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.
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.”
Seeger’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.
Here’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…
Historian 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…
For 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…