“Was Pete political? Of course,” wrote singer Tom Paxton in a featured Washington Post salute to folk legend Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94.“He was political as Walt Whitman was political, as Clarence Darrow and Woody Guthrie were political; as, for that matter, all of us should be political. He felt that ordinary people deserved protection from bullies of all stripes and his was the gift of being able to express this belief in music and in the way he lived his life.”
Reading Paxton’s dewy-eyed remembrance and the formal obituaries and tributes from most of the news media, one would never suspect that Pete’s belief in protection against all bullies didn’t stop him from being a fervent supporter of and an apologist for one of the worst bullies in human history, Josef Stalin, and not just momentarily, but for most of Seeger’s life. The fact that supposed news organizations nearly unanimously decided to gloss over that element of Seeger’s legacy tells us a lot about the Left, our journalists, bias….but not a lot about Pete Seeger.
If I followed my heart and my tapping foot but not my brain (and if all I knew about Pete was what I read in the newspapers and read from my theater colleagues on Facebook—“And only in our Orwellian reality would someone of such incomparable achievement, one who displayed such overwhelming humanity, have been held in contempt of congress. An inspiring life,” wrote one, who should know better), I would have made Seeger an Ethics Hero Emeritus. He had some notable heroic moments, as when he stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to take the Fifth Amendment while defying the Committee in defense of the First, and getting himself cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted as a result. I was thrilled and proud of him in 1968, when fresh off the blacklist he appeared on the Smothers Brothers show and sang his “Big Muddy” song (which you can watch above) with anger and passion, condemning the Vietnam war in metaphor and calling LBJ a fool on national television at a time when such a direct insult against the President was taboo. I didn’t even completely agree with Seeger at the time, but this was brave protest art at its finest and most effective.
If only the hypocrisy of continuing to support a system of government and a regime that tolerated no freedom of speech and that would have squashed a protester like Seeger as if he were a maggot had occurred to the folk singer while he was doing these things. But it did not. Folk singers tend to be like that, and Pete Seeger, one of the greatest folk singers, was more like that than any of them.
To a point, that’s fine, especially if nobody tries to deceive us, and the historical record, by claiming otherwise. He was an artist and a performer, and if you choose your artists and performers according to their ethics, values, personal lives, and political beliefs, you are going be applauding a lot of crap, and missing most of the good stuff. Seeger, either through his composing, adapting or his musicology, is responsible for at least four bona fide classics: “We Shall Overcome,” a once forgotten anthemic hymn; “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, which he grew from an old Russian poem, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “The Hammer Song” (“If I had a hammer…”), which created an exultant image of Communism finally taking root in the U.S.A., with the hammer (without the sickle) ringing out “justice” on the Liberty Bell. These are great songs all, given to all of us by Seeger just as Wagner gave us great operas and Frank Sinatra left us his versions of “That’s Life!” and “The Summer Wind.” Nobody should or can take that away from him. He also entertained, both live and through his records, millions of people, most of whom never gave much thought to the songs he sang other than the fact that they were tuneful and viscerally exhilerating. He inspired and encouraged other fine artists as well: this is why Paxton is in his debt, and he should be.
But if you cruise the web, there are, fortunately, clear-eyed assessors from the Right, Left and Center who are not blind to the dark side of Seeger’s career, and have the integrity to be honest about it, even if most journalists abdicated their duty to whitewash a liberal icon. Here is Michael Moynihan, causing his progressive readers at the Daily Beast to grind their teeth:
“…let us not forget Seeger’s musical assaults on the supposedly warmongering F.D.R. (see the justly forgotten Ballad of October 16th), featured on a record presciently released on the very day the Nazi-Soviet Pact collapsed. As Moscow instantly shifted its position from fascist accommodationism to fighting what it had previously denounced as a war for big business, Seeger and his fellow folkies in the Almanac Singers recalled the record and retooled their allegiances. It was soon replaced by a series of pro-war, pro-F.D.R. songs. Art must be used in service of the people—and is always subject to the vicissitudes of the party line.
And few, if any, obituarists have mentioned the forgotten classic Hey Zhankoye, a bizarre bit of Stalinist agitprop Seeger translated from Yiddish, recorded with the Berry Sisters, and frequently revisited during subsequent live performances. Historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of Seeger’s, reminds us that as Stalin cranked up his brutal post-war anti-Semitic pogroms, he was singing of a collective farm (“paradise”) where Soviet Jews lived like kings:
There’s a little railroad depot known quite well
By all the people
Called Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzahn.
Now if you look for paradise
You’ll see it there before your eyes
Stop your search and go no further on
There we have a collective farm
All run by husky Jewish arms
At Zhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan
It’s no surprise that a man who believed the purge trials—during which approximately a million innocents were executed—were rough but necessary justice would also ignore the brutal, sustained, and widely-known campaign against Soviet Jewry.
Here is James Panero struggling with Seeger’s contradictions in the conservative New York Daily News:
“From world politics to the environment of New York State, the innocent idealism communicated through his songs would only be destroyed, I would argue, if we were to act on the positions he took in his lyrics. Seeger’s beliefs began with big-C Communism and ended in little-c communism. The fact that his music could be so inviting despite the many bad ideas that went into it speaks to the power of his artistry…Howard Husock wrote that, “Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.” This is true especially in the way Seeger could package leftist anthems as children’s songs. Husock does a line-by-line analysis of the political messages in Seeger’s lyrics. For example, “If I Had a Hammer,” Husock writes, “was an extraordinary anthem. It pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle.” Writing in the New York Sun in 2007, Ron Radosh, a one-time student of Seeger’s…struck a similar note: “He never pauses to criticize the communist regimes he once backed, nor the few that still exist, like Castro’s prison camp in Cuba. Mr. Seeger’s cries for peace and his opposition to every American foreign and military policy (even ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan) show that he has learned little from the past.”
Perhaps the best and most balanced of the critiques was in the left-leaning The New Republic, by Paul Berman.
“Have you ever heard a recording of Pete Seeger singing one of his anti-war hymns from the period, 1939 to 1941, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany? Pete Seeger in those performances sings in a lovely naïve tone, as always. His charming banter is childlike in its simplicity—his denunciations of the capitalist imperialists who might like to see America go to war foolishly against the Nazis…Pete Seeger’s anti-war performances from those years are revolting. He and his musical colleagues sang anti-war songs in 1939-41 because, in the Soviet Union, Stalin had decided that an alliance with the Nazis was a good idea; and the order to support Stalin had gone out to every Communist Party in the world; and Pete Seeger was, in those days, a good Communist. And so, he picked up his banjo and leaned into the microphone, and his vocal warblings and his banjo plunks were exactly what Stalin wanted to hear from Pete Seeger….I do not know if people will be singing “If I Had a Hammer” a hundred years from now, but they would be fools not to do so. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”—this is magnificent. Those songs, with their crowd-sourcing capacity, are tremendously moving. And yet, if you can persuade crowds of people that simple morality and a childlike vision of right and wrong can be summed up in a few phrases, there is nothing you cannot achieve, and some of what you might achieve could turn out to be disastrous in the extreme—e.g., Stalin’s idea of dividing up the world with Hitler… Let us sing “If I Had a Hammer,” then, and, at every third verse, let our hammers bop Pete Seeger on the head for having been a fool and an idiot; and, at every fourth verse, let us applaud him still more, and thrill to his virtuoso banjo riffs and his warbling tenor and his political ideals.”
Paxton ends his reverie in the Post by saying, “Oh how we’re going to miss him!” I agree with that. Seeger, like many great artists, was primitive and simplistic in his political views, and they led him astray despite some of the excellent and important causes—the labor movement, civil rights—that he used his art to advance. In one of his last interviews, there is old Pete, quoting Marx and admitting to being a communist still, but also communicating the essential decency of the man, which nobody has ever questioned. Pete Seeger left us some immortal music and inspiring ideals, and even if he was incapable of navigating the gray dilemmas of the real world, he had a productive and, on balance, a positive effect on civilization while he was with us. And I will always admire the performer and artist, rail thin and every inch a folksinger’s folksinger, standing on that studio stage in 1968 and telling the President of the United States that he was an idiot for letting our boys keep dying in Vietnam, even though I know that while he was doing it, he was probably admiring the politics of Ho Chi Minh, whose armies were killing them.
Artists don’t have to be perfect. They just have to make good art. Pete Seeger made great art, and I’ll miss him for that.