Seeger

 

Peter has been characteristically charitable about the late Pete Seeger. I’m not so sure if I would be quite so kind.

Seeger was, above all, a musician, and a talented, inventive and highly influential one at that. That is how he should be remembered. Mostly. But, as this New York Times obituary notes, Seeger himself saw his music and his politics as inextricably intertwined, something that must bring us to his Stalinist past.

The Times alludes to this aspect of his career at various points, including this:

When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Mr. Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line….

That’s fine as far as it goes, and for anyone familiar with the history little more need be said, but perhaps the Times could have been a touch more specific. Seeger’s antiwar songs were a (supportive) response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the 1939 treaty that divided up much of Eastern Europe between the Third Reich and the USSR and, in effect, gave Hitler the green light to start World War II.

Seeger’s stance was not solely a question of principled pacifism (or, for that matter, isolationism), it was more of a matter, as the Times notes, of following the party line.  His man Stalin was pals with Hitler, so Hitler was to be left alone.  After Germany invaded the USSR, the Almanacs’ album was pulled. Turn, turn, turn. Later, When the US found itself at war with Germany, the band recorded the pro-war album Dear Mr. President

Seeger was to remain a man of the hard left for much of his life, only finally taking the trouble to formally distance himself from Uncle Joe many decades later. In the meantime, of course, he fell for other tyrants, not least “teacher” Uncle Ho. Simply opposing America’s involvement in the Vietnam war was not enough. Not for Pete Seeger.

And then there was this, reported by Michael Moynihan:

[F]ew, 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.

In an article for the Huffington Post written a few years back, Jesse Larner took aim at Seeger’s impact on folk music. It’s a fascinating piece, a must-read but, in its complaints about the way “that pretty, denatured coffee-house comforts… have little to do with the life that informed the originals” it misses the point that sometimes the ‘unauthentic’, the appropriation, can stand alongside the original, and both may have something to say. At its best, that was true of Seeger’s work.

But it is not only Seeger’s music that bugs Larner. Writing–please note–from a left-of-center perspective, he comments that both Seeger’s politics and his music reflected a “condescending sentimental reductionism that masked a fierce identification with power.”

And…

The sad and degrading fact is that Pete never really meant it, all that stuff about fighting for justice. Or, more accurately, never meant what he thought he meant. In reality, he was fighting for his own self-righteous conception of the moral, meaning that he knew what was best for you and me, and he admired those who didn’t flinch from enforcing it.

Quite.

And, given the chance, Seeger was capable of a bit of enforcement himself. Take the case of one Mr. Dylan:

Dylan was nobody’s spokesman, nobody’s pet “protest” singer, and he was singing about life, not about politics. At 22, he had the adoration of millions….He could have translated this into a particular kind of role. He wasn’t interested. When he got into the abstractions of Mr. Tambourine Man, and especially when he picked up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the folk establishment turned on him. Pete Seeger himself threatened to cut the power cables with an axe…

Zhdanov with a banjo…

And not so unrelatedly, in a broadly, if carefully, admiring piece over at the New Republic, Paul Berman notes:

[Seeger’s]  musical style was folk-primitive, with a decided tilt toward children and the grandeurs of sing-along mass participation; and the power of that style is too powerful for anyone’s good. You could suppose, listening to Pete Seeger perform, that only a fascist maniac could entertain opinions contrary to those of Pete Seeger. This is a dangerous thing to suppose.

So what to do? Well, art should not have to pass some sort of ideological litmus test.  I can enjoy Seeger’s music, at its best wonderful, in my view. Nevertheless, not forgetting what some of it was designed to inspire–sometimes for the good, sometimes not–is not only a matter of preserving historical memory, but, in Seeger’s case, of understanding his music better too.

That’s not a bad thing either way you look at it.  And if that’s uncomfortable, so be it. The past often is. 

There are 17 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @IsraelP

    In, I think, 1961, he was scheduled to sing at the YM&WHA in Pittsburgh and was cancelled because he was “a Commie.”

    There was a big hullabaloo in the Jewish paper and I think the general papers too. The cancellation stood.

    This was my first exposure to such issues.

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    @Foxman

    Pete Seeger is now a good commie.

    The only good commie is a dead commie.

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    @ManWiththeAxe

    The first time I heard Seeger sing it was on the folk music show “Hootenanny” sometime in the early 1960s.  The song was, “Little Boxes,” a criticism of suburban houses (boxes made of ticky tacky), especially the Levittowns of that era, and the people who live in them. The song resonated with my 13 year old self, as it attacked conformity and the cheapening of American culture. It was only later, as I matured into adulthood, that I realized that Seeger was criticizing the attempt of millions of Americans simply to escape the poverty of conditions in the city so that their children (I was one such) could live with clean air, green grass and trees, decent schools, and personal safety. How condescending he was to genuine working class aspirations.

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    @

    Pete Seeger was the smiley face of the hard left and one of Stalin’s “useful idiots” in spreading the lie of “soft” communism.  I’m sure he really believed in that claptrap but I don’t think he ever grasped the long-term damage he and his cohorts caused through the Popular Front initiative.  Some lefties come around and see the error of their ways.  Seeger never did.

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    @flownover

    I got an email from a friend last night eulogizing him. My friend has owned summer camps , mostly girls camps in Northern Wisconsin. He said that Pete Seeger had provided hours of joy because of a couple of songs that have been sung around campfires by kids ad infinitum . 

    Granted my friend is a lifelong liberal and I treasure our lifelong friendship which stretches back to kindergarten so I spared him the stern Walter Duranty lecture . Let them have their memories , it is hard enough to convince them of the present day threats much less those of the past.

    I did tell him I was waiting for the guy who wrote “The Ship Titanic” to drown though as a backhanded slap against those types. 

    Now has anybody seen my old friend Martin ? Can you tell me……

    Will they be doing this when Joan Baez dies ? 

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    @
    Doug Saunders: Certainly, no one nowadays would use the “hammer” metaphor without knowing its communist roots and how it represents the oppression that concentrated the power in the worker’s party.

    “Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker’s rights…”

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/statement-president-passing-pete-seeger · 8 hours ago

    The only thing missing from his song “If I Had A Hammer” was the sickle.

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    @UmbraFractus

    “The sad and degrading fact is that Pete never really meant it, all that stuff about fighting for justice. Or, more accurately, never meant what he thought he meant. In reality, he was fighting for his own self-righteous conception of the moral, meaning that he knew what was best for you and me, and he admired those who didn’t flinch from enforcing it.”

    How is this different from any other modern leftist?

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    @GumbyMark

    He may have issued a late in life apology for supporting Stalin but to the end of his life he supported every other murderous tyrant who carried the left-wing label.

    He was one of many who seized the label of “idealist”, and were allowed to keep it by the media, because they kept their eyes firmly fixed on the horizon which promised a glorious future for “the people” while refusing to look down and realize they were wading through a  swamp filled with the blood of millions of “the people”.

    When Pete Seeger sang “waist-deep in the Big Muddy and the Big Fool says to push on” he lacked the self-awareness to realize he was the Big Fool.

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    @GumbyMark
    Howellis: The first time I heard Seeger sing it was on the folk music show “Hootenanny” sometime in the early 1960s.  The song was, “Little Boxes,” a criticism of suburban houses (boxes made of ticky tacky), especially the Levittowns of that era, and the people who live in them. The song resonated with my 13 year old self, as it attacked conformity and the cheapening of American culture. It was only later, as I matured into adulthood, that I realized that Seeger was criticizing the attempt of millions of Americans simply to escape the poverty of conditions in the city so that their children (I was one such) could live with clean air, green grass and trees, decent schools, and personal safety. How condescending he was to genuine working class aspirations. · 1 hour ago

    Well said.  I also remember Seeger singing it at the time.  It was only years later I realized that Seeger and all the people who liked it really believed that everyone else should live in “little boxes” as long as they didn’t have to.  It’s the definition of modern liberalism for wealthy progressives.  See, for instance, Marin County.

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    @DavidWilliamson

    Mr Fund nails it:

    “Pete Seeger aimed to change both our culture and our politics. Howard Husockwrote at NRO this week that he “was America’s most successful Communist.”

    Almost like he was trying to fundamentally transform America, or something.

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    @DuaneOyen

    Spengler- a red diaper baby of the Radosh background- doesn’t recall great Seegar musicianship in quite the same way as Andrew does.

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    @Tuck

    Just imagine a singer who supported Hitler and promoted Nazism being eulogized in the press the way Seeger has been.  Disgusting.

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    @RickRyan

    Very nice post, Andrew.

    The best that can be said about the old  evil bastard is that he was a musician.

    As a 20 year old Infantry man returning from Vietnam I had to listen to his artistic filth in O’Hare. I spent the time imagining the best way to liquidate him.

    RIP

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    @Saxonburg

    Certainly, no one nowadays would use the “hammer” metaphor without knowing its communist roots and how it represents the oppression that concentrated the power in the worker’s party.

    “Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker’s rights…”

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/statement-president-passing-pete-seeger

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    @FricosisGuy

    Joan Baez at least snapped out of it after the fall of Saigon. She’s not my political cup of tea, but she was shunned by the antiwar crowd for publicly denouncing Hanoi and organizing aid to Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

    Too late, no doubt, but repentance nonetheless.

    flownover: Will they be doing this when Joan Baez dies ? 

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    @FricosisGuy

    I love that Seeger supported Hitler too! And they still love him…

    Tuck: Just imagine a singer who supported Hitler and promoted Nazism being eulogized in the press the way Seeger has been.  Disgusting. · 3 hours ago

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    @outstripp

    It says something about the fundamental goodness of Americans that no one put a bullet in that useless idiot.

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