part of the emerging folk scene populated by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and many more. She traveled to Mississippi to work for Black voting rights. Dobkin was not a folkie Forrest Gump, but she was in the right place at the right time to be part of several of the last century's critical movements.
Here is one passage from My Red Blood: "We gathered [ in Mississippi ] in dim churches and bright community centers, listened to eloquent speeches and plainspoken testimonies. Occasionally we crossed paths with others, like … the Freedom Singers with Bernice Johnson [ later Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock ] . So impressed was Bob Dylan when he first heard her sing that, when he returned to New York, he informed me that rather than his 'favorite female singer,' I was now his 'favorite white female singer.'"
Most people who would look back on the early decades of their life would be hard-pressed to remember small and even some significant details. Fortunately for Dobkin, the FBI assisted. Because of Communist fears, the FBI kept detailed records of Dobkin's family, and later Dobkin herself when she joined the Party. When Dobkin retrieved her much-blacked-out records from the FBI years later, it helped to jog her memory of the details of her young life.
The love Dobkin had for her family and her friends is especially clear in these pages. There is tremendous minutia recalling her early schooling and travels. It feels in some ways like a time capsule, or an anthropological excursion into a very unique time and place, the East Coast of the U.S. during the pre- and post-World War II years of fear and fanaticism, freedom, folk and fun.
When Dobkin drops the names of famous people, it does not feel as if this is some celebrity tell-all. In fact, don't expect gossip on these famous singers. Rather, we see them as simply humans, mostly on their way up the ladder and trying to stay true to their art. Some met tragic endings due to drugs, while others made it big. It's also a closer look at the "before" life of one of the lesbian community's most long-standing musicians, and therefore provides some details behind this controversial singer's non-lesbian life.
It's really a treat to hear first-hand about New York's Village in the early days of the hippie movement, and how Dobkin navigated the sexism of the 1950s and 1960s before she even had a name for it. The consciousness-raising movement was her saving grace, but she doesn't show regret about her previous life, instead seeing it just as part of the journey. In fact, it is fascinating to see how she often hated the idea of lesbians and she was full of mistaken stereotypes of what that life would be for her if she followed that path ( she had been with some women, but mostly men ) .
Dobkin's book ends just as she starts to make her mark in the lesbian community. Her Lavender Jane Loves Women was the first lesbian album made all by women, in 1973. Dobkin was 33 years old, and ready to expand her horizons.
I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the anti-Communist witch hunts in the U.S., about the early years of East Coast folk music, and the start of the women's movement. It's very detailed, and provides one woman's take on important events of the past century.
NOTE: The seeds of some of the passages in My Red Blood were first published in column form in Outlines newspaper in Chicago, and later in Windy City Times after Outlines purchased WCT. I first met Dobkin during one of her Illinois concerts in the 1990s. She mentioned she was working on a memoir, and I suggested we publish excerpts as she was working on her book draft. The column, Minstrel Blood, ran for several years. Chicago lesbians were familiar with Dobkin from her almost-annual summer shows at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse. She will return to Chicago April 17 for a program at Women & Children First Bookstore.