Pete Seeger, RIP

 

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.”

Pete-Seeger-in-Beacon-New-006.jpgMore 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.)

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @jameslileks

    He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race

    Anyone who finds themselves believing in a “brand new start for the human race” ends up either riding the tumbrel towards the guillotine, or employed by the state to grease its axles. 

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    James Lileks:He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race

    Anyone who finds themselves believing in a “brand new start for the human race” ends up either riding the tumbrel towards the guillotine, or employed by the state to grease its axles.  · 0 minutes ago

    Just so.

    Seeger may finally have become an honest man, but he apparently never ceased to be naive.

    • #2
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    @CaptSpaulding

    But the Radosh story will be evoked nowhere but here, I’m sure.

    • #3
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    @Valiuth

    Ah nuts to this soft handedness.

    I say he and his comrades can go rot in the hot place. I don’t want to hear how in the end maybe he saw the light or something. For his level of collaboration he should have been hung from a lamp post. I don’t want these peoples redemption I want them to suffer for their criminal opinions. 

    • #4
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    @DocJay

    Valiuth, I must be rubbing off on you ;-).

    My parents saw him play a number of times and I remember the old reel to reel tapes with his music playing on them.   

    • #5
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    @PeterRobinson
    Valiuth: Ah nuts to this soft handedness.

    I say he and his comrades can go rot in the hot place.  · 5 minutes ago

    You’ve got a point, Valiuth.  And God bless Ricochet.  It’s the only place where people like Ron Radosh and yours truly can find themselves attacked from the right.

    • #6
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    @Tuck

    “Seeger may finally have become an honest man, but he apparently never ceased to be naive.”

    “Useful idiot” is the phrase. 

    Seeger probably isn’t in the lowest circle, but he’s not listening to harps.

    • #7
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    @GreatGhostofGodel
    Peter Robinson: Seeger may finally have become an honest man, but he apparently never ceased to be naive.

    I’m reminded of recalling with you at Podcast #200 your interview with William F. Buckley and Christopher Hitchens, and your (accurate) characterization of Hitch’s admission of being wrong about the Castro regime “grudging.” For Hitch, and perhaps for Mr. Seeger too, totalitarianism was always and everywhere a religious phenomenon (with apologies to Milton Friedman). Leftist totalitarianism is always an accident, an unintended consequence, usually of a failure of the regime to really implement Marxism or what have you.

    My family having hosted a Vietnamese boat family when I was a teen, I lean heavily toward the “apologists for a system responsible for 200 million dead in the 20th century deserve no sympathy even for a deathbed conversion” stance. My concerns for the fate of my own soul as a consequence of sitting in judgment, coupled with the CoC, prevent me from stating that more directly and forcefully.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Skyler

    In school, I was taught that I would get no credit for tardy work.

    Seeger was alive and even went to the USSR during Stalin’s purges.  That he only recently admits to the horrors there is insufficient.  There were plenty of people who spoke up, but he was too wedded to his ideology to want to admit it.  It’s people like Seeger who allow people like Stalin to exist.

    And as for his embrace of communism to his dying day, I do not excuse him for that either.  Communism has a natural course, and it is Stalinism.  That will always be the result.  Wishful thinking doesn’t change human nature.  I agree with Tuck, he was a useful idiot.

    But a good singer.

    • #9
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    @EJHill

    As I said on Franz’s post on the member feed, the only thing people hate more than a banjo is the SOB that knows how to play it.

    Music aside I weep no tears. He was a communist and an apologist for mass murderers. No one ever excused Dr. Goebbles by saying he was a helluva harmonica player.

    Art does not elevate evil. Why should those on the right offer homages to nasty, smarmy lefties? What’s next? The Ricochet Film Institute salute to Roman Polanski?

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Skyler
    EJHill: No one ever excused Dr. Goebbles by saying he was a helluva harmonica player.

    Art does not elevate evil. 

    Two excellent sentences.  I hope to use them often in my future comments.  Thanks EJ.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Here’s Mark Steyn on the issue from some time back, featuring a great line from one of our own:

    James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, once offered this trenchant analysis of Pete Seeger:

    ‘If I Had A Hammer’? Well, what’s stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they’re about a buck-ninety, tops.

    Also, from Steyn not Lileks:

    The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture. Seeger’s hymn to the “senselessness” of all war, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, combined passivity with condescension – “When will they ever learn?” – and established the default mode of contemporary artistic “dissent”.

    As for me, there’s one thing I can’t forgive as easily as Mr. Radosh does:

    they recorded a series of “Songs for John Doe,” which echoed the CP’s official positions and exhorted listeners to oppose American involvement in the war against Hitler’s Germany.

    Let’s just say I doubt Mr. Seeger will be worrying about the latest cold snap where he is right now.

    • #12
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    @
    Peter Robinson

     And God bless Ricochet.  It’s the only place where people like Ron Radosh and yours truly can find themselves attacked from the right. · 25 minutes ago

    I humbly suggest you consider rethinking your take on Mr. Radosh.

    Edit:see also here.

    • #13
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    @PlatosRetweet

    Great piece, Peter! Thanks also to Ron Radosh.

    • #14
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    @Valiuth
    DocJay: Valiuth, I must be rubbing off on you ;-).

    I’m sure only your good qualities. 

    EJHill: No one ever excused Dr. Goebbles by saying he was a helluva harmonica player.

    Indeed. I hear the Devil plays a mean fiddle, too. 

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @GumbyMark

    And after supporting Stalin and Hitler (there’s a two-fer for you!) he went on to support Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. 

    Where ever there was injustice you could find Pete Seeger – cheering it on!

    • #16
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    @JohnnyDubya

    When I heard the news on the radio this morning, I was in the shower and made a loud, uncharitable exclamation that echoed off the tile walls.

    That said, his acknowledgement, albeit too little and too late, does mitigate my hatred of him.

    By the way, as I read Peter’s post, I had formulated a comment in my mind and then saw that James had written exactly what I was going to write, in comment #1.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Contributor
    @PeterRobinson
    Paul Snively

    My family having hosted a Vietnamese boat family when I was a teen, I lean heavily toward the “apologists for a system responsible for 200 million dead in the 20th century deserve no sympathy even for a deathbed conversion” stance.  · 1 hour ago

    Fair enough, Paul.  More than fair enough, actually.

    • #18
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    @Foxman

    Now he is a good communist.

    • #19
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    @Vectorman
    Mark: And after supporting Stalin and Hitler (there’s a two-fer for you!) he went on to support Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. 

    Where ever there was injustice you could find Pete Seeger – cheering it on! · 27 minutes ago

    In his heart, he probably supported Chavez, Allende, Ceaușescu, and Pol Pot too. 

    • #20
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    @flownover

    Peter, 

    You are very gracious to find something nice to say about this old commie.

    And what better person to quote than Ron Radosh ? 

    Well, my mom told me the same thing : if you can’t find something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.

    But then there’s that fantastic Alice Roosevelt Longworth quote. 

    Seeger got caught. A contrite lefty – how rare . He probably knew enough to keep quiet and not threaten his bookings on campus.

    • #21
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    @Gretchen

    When I heard the news this morning, the music of “Little Boxes” popped into my head, only with different words.  Forgive the violence necessary to the meter to make this come out right:

    Big boxes, in the city,

    Big boxes made of concrete.

    Big boxes, big boxes, big boxes all the same.

    There’s a gray one, and another gray one,

    And another one and another one,

    And they’re all made of concrete

    And they all look just the same.

    • #22
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    @Layla
    James Lileks:He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race

    Anyone who finds themselves believing in a “brand new start for the human race” ends up either riding the tumbrel towards the guillotine, or employed by the state to grease its axles.  · 14 hours ago

    YES. THIS.

    My favorite Serenity quote: “Sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that.”

    • #23
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    @user_19450

    EJ @#33: Amen. Conservatives are foolish to financially support the careers of those artists who would use their platform as artists (or celebrities) to attack the principles on which we stand. We don’t have to deny the talent of these people. But we don’t need to support them, either. I believe Barbara Streisand is one of the premier singers of the 20th century. But I refuse to listen to her ever. Am I missing out on some good singing? Almost certainly. Can I live with that? Oh yes, indeed, I can.

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @drlorentz
    Skyler: In school, I was taught that I would get no credit for tardy work.

    Better late than never, I suppose, but no credit given.

    EJHill:

    Art does not elevate evil. Why should those on the right offer homages to nasty, smarmy lefties?

    Art does not elevate evil but one can enjoy Seeger’s music without agreeing with his views. The art and the artist are distinct. Many contributors to the culture have been nasty people. I like Seeger’s and the Weavers’ music in spite of, not because of, their politics.

    • #25
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    @drlorentz
    Gretchen: When I heard the news this morning, the music of “Little Boxes” popped into my head, only with different words

    Small point: Little Boxes was written by Malvina Reynolds, another unreconstructed leftist.

    • #26
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    @NickStuart

    It’s been said (by Moms Mabley among others) that we should only speak good of the dead.

    Pete Seeger is dead, good.

    Let the Left shower his memory with encomiums, I’d prefer to shower it with something else. I would not have thought myself the type to want to micturate on his grave, in that I hate standing in line. But here I am, well down in line in the comment thread. Sometimes we do have to make exceptions.

    • #27
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    @EJHill

    To enjoy the art of evil people – especially if one does so monetarily – is to become complicit in their evil. They are inseparable. Which is why Chris Christie is an idiot with his Springsteen boy-crush.

    • #28
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    @

    Seeger’s “folk songs” demeaned the genre.Really, no redeeming values.

    • #29
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    @Koblog

    Seeger to Radosh: “the basic mistake was Lenin’s faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!'”

    There’s that word “faith” again.

    Our Founders’ faith (and please spare me the “they were all deists” myth) leads us to the liberty we cherish.

    Lenin’s faith leads to the death of millions.

    It exceptionally important to have one’s faith anchored in the right Object.

    • #30

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