If there is an American who has lived a more honorable and creative life in the past century, the name cannot be readily conjured. Pete Seeger did everything possible to merge the power of popular song to the very idea of community.
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I understand and appreciate his role, but as someone hailing from the southern Appalachian mountains–and steeped in the longevity of the culture–Pete Seeger’s work always felt like clumsy misappropriation. The regard to which he his held is is almost wholly hallowed, and I can’t help but shake my head.
Thank you for your comments, Mr. Simon. I was already a fan of yours and now I’m a bigger fan. I’ve written a picture book about Pete that will be published by Roaring Brook (a division of Macmillan), and, though I already knew a great deal about Pete’s life, I did a good bit of research. As you point out and argue for, there are few examples of a life as honorable and creative as his–to which I add that he also changed the lives of many, many folks for the better. He urged action, he walked the talk, and he had the kind of courage most of us only wish we had. He was truly an American hero.
Glad he was able to admit his earlier statements on communism were foolish and wrong. It really amazes me how liberals are so close-minded and ignorant to the horrors that communism inflicted on the Soviet Union.
Pete Seeger never sang the praises of Stalin. He DID sing the praises of a better America, but that’s been lost.
one of my favorite radio broadcasts was when pete seeger and big bill broonzy were on studs terkel’s radio program weekly almanac:
i think that the concept of having soul really captures what these 3 amazing poeple had. to listen to this program back in the day falls under my “to live the life of kings” heading; sadly this program was from before my time.
I know that this essay is deeply corrupted from the first reference to The Weavers theft of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” There was actually a great article in Rolling Stone years ago about how the fact that this song wasn’t actually an African traditional ballad, but a song that should have been credited to songwriters and their estates. After someone from one of the estates begins making inquiries about pahyment, a reporter carefully hunts down the origins of the song and then, sick to his stomach, goes to confront Mr. Seeger.
To his astonished relief, he gets Mr. Seeger on the phone and learns that Pete, on having been alerted to the same inquiry, has already undertaken — on his own — to begin making royalty payments promptly and without argument. In truth, The Weavers had acquired the song with the belief that it was an old African folksong, that it was traditional and without known author. As soon as an author actually appeared, Mr. Seeger jumped to do the right thing.
“I didn’t know,” Mr. Seeger said of the song’s origin, to the delight of the reporter, who thought his faith in Mr. Seeger’s integrity was going to be pressed by this discovery. But no, Mr. Seeger only had to learn that there was a known author of the song and he was arranging immediate payment — before any media or legal action ever came to his door.
Here, though, as a means of character assassination, the “theft” of the song begins our essay. That is dishonorable. And the essay that follows is equally hyperbolic and vicious. Mr. Seeger believed in socialism and peace. These are moral attributes and moral stances. That believing in such things could, in the Twentieth Century, array a good soul in such a way that he or she could be of little use against totalitarian forces that claimed the mantles of economic equality and peace while actually pursuing dehumanization and violence doesn’t make Mr. Seeger — or socialism, or peace — any less worthy or honorable. It makes him, for that of period time, blind to the dishonor of others — as millions of well-meaning Americans — on both the left and right — were blind for years to the true nature of Stalin’s brand of communism and Hitler commitment to genocidal war-mongering. The venality with which this author pursues Mr. Seeger for these sins is apparent in every loaded and hyped phrase.
Pete; we knew you well; grandfather of our moral center; proof that the good do not die young. Had you done nothing more than show what you were persecuted for by that vile and vicious scoundrel Joe McCarthy, contempt, while Ronald Reagan informed on “communists” in the movie business, Ike and all the rest down the corridors of power shook in fear of that son-o-a- bitch and our country simply went mad; you’d have been forever; our hero.
My dad was a banjo/guitar playing, folk music loving, social worker and the songs of Pete Seeger were sung in the living room, the car, and in my bedroom at night when my parents were trying to get me to go sleep.
I was very small, but the words and stories were simple and easy to remember so that I could sing along to Where Have All The Flowers Gone, We Shall Overcome, If I Had a Hammer – it felt wonderful to feel included in a group of grown ups.
Pete Seeger is, and will always be – for me – that conduit to connection – celebrating inclusion, participation and the valuing of each voice.
I’m happy to have his music to share with the next generation – the songs are great as are the ideals.
For anyone in need of a primer, I highly recommend the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. A good, long look at an absolute American badass who seems to never have picked the wrong side of a fight, or to have missed an opportunity to place conscience before commercialism.
When you consider the scope of his social protest and moral support–for the poor during the Depression, for the soldiers during WW2, for the politically unpopular during the HUAC/McCarthy 50s, for black Americans during the 60s, for the soldiers (but not the govt) again during Vietnam, and finally for the rivers and the land itself–he has no peer. When you consider that he did it all with folk music, you wonder what the rest of us are doing wrong.
Good read by Paul Berman here: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116371/pete-seeger-1919-2014-magnificent-messy-legacy
I don’t agree. That’s cheap and callow retrograde vision. It is easy for us, looking backward, to see Hitler for what he would become in world history and for the Holocaust that ensued. In the late 1930s, many many Americans were isolationist and not merely because they were on the left. The Robert Tafts and Charles Lindberghs were greviously mistaken, too, in the cold light of history.
Taft was an honorable, maintstream Republican, but wrong. Lindbergh was an anti-Semite and an admirer of fascism and most certainly wrong. And for a brief period of time, Pete Seeger was on the left and he was wrong — as many on the left were wrong about Stalin, or about the need for another American intervention in European warfare.
But tellingly, after Pearl Harbor, Pete Seeger served in the U.S. Army, honorably until his discharge in 1945.
For the New Republic to harp on this as a mitigation of Seeger’s lifelong commitment to peace is overly self-righteous. The man believed in peace, and he temporarily abandoned that belief only under great duress. And he was on the left, and he believed in Marxism, which is no great stain considering how prescient Marx is proving to be about the corruptions and excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Marx isn’t the problem, at least in the diagnostic sense. Statist communism and Stalinism were great failures of the 20th Century; but the original Marxist critique of capitalism endures. And in that sense, Pete Seeger — friend of the working man, of the downtrodden, of the peace-loving, of the unions — is a paragon of honor and integrity.
He didn’t betray his principles by not recognizing fascism or Stalinism as a greater threat to liberty than war itself, or by embracing socialism or communism as general ideals. We can see it as an equivocation only by looking backwards, and in full knowledge of what Hitler and Stalin would soon be proven to be. But peace is peace, and a social sense of economic justice is just what it sounds like. And it was those ideals that guided Seeger, consistently. Stalin and the corrupted, statist version of Marxism betrayed those same ideals. And Hitler — his contempt for peace and his crimes against humanity outpaced the imagination of far more learned and mainstream Americans than this honest man with a banjo and an everyman’s voice. The same dictator made chumps of the likes of Walter Lippmann and Henry Mencken, of Taft and Lindbergh, of Joseph Kennedy and millions of other Americans who did not want to see America engaged in another European war.
Given that perspective, Pete Seeger’s legacy is in no real way a messy one. He believed in the best and worthiest ideals of socialism and the best and worthiest values of peace. And those values made him great and important, despite the fact that for one brief period in the late 1930s, love of peace and a humane social compact could bring a good man to the wrong conclusion. I think Mr. Berman and the New Republic have occasioned the death of a rare hero by ignoring the entire forest to pontificate on a single tree.
So you don’t think it’s worth pointing out that hero’s are human and that ideology can cause people to make some pretty ugly mistakes and say some pretty silly things? I agree with you that Seeger mostly stood for all the best things about socialism and Marxism. But in singing the praises of Stalin, he stood for some of the worst. is joining up to fight fight Fascists is to me the most honourable thing he could do as a leftist. But Stalin was in no way “dedicated to peace” any more than Hitler was. And I have to wonder, had Hitler not turned on Stalin, causing Stalin to become our ally, would he have joined up up at all?
I’m surprised to hear you saying it’s wrong of Berman to go back and to have people look at someone’s WHOLE career. That’s fair game in my opinion and I believe there are lessons to be learned from it.
And yes, lots of folks on the left were Stalin’s useful idiots in the ’30’s. But there were plenty that weren’t. Orwell comes to mind, for instance. And socialists like him were despised in there time exactly because they didn’t fall for Stalinism.
Did he sing the praises of Stalin? Really? In what lyric?
The hyperbole here is telling. Just as the New Republic’s use of associative guilt is hyperbolic. (He sang what Stalin wanted him to sing!) Seeger believed Marx to be right and he believed socialism to be right, and he believed that peace, rather than war, was preferable. There is much that is prescient in Kapital — at least as a diagnosis of capitalism’s excesses and its need to be tempered with other social metrics — and peace is indeed quite preferable to war. And yes, Seeger sang for shared community and for peace. If in the period of the late 30s, Josef Stalin was engaged in actively corrupting the very essentials of Marxist argument for the sake of his totalitarianism, and if Hitler presents to the world a grandiose and unyielding argument for war, does it seriously call into question the integrity, honesty and even emotional maturity of a man devoted to the ideals of peace and human sharing? America knew very little about Stalin’s extremity in the late 1930s; the New York Times won a Pulitzer for extolling Stalin’s Russia at a time when dekulakization was ongoing and the purges were at full fury. And few in the pre-war years guessed the depths of Hitler’s war-lust and moral depravity.
But now, Mr. Berman is in the catbird seat, harping on those odd moments when being for peace or socialism happens to ally any honest man with people who are claiming the same mantle publicly while pursuing war and totalitarianism furtively. Congrats on an easy, cheap shot. If his essay was executed in any remote proportion to all the times that Seeger’s belief system placed him on the right side of human events, then fine, it is contextualized. But that kind of balance isn’t evident in that essay; calling Seeger child-like and his legacy messy, and painting him as a naive dupe was the lion’s share of Berman’s verbiage. I don’t buy it. Seeger’s life wasn’t messy, and what he believed in to the day he died was honorable and worthy. Stalin’s life was messy. So was Hitler’s. And there is nothing to suggest that like millions of Americans, Seeger had any interest in making any ideological excuse for totalitarianism. Once it showed its full face, his humanist principles prevailed easily and handily. As with most Americans.
Yes, Orwell is an example of someone who wasn’t fooled. Except for a time, he most certainly was. If his time of misapprehending things proved to be shorter than that of Seeger, it was because he had the opportunity to go to Spain, to fight under the red banner and to see Stalin’s NKVD and Stalin’s ambitions for what they were. So what are we saying? Proximity — and not necessarily a superior moral acuity — brings Orwell around faster than a fellow on the other side of the Atlantic armed with a banjo and a firm belief in his fellow man. If Seeger were in Catalunya in 1939 with Orwell and Dos Passos watching Stalin’s minions shoot down “Trotskyite deviationists,” I have little doubt that his heart would be with the executed men. To argue otherwise — as if Orwell and Seeger are living life from the same retrograde perspective of 2014 — it’s just not honest.
When and where the evidence reached him, Seeger was always on the side of ordinary people. He never wavered. And in that greater context, holding up 1939-1940 is a sophist’s parlor trick. Berman is not placing it in the greater context of a life dedicated to humanist anti-authoritarism and shared responsibility. He’s finding the one chronological variance in which to believe in those things happens to align you with the as-yet-unrevealed monster that is Stalin, or with the genocidal, total-war aims of a yet-to-be-fully-unmasked Hitler. And as I said, millions of Americans — and much of our intelligensia — felt the same way about both the possibilities of the Russian experiment and about our involvement in European wars during that period. That kind of bullshit intellectual brinksmanship — if you are for peace, you are standing with a monster! — is ventured right down to our present debates. You don’t want to fight in Iraq? You think it is a heedless war of choice? Then you stand with Saddam Hussein and all of his deviltry. That’s dishonest rhetoric even when we know, as we can in a smaller and more immediate world, that Hussein was vile and brutal. What was known of Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s greater intentions was far less evident in the late 1930s, yet Berman is comfortable using such rhetoric. Given an eighty-year stretch of hindsight, he’s willing to stand as political insight personified. From such a clean, high perch it’s all so apparent, after all. And yet Americans left and right were all over the map in 1938. Shit, until Tet, most Americans were supportive of the war effort in Vietnam. If you were so, thinking that the domino theory was real, and if you fashioned your politics around the ideal of liberty and devoted yourself to an embrace of the deepest fears of Kennan and the Dulles Brothers, are you childlike and a dupe? Or was a contempt for statist totalitarianism and belief in a democratic West a generally sound political stance for much of the post-war era, even if that stance incorporates the brutality and inhumanity of Vietnam, or the grievous assassination of Lumumba, or the blooded betrayals of Chile and East Timor and El Salvador? And when you die, and your ideals are measured in retrospect, shall we take into account the totality of your stance? Or shall we just focus on, say, 1964-74 and tar you with the 50,000 dead Americans and quarter million dead Vietnamese, all slain to little actual purpose?
Ideas are ideas, and belief in the good ones — peace, society, communal responsibility, the dignity of all men –shouldn’t be sufficient to shame a man. The fact that peace can at very rare moments be the worse choice, or that other men might make the cause of society and communal responsibility a stalking horse for evil doesn’t do much to shame a man for his belief in the ideal, either. Seeger didn’t kill any kulaks, and he would have written a protest song against it if he’d known. He didn’t shoot Lorca. Or bomb Guernica. The bastards did. Yet this is the precise currency that Berman expends to smear Pete Seeger.
The essay stacks the deck and rigs the game. But the real Pete Seeger wasn’t playing intellectual poker. He believed in fine and true things and, despite the cruelty and necessity of his times, those things are to this day no less fine and no less true, and no less worth believing in. A little proportionality in the New Republic’s reflections on Seeger would go a long way on the road back to honest.
While it may be true that millions of pro-Stanist lefties were unaware of the extent of Stalin’s depravity. There was already a fairly sizeable anti-Stalinist group of militant workers and intellectuals in America as well. Especially in New York but elsewhere too. Berman’s family, (if I’m not mistaken) was and is still part of that very honourable tradition. So it’s not surprising to me that Berman would take issue with Seeger’s youthful fellow-travelling. I’m glad you brought up Iraq. Most liberal Americans still don’t know and don’t want to know the extent of Saddam’s psychotic depravity over the 30 years he held an entire population in fear. The information exists and most did and most on the Left did and will continue to willfully ignore it for fear of being wrong. All they need to know is that it’s republican war and they’re against it for reasons of peace. I’m not saying it the information should sway you either way about whether one should’ve supported the war or not. I’m suggesting that perhaps it’s more honest way of debating the issue. It’s that long tradition of “revolution at home and fuck you rest of the world,” that depresses me about the western Left, of which I consider myself politically aligned, normally.
I accept that I cannot find any overt Stalinist lyrics but I also can’t seem to find ANY lyrics of his from the ’30’s, so I can’t prove he “sang Stalin’s praises.” However I can’t find any songs protesting soviet gulags or purges, etc. either. Can you? That might have gone some way on the road to honest too.
As I said before, I think he was a great American. Even the best make mistakes. I thought the Berman article was fairly breezy about it compared to the secular sainting he’s getting everywhere else. And frankly, I think most his songs are somewhat child-like. Not the man but his style. I’m just not the sing-along type, I guess.
“I accept that I cannot find any overt Stalinist lyrics but I also can’t seem to find ANY lyrics of his from the ’30?s, so I can’t prove he “sang Stalin’s praises.” However I can’t find any songs protesting soviet gulags or purges, etc. either. Can you? That might have gone some way on the road to honest too.”
As you are the one making the assertion that Seeger was “pro-Stalin” despite the lack of any evidence, the burden of proof is on you.
“I’m just not the sing-along type, I guess.”
Well, no wonder you don’t get it, then. Seeger often said, “I’d really rather put songs on people’s lips than in their ears”. He understood the power of music to create community and empower people, and was not interested in having an exclusive role as a performer.
In the man’s own words: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in…I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” He was certainly not wrong about that! What a wonderful legacy to know that your songs will be sung on marches, in prayer circles, in children’s music education classrooms, and on the barricades for generations to come. To serve as an inspiration to others is the most that anyone can ask for in this life.
I would suggest that you read Seeger’s HUAC testimony. This was not a “child-like” man, but rather someone of great maturity and nearly unbelievable strength. After reading that transcript, I feel safe in saying I can’t think of anyone that’s walked this wide earth who was more of an adult.
I would submit that perhaps it’s a little more “child-like” to use the occasion of the passing of a great man and brilliant artist to rail on about how “lefties” don’t understand that Saddam Hussein was a dictator (?? I thought we just understood that he had no weapons of mass destruction and nothing to do with 9/11, but maybe I missed the committee meeting where he — and Stalin! — were declared liberal allies), but perhaps that would be unkind.
After all, I doubt Seeger would care much about being labeled with the term. Among the many other aspects of his wisdom, he understood that children are smarter than us sometimes.
Nice bit of writing here. Be interested to see if the NR runs all or part of this.
I agree about Seeger being not messy. My seven and nine year-olds heard me mention that he had passed and asked who he was. I try to be straight with them when they ask about things, which usually leaves me trying to smooth the edges of moral compromise while summarizing a person’s life. But this time it was easy, and I really enjoyed recounting not only Pete’s position on issues that they’ve been raised as givens, but the sacrifices he was willing to make time and again.
The sound of freedom ringing. RIP.
Other nominations for the “honorable/creative” Mt. Rushmore:
Carving someone’s bust into rock is a really good way to remember what they looked like. Not much else.
To actually believe that someone is a hero, i.e., to be inspired to live your life by the strength of their convictions, generally requires more exposure than some second-hand account can provide. It’s a complicated process of judgment, which we constantly re-tally by piecing together all the noble if marginalized parts of the too-often ethically compromised people we gaze out at from the intimacy of our experience.
When we think of someone like Pete Seeger, we are therefore really thinking of the many people around us who, despite having his convictions within them in large part, struggle fruitlessly to live by them.
Pete reminds us (note the use of present tense) to struggle. Maybe fruitlessly, maybe not.
I like Studs. Not sure rock would be a good look for him. I’m confident he’d suggest several of his subjects over himself for whatever honor comes out of being remembered on heroic terms… much as would, I believe, this blog’s own Count of Despair.
(This should not be read as an attack in earnest on your tribute idea, which is clearly meant to be understood as metaphorical. Just a perspective on what we are actually paying tribute to — not a life lost and suddenly recalled and “revision-ed” in various forms, but a tender message crystallized within the throes of a life as violent as yours or mine or anyone’s. Really, it is not a life at all we are recalling, but a gift of sorts to help us from succumbing to our own great and undeniable capacity for weakness.)
I had the privilege of meeting him in 1970 when he came to Killeen TX where we ran The Oleo Strut Coffeehouse, one of the GI antiwar movement organizations, outside Fort Hood. He came out on his own dime, and spent a weekend singing in the coffeehouse and talking with the GIs, who all thought it was fantastic to meet him. Truly, truly an excellent person, I would list him in the top five nicest guys I ever met.
Watching him sing “the communist verse” of This Land Is Your Land at the Obama Inauguration in 2009 was the best part of that whole event. Unfortunately it set too many of us up to believe that was where we were headed, watching Obama sing along through the verse.