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Back in 2007, Ron Radosh wrote a piece in the New York Sun about folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at 94. Although years ago Ron had taken banjo lessons from Seeger and had always liked the man, Ron explained, he had considered it unconscionable of Seeger to devote so much of his career to attacking social injustice in the United States while remaining silent about Stalin and the Soviet gulag. After a documentary praising Seeger had aired, Ron took to print to criticize Seeger, writing a piece in the Sun about Seeger’s longtime admiration of the Soviet Union.
Then, Ron continued, he received a letter from Seeger himself:
I almost fell off the chair when I read Mr. Seeger’s words: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” For years, Mr. Seeger continued, he had been trying to get people to realize that any social change had to be nonviolent, in the fashion sought by Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Seeger had hoped, he explained, that both Khrushchev and later Gorbachev would “open things up.” He acknowledged that he underestimated, and perhaps still does, “how the majority of the human race has faith in violence.”
More importantly, Mr. Seeger attached the words and music for a song he had written, “thinking what Woody [Guthrie] might have written had he been around” to see the death of his old Communist dream. Called “The Big Joe Blues,” it’s a yodeling Jimmie Rodgers-type song, he said. It not only makes the point that Joe Stalin was far more dangerous and a threat than Joe McCarthy – a man Mr. Seeger and the old left view as the quintessential American demagogue – but emphasizes the horrors that Stalin brought.
“I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe,” the lyrics read. “He ruled with an iron hand / He put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast) / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Do this job, no questions asked) / I got the Big Joe Blues.”
Mr. Seeger continued in his letter to me: “the basic mistake was Lenin’s faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!” He often tells his left-wing audiences, he said, to read Rosa Luxemburg’s famous letter to Lenin about the necessity of freedom of speech. And despite all of my criticisms of Mr. Seeger over the years, he ended warmly, saying: “You stay well. Keep on.”
“Mr. Seeger is still a man of the political left,” Ron concluded, “and I’m certain we disagree about much. But I never thought I would hear him acknowledge the realities of Stalinism. I honor and admire him for doing so now.”
Pete Seeger, singer, composer (among the many songs he wrote: “Turn, Turn, Turn”), unreconstructed Leftie–and, if only in the end, many years after he should have known better, an honest man. R.I.P.
(Hat tip to Ken Grubbs.)