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Pete Seeger

AN OLD LEFTY TRANSCENDED HIS POLITICS
TO BECAME A TIMELESS TROUBADOUR

My wife and I were traveling home to Michigan after two weeks in Colorado helping with our newly born granddaughter (the first, following two boys), when I picked up a hotel lobby copy of USA Today and learned about the death of Pete Seeger.

Seeger AlbumNo surprise that this old performer had passed away. He was 94, and I was aware he was frail and had lost his wife of nearly 70 years in 2013.

It’s a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame — Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say — that later in the afternoon, our car radio tuned to Detroit’s WJR, Mitch Albom was prattling on about why anyone would make a big deal about “a dead, 94-year-old folksinger.”

I’ll refrain from critiquing the lack of taste in that rant, though I hope other listeners weigh in with the station. But I can’t help noting a surprising dearth of awareness in somebody (Albom) for whom chitchat about pop culture is his stock in trade.

Pete Seeger was a figure of enormous influence in that period of the late 1950s-to-mid-1960s when musical tastes intersected with the politics of the so-called New Left: the period of the Urban Folk Revival.

Seeger, himself, had been a man of the Old Left. Born in 1919, he cut his political teeth in the Depression Era labor movement. He knocked around with people like Woody Guthrie (the famous Dustbowl Balladeer), joined the Communist Party, was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and held in Contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about his Party membership (though he had quit the organization years before).

Meanwhile, he made a distinctive mark on the music business in a vocal/instrumental ensemble called The Weavers. That three-man-one-woman quartet gained visibility in the early ’50s with a series of popular recordings that not only introduced a mainstream audience to folk music, but helped cultivate mass taste for the then-emerging Country-and-Western genre. The Weavers’ biggest hit was bluesman Huddie Ledbetter’s “Goodnight, Irene.”

Weavers SongsSeeger’s politics got him blacklisted, crimping his musical career for a time. I don’t know if he was ever involved in anything you could actually call subversive. But there’s no doubt that, even after leaving the Communist Party, he continued on as one of those dreamy-eyed fellow travelers who thought of themselves as idealists and hard-core Reds described as “useful idiots.”

Still, he was a man of his convictions who put himself in harm’s way more than once for the causes he espoused. As a prominent white performer who came early to the Civil Rights Movement, Seeger played for marches, rallies and fund-raisers. Consequently, he faced resentment and the risk of physical violence. His life was threatened on several occasions.

When the buttoned-down, pin-striped, college-boy Kingston Trio and the beatnik-meets-Brooks-Brothers Peter, Paul and Mary finally brought folk music to the charts in a big way, Seeger emerged as the éminence grise of traditional American song — a kind of timeless troubadour of gritty authenticity. He was a star at last. And surprisingly, the politics thing became an asset.

Unlike today’s parade of singers, actors and hyped-up sexpots desperate to be taken seriously, who feel compelled to drown their audiences in heartfelt but mindless lefty blather, Pete Seeger had actually walked the walk. He really had been on those picket lines. He really had been chased by those police dogs, dodged those batons, fire hoses, and cattle prods.

Even if you didn’t buy into Seeger’s worldview, you accepted the politics that permeated his songs and his onstage banter as what Pete Seeger was about. His essential shtick. The anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-segregation — and eventually, pro-environmentalist — ballads were the totality of the man’s life. They were his heart on display.

On top of that, he was a powerful entertainer. I saw Pete Seeger perform several times. And whether he was planted in the center of the theater-in-the-round Music Circus in Lambertville, New Jersey, or I was looking down from the highest balcony (the Family Circle) of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, there was no way not to be captured by his magic.

There stood a long stringbean of a man out on an empty stage, playing the banjo — or occasionally, a 12-string guitar — sleeves rolled up, head thrown back, Adam’s Apple bouncing, no accompanying musicians, with hundreds of people singing along to “Jimmy Crack Corn” or “On Top of Old Smoky” one minute, “We Shall Overcome” the next, then “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” or the stridently anti-Vietnam War set piece, “Knee Deep in the Big Muddy.”

And doing it all with a joy that was childlike and infectious, that caught you up in the singer’s deep, inner optimism.

I heard Seeger dismiss Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” then peaking on the charts…

“Well, I don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction,” he shouted out to thunderous applause.

Surely, it was all a little naive.

Hell, a lot naive.

But then, that was the naiveté of the ’60s, the spirit that made us all believe we really could change the world for the better — be it through the SDS, the Weather Underground, or the Youth for Goldwater. It’s why we old Boomers, of whatever political stripe, are still sentimental about those absurd years.

I can’t imagine any performer striking such a tone today, being able to transcend his own ideological identity to have Seeger’s broad reach and uplifting appeal. The best of Christian performers may radiate hope, but the entertainment industry is too fragmented now for most of them to have much of an impact beyond their sectarian fan base.

Pete Seeger was different. Peter Seeger was unique.

Mitch Albom should take the time to learn a little about that “dead, 94-year-old folksinger.”

Rest in peace, Pete Seeger, you old Commie. And sing on.

 

USAToday LogoHere’s a link to that USA Today report on the death of Pete Seeger. It’s a little on the sappy-lefty side, but if you don’t know anything about Seeger and his life, it’s a quick introduction. There’s even a brief video…

http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-obit-appreciation/4781403/

 

NY Sun LogoHistorian Ron Radosh was tougher on Pete Seeger over his politics than I’ve been. But then, Radosh knew Seeger personally. And he was a former Communist himself, someone who well understood the truth behind the movement both men had stepped away from, but which Seeger had never repudiated.

Writing in the New York Sun, Radosh called upon the folksinger to repent for his ongoing Communist sympathy and for “changing his songs and his positions to be in accord with the ever-changing party line” over the years.

Much to Radosh’s surprise, Seeger responded…

“I think you’re right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.”

He included the lyrics to a song he’d written — “The Big Joe Blues” — addressing some of the evils of Joseph Stalin.

Radosh acknowledged Seeger’s confession in a subsequent New York Sun piece back in 2007…

http://www.nysun.com/arts/seeger-speaks-and-sings-against-stalin/61666/

 

YouTube LogoFor a sample of Pete Seeger’s on-stage power when he was at the height of his performing career, check out this YouTube clip from 1970. Appearing on a TV show shot at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Seeger sings “Worried Man Blues.” He gets a modest assist from Johnny Cash and a backup band (an uncommon occurrence on both counts), but the moment is all his…

 

 


2 Comments

  1. Tom says:

    That’s a nice tribute — beautifully written. But I am compelled to offer my dissent.

    I must say that I never liked Seeger — I liked a lot of his songs, but I never liked Seeger. In fact, I’ve loathed him ever since I was sharp enough to figure his shtick out.

    There’s a conflict between content and context with Pete Seeger that becomes more and more apparent as the listener gets to know him. With Seeger, context dominated his performance, and the songs, while charming, were diminished by the man playing them. Your example of “Worried Man Blues” is exactly what I’m talking about.

    Now, I’ve performed the Carter Family’s “Worried Man” in front of live audiences at least 100 times in my career as a musician — it’s a staple in my group’s repertoire (Johnny and the Spotlights). We sing it with rollicking fervor, and it’s an audience favorite. But I’ve never thought of it (nor have I ever presented it) as a story of a lumpen-proletarian Everyman. Seeger does this. He uses his code words (note his tactical placement of the word “revolution” in his stage patter in this performance), and, by his suggestion, he implies that the worried man imprisoned is somehow not responsible for his crime — that he’s a victim of injustice. But look at the lyrics. The text implies nothing of the sort. The worried man is imprisoned. He’s doing his time. This is his song. But that’s not good enough for Pete Seeger. So he makes it HIS song, not the prisoner’s. He makes it political. It’s suddenly Seeger’s politics that give the interpretive lens for our understanding of the song. I think this does the song a disservice; it cheapens its meaning. But, because the folksinger makes this same choice again and again throughout his career, then I have to take him at his word and my criticism then must be a criticism of the man and not his music. Because, in the end, he doesn’t really want me to hear his music, he wants me to hear his politics. He sets the terms. I’m just responding to this insistence.

    His comments about how he should have asked to see the Gulags notwithstanding (which BTW, implies that he knew about them), Pete Seeger has always taken the side the Commintern and the evil they support. When two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, signed their nonaggression pact, Seeger was for Hitler — a guy who’s one step lower than Lucifer on the ladder to Hell. When Hitler broke that pact, Seeger was suddenly against Hitler and for Stalin (who he was always for all along anyway), a guy who is two steps lower than Hitler on the way to the fire pit. Now you can call this naïveté, but I call it mendacious and willful and wickedly political. Pete Seeger was born in 1919 for goodness sake, by 1940, he was certainly old enough to know better. Both Hitler and Stalin brought unimaginable misery upon the human race. Pete Seeger never changed his spots. He never apologized. He was always un-American; he was always a Commie. He died a Commie. The man may be a legend to many, but for me, he will always be a filthy Red. If you want to be a Worried Man, it’s wise to be worried about guys like Pete Seeger. He built the gulags with his songs and wasted people’s lives with his banjo.

  2. Brendan says:

    Thank you for writing such a great article. Idealism is such a gift if one could hold onto it. After reading the article I could not help but feel that while we have gone global, the world has somehow narrowed. We were very inspired here in Ireland (nationalists in Northern Ireland) by Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome”. Perhaps the deep inner spirit of a man comes out in such a lasting and meaningful lyric. I like to think so.

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