Frank Sinatra died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 82. This morning one of Time Magazine's music critics was explaining the significance of Sinatra to talk radio's Don Imus. Sinatra had two sides, it seems. He was the good Sinatra who sang lovely ballads and acted in movies when his singing career went downhill. And then there was the bad Sinatra who lashed out at challenges to establishment values, including that of Sinead O'Connor when she tore up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live. While it is true that Sinatra functioned somewhat like John Wayne in his later years, there is another side to Sinatra that was totally ignored by the Time critic. That was his involvement with the Communist Party in the 1940s.
Many people are already aware that one of Sinatra's big hits in the 1940s was "The House I Live In." If you listen to the song today, it seems nothing more than a bland call for racial unity. In the 1940s, it was much more daring, even more daring than tearing up a picture of the pope on TV. After all, Jim Crow was a fact of life.
In fact it was a Communist who composed "The House I Live In," namely Earl Robinson. Robinson also wrote "Ballad for Americans," a Paul Robeson standard. Paul Robeson, Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were the standard-bearers of popular front culture in this period, which was marked by a populist belief in racial unity and economic justice. "The House I Live In" was included in a ten-minute short film promoting racial tolerance that was shown in movie theaters across America during WWII. Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, wrote the screenplay and Sinatra sang, and later recorded, the title song.
How did Sinatra find himself in this situation? As it turns out, Maltz and Sinatra were good friends. Jo-Carrol Silvers, a friend of Sinatra's in these years, told Kitty Kelly ("His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra") that "both Frank and I were fairly close to the Communist Party line at that time. Neither of us was a card-carrying member, of course, but were both close to people like Albert Maltz who were, and we shared their beliefs for the most part."
While Sinatra was not a party member, he worked closely with the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), a prototypical popular front formation. A prominent member of this group was band-leader Artie Shaw, who supported various left-wing peace groups and civil rights initiatives, including the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
What motivated the powerful and wealthy Sinatra to get involved with these causes was his hatred for racism of any sort. In particular, he was extremely sensitive to anti-Italian bigotry. If he heard references to "dagos," he would become both extremely angry and hurt. He often spoke out against anti-Italian stereotyping. It was quite natural for someone with these sorts of sensitivities to align himself with the most organized anti-racist forces in America, those led by the Communists.
Sinatra's shift to the right mapped to the shift of American society as a whole. Before finding himself in Reagan's seamy court, Sinatra was a solid liberal. The transition from Communist Party to the Democratic Party to the Reagan counter-revolution is not surprising since it essentially reflects the ineluctable movement to the right by big capital itself. As tribute is paid to the deceased pop singer, it is important for people like us to not lose track of who Sinatra was at an earlier time in his life. He was one of us.
(Sinatra's left-wing past is documented in Michael Denning's indispensable "The Cultural Front")