Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Heartland Radicals

My collaborator on this blog, Karen Grote Ferb, and I were recently reminiscing about the emergence of radical politics at Indiana University in the ‘60s, in particular the central role played by a young couple she knew personally. She sent me this remembrance of her friends and those times.

Bernella and William David Satterfield were among the founders of the Indiana University (IU) chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in spring of ’65. At first glance, they seem unlikely activists. Dave, aka ‘The Hawk’, born in Stoney Lonesome near Columbus IN, was a full scholarship student at Dartmouth, Class of 1962—English major, co-captain of the football team, and more. In the photo below, he is the epitome of clean-cut ‘50s youth.

Bernella’s 1960 freshman photo (above) from University of California-Berkeley predates the Free Speech Movement and the activism there of subsequent years. She looks the archetypal coed of the day wearing the requisite sweater and single strand of pearls. She and her brother Eric, both copiously talented artists—their father Bernard was a musician—attended the Sibelius Academy in Finland for a year. But she dropped out of UC after her freshman year and went to New York where she again ran into Dave whom she’d first met in San Francisco’s North Beach in ’60.

The two would soon have a child, born in ’61 in New Hampshire while Dave was finishing Dartmouth. The common denominator: music. Folk, blues, and bluegrass in particular; they played fiddle and guitar and sang, sang beautifully. The place: Greenwich Village, living with friends on ‘Positively 4th Street’, hanging on Bleecker and McDougal. Friends of Bob Dylan before he became famous in those freewheelin’ days at Kettle of Fish, CafĂ© Wha?, the Gaslight, the coffeehouses. Following the footsteps of the Beat Generation: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Now, below, they look more like activists: Bernella’s dark hair has grown long; Dave has a moustache.

Dave and Bernella Satterfield in ‘62

According to Bernella, Dave was “a gifted man and a brilliant singer.” He returned to Indiana, to IU in Bloomington, with Bernella and their daughter Cordelia to attend graduate school while Bernella pursued her music studies at the university. Dave wanted to be an English professor, but that wasn’t to be. Instead music, the tumultuous politics of the ‘60s, and the Vietnam War intervened. They soon became part of a core group of older, more experienced and serious, less conventional students accustomed to talking politics, literature, and philosophy.

Their priorities were not those of the average college student at the time. They were weaned on the Civil Rights Movement, on colonial wars of liberation, and Cold War nuclear fears as well as inner city and rural poverty and exploitation of workers. In Bernella’s own words, “most of us were ‘outsider’ types – we were beatniks, grad students, often older than the typical undergrad and some of us were from other parts of the country or the world ….we were the weirdoes, the bohemian fringe, the vanguard.” When they heard their old friend Bob Dylan’s demand for a better world in his iconic, confrontational Like a Rolling Stone in mid-‘65, they believed in actions that would revolutionize American culture and stop the war.

♫How does it feel? To be on your a rolling stone

Young protestor Cordelia, IU, March ‘65

It’s not surprising that this group of people began efforts to form the SDS chapter at IU. Spurred by President Johnson’s broken promises and escalation of the Vietnam War in February and March of ’65, around 15 of the core founding group held the first demonstration against the war in the state of Indiana. On April 17 members took part in the massive SDS march on the Washington Monument; the demonstrators presented Congress with a petition to the end the war in Vietnam just one month after the US sent the first combat troops there. That same spring they began holding weekly Friday afternoon forums in Dunn Meadow, a large grassy field on campus which the IU trustees had declared a Free Speech Zone following a pro-Cuban student march and violent counter-demonstration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62—but that’s another story.

Dunn Meadow, the Free Speech Zone, IU campus

The new chapter published its first newsletter in November of ‘65, opening with “until today your local SDS has been a raggle-taggle federation of radicals” that included Jim Wallihan, Robin Hunter, Lucia and Peter Montague the Grove brothers John and Bob, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet, et al. The group also took seriously SDS’ idealistic Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), taking on a project in a poverty pocket south of Bloomington where underpaid workers had neither running water nor buses to take their children to school.

The Satterfields and little Cordelia lived in a radical collective at 102 North Dunn Street, a stone’s throw from the IU campus. Their upstairs apartment was the scene of many gatherings, including regular visits from FBI agents Bernella thought were there to intimidate; but the group was undeterred in its belief the war was wrong. Some of the sessions were musical, some political, but all were interesting. I vividly remember hearing Bernella and a cousin perform a song in the living room by the father of bluegrass, their harmonius voices soaring a capella:

♫Mother’s not dead, she's only a sleeping
Yes mother is sleeping way back in the hills.*

Jeff Sharlet, one of the coterie that formed the IU SDS chapter, was part of the small, intimate group that held political discussions on leftist theory in the Satterfield living room. They were young, really fired up about politics, culture, and the war, and met frequently, often nightly. Bernella brought to the table quite a radical legacy from both sides of her family—her parents were Socialists, her grandfather a Russian anarchist, and an aunt was in the US Communist Party—as well as excitement over the possibilities, a classic ‘red diaper baby’. She thought Jeff, who by fall of ’65 was heading up the SDS chapter’s Dorm Education Project on the Vietnam War, was a strategic realist and tactical pragmatist, not a Marxist theoretician like Robin Hunter, who often led those “struggle sessions”. The group itself was more interested in the Port Huron Statement (the SDS founding document), Camus, and C. Wright Mills than in Marxist theories.

The Satterfields later split and went their separate ways. Sad to say, Dave, the musician, actor, writer, social theorist, and political leader, died in 2000 at age 59. Bernella, now Nell, still fiddling and singing, is an accomplished musician, journalist, and political activist working on progressive causes in Tennessee; in other words, still herself.

Jeff talked about her a lot, Bernella this or that, Bernella said. He had a lot of respect for her and took what she had to say to heart. He trusted her direction in things. She in turn saw Jeff, the only veteran in the group, as the voice of moral authority that was able to change activist hostility toward GIs to seeing them as victims of the system. When Dave Zeiger’s documentary Sir! No Sir!, co-dedicated to Jeff, was screened in Nashville, Nell spoke highly of Jeff; she had organized the film showing and discussion. As she wrote us recently, “It is thrilling to hear [that] you are spreading the word about Jeff's accomplishments. I am very pleased to have had the chance to share some part of my life with him.”

*Mother’s Only Sleeping by Bill Monroe


  1. My father was not a professional musician; he was a plumber for the city of San Francisco who played cello in an amateur orchestra. He was the doorman for the SF Opera House and the Actor's Studio, the leading repertoire company in the US at the time.

    I haven't seen that old photo of me at UC Berkeley in years. Even back then I was an aspiring beatnik which is why I dropped out of college and went to Greenwich Village where I met David on MacDougal Street. And the rest is history, as they say.

    I now run Tennessee Alliance for Progress and play in the Shelby Bottom String Band here in Nashville so, as you say, I am still doing my thing. Nell aka Bernella Levin

  2. There was a creative overlap between the "folk singers" and political activists (of course some people were both). I spent time at 102 N Dunn in the middle to late 60s arguing with Robin [Hunter] and David [Satterfield] and listening to music (just as a consumer not a producer). As a veteran outside agitator and a floater r I was in and out of Bloomington over the years, but 102 N. Dunn was always a refuge. Thanks for the word portrait and photos.

  3. You're welcome, Rick. Working on the IU posts is always an enjoyable nostalgia trip.

  4. I remember you well, Rick. You were an integral part of our little group of troublemakers.


  5. It is interesting to see this photo of me. Jeff says it was taken in March 1965. I would have been 4 years and 3 months old. The seeds of my political activism were planted early. Now I am a public health advocate and educator working to eliminate health inequities for mothers and children.

  6. It is interesting to see this photo of me. Robert says it was taken March 1965. I would have been 4 years 3 months old. The seeds of my political activism and social conscience were planted early. Now I am a public health educator and advocate working to eliminate social inequities in maternal, infant and child health.

  7. Anyone know what happened to Robin Hunter?

  8. Where is Robin Hunter, IU in mid-late 60s?

  9. Are you one of the IU New Left of the '60s? For more about Robin (still in Canada) and other New Left people from IU, please see our later series of posts about them following a reunion last August in Bloomington. Robin is profiled in the second, Lives of the New Left II.

  10. Dave was my boyfriend around 1957 and following. When he went to Dartmouth we wrote letters back and forth - I have those letters today - literary masterpieces! My friend Barb and I went out to Winter Carnival in 1958 or 59, maybe 1960 - can't recall. While we were there we went over to Vermont to hear and see Pete Seeger -wonderful! I was so sorry to hear of Dave's early death. I visited him when he was married to an opera singer - he credited her with "saving his life" - as I remember it that was saving him from alcoholism. Perhaps he began drinking again... he was brilliant and I remember him and our times with great fondness.

  11. Thanks for your comment, another piece of the big puzzle we are chronicling here now in place. I visited your FB page since you left that information, but since you commented as 'anonymous', I assumed you did not want me to publish your name. If you do want your name used, let me know.

    The opera singer Dave was married to is Celeste Ausman, by the way.


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