Musique: Que sont devenues les fleurs? (Pete Seeger: How Khrushchev’s songbird took over Tinseltown)

https://i2.wp.com/theland.wikispaces.com/file/view/Joanie_Phoanie.jpg/311977232/480x208/Joanie_Phoanie.jpgWhere have the flowers gone? (Pete Seeger)We shall overcome - Seeger sessions (Bruce Springsteen, 2005)Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army. (Chanson traditionnelle ukrainienne reprise parMikhaïl Cholokhov)
Where have all the young men gone? They’re all in uniform. Oh, when will you ever learn? Pete Seeger (« Where have all the flowers gone? »)
If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, All over this land. (..) It’s the hammer of justice, It’s the bell of freedom, And a song about love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land. Pete Seeger (« If I had a hammer »)
Home of the brave land of the free/I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie. Leadbelly (« The Bourgeois Blues »)
I learned our government must be strong. It’s always right and never wrong. Our leaders are the finest men. And we elect them again and again. Tom Paxton (« What did you learn in school? »)
Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, No religion to Imagine all the people, Living life in peace. John Lennon (« Imagine »)
Saisissons l’arme de la culture. L’activité culturelle est une phase essentielle du travail idéologique général du Parti. V. J. Jerome (XVe Convention nationale du Parti communiste américain, New York, 1951)
Je me suis rabattu sur un ‘Faisons chanter l’Amérique’; peut-être que la philosophie démocratique de base de ces chansons folk atteindra subliminalement les Américains. A l’époque, il n’y avait que les cocos pour utiliser des mots comme paix et liberté. Le message était que nous avions les outils et que nous allions réussir. En tout cas, la dernière ligne ne disait pas: ‘Il n’y a ni marteau ni cloche, mais chérie je t’ai toi’.
Je suis toujours communiste, dans le sens que je ne crois pas que le monde survivra avec les riches devenant plus riches et les pauvres devenant plus pauvres. Pete Seeger (Mother Jones, 2004)
Il n’y a jamais eu de bon chanteur de folk républicain. Joan Baez
« Qui est la chanteuse? », demandai-je à Indar. « Joan Baez. Elle est très célèbre aux Etats-Unis. » « Et millionnaire, » dit Yvette. Je commençais à deviner quand elle était ironique (. . .) Impossible de chanter des chansons douces sur l’injustice si l’on ne bénéficie pas soi-même de la justice et si elle ne nous est pas rendue la plupart du temps. Impossible de chanter des chansons sur la fin du monde (…) si l’on ne sait pas que le monde continue et qu’on y est en sécurité. V. S. Naipaul (« A la courbe du fleuve », 1979)
La politisation de la musique populaire américaine date des années 60, mais elle est le produit d’une patiente stratégie politique de gauche qui a commencé au milieu des années 30 issue de l’effort du Front populaire du parti Communiste d’employer la culture populaire pour avancer sa cause (…) Une figure ressort tout particulièrement dans cette entreprise: ‘la légende de la musique folk’, chanteur-parolier et ancien pilier du Parti, Peter Seeger, maintenant âgé de 86 ans. Etant donné son influence décisive sur la direction politique de la musique populaire, il est bien possible que Seeger ait été le communiste américain le plus efficace de l’histoire. (…) Si Seeger était le Lénine du Front Populaire, Dylan était son Che Guevara, moto comprise. Howard Husock

« Where have all the flowers gone? », If I had a hammer », « We shall overcome », “This Land Is Your Land,” “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Little Boxes,” “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, « What did you learn in school? », “Born in the USA,” “Imagine,” le pacifisme béat, le poverty chic, les « workers » clothes » (jeans, chemises denim et chaussures de travail), les concerts humanitaires, la contreculture, l’anticonsumérisme, le relativisme culturel, l’équivalence morale, …

Claude François ou Dalida se retourneraient probablement dans leurs tombes s’ils apprenaient, à une semaine d’une énième Fête de l’Humanité, que leurs fameuses adaptations des chansons de Pete Seeger (« Si j’avais un marteau » et « Que sont devenues les fleurs? ») étaient alors en fait… des (dûment défaucillées) chansons cocos!

Et surtout… deux des rouages d’une formidable entreprise (avec l’espionnage et l’exploitation des insuffisances de la société américaine comme la ségrégation raciale ou les affaires judiciaires à la Sacco et Vanzetti ou Rosenberg) établie au VIIe Congrès de l’Internationale communiste de 1935, de prise de contrôle de la culture populaire par le Komintern!

Au moment où, comme le rappelle un de ses anciens fans, l’une des plus grandes figures de la chanson de protestation (aujourd’hui âgé de 88 ans) semble faire enfin un début d’autocritique (au moins sur Staline) …

 

Petit retour, avec un excellent papier d’il y a deux ans de Howard Husock dans le City journal, sur celui qu’il qualifie de « communiste américain le plus efficace de l’histoire ».

 

Et surtout sur le fascinant récit de la manière dont, via le Parti communiste américain mais surtout ses compagnons de route et idiots utiles, Moscou avait peu à peu et dans le cadre d’une stratégie délibérée dite de Front populaire d’infiltration de la culture populaire à travers la littérature, la peinture, le cinéma ou la musique (les Diego Rivera, Langston Hughes, Howard Fast, Hemingway et autres Dos Passos), investi la musique populaire américaine et partant mondiale.

 

Où l’on découvre que si Woody Guthrie était un authentique prolo, son principal promoteur (Pete Seeger) était en fait le fils d’un musicologue de l’Université de Berkeley (issue d’une des plus anciennes familles de la Nouvelle Angleterre, descendant directement des Puritains du Mayflower!) qui avec un autre célèbre musicologue (Alan Lomax de la Library of Congress) avaient presque à eux tout seuls inventé la musique populaire américaine (noire et blanche: blues et folk) jusque là largement apolitique et liée à la religion (gospel) et à la vie sentimentale.

 

Parcourant ainsi les Etats-Unis avec leurs chansons militantes d’abord pour les syndicats de la CIO (inspirées des « Raisins de la colère » de Steinbeck: “Tom Joad” et autres “Dust Bowl Ballads” ou célébrant la mort du militant syndical d’origine suédoise Joe Hill injustement exécuté en 1915 en Utah: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, reprise, comme aussi la « Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti », par Joan Baez à Woodstock en 1965), puis, Pacte germano-soviétique oblige, des chansons pacifistes (mais aussi des reprises de standards « progressistes » comme « Guantanamera« , la chanson populaire sur une paysanne de Guantanamo diffusée par Jose Fernandez Diaz et devenue, avec des paroles du héros de la révolution cubaine Jose Marti, un quasi hymne national pour la prison à ciel ouvert cubaine), avant les chansons anti-guerre du Vietnam et même tout récemment anti-Irak!

 

Tant de zèle militant n’échappant pas bien sûr aux autorités, d’où la convocation du membre du Parti qu’était Pete Seeger depuis 1940 devant la fameuse Commission des affaires anti-américaines du sénateur Mc Carthy qui, en fait, le força à adopter une approche plus subtile, se révélant finalement plus efficace quand sa fameuse chanson « Where have the flowers gone? » (inspirée d’une chanson traditionnelle ukrainienne citée dans le célèbre livre – « Le Don paisible », 1941 – qui valut le prix Nobel 1965 à l’écrivain préféré de Staline Mikhaïl Cholokhov) fut reprise avec succès par le groupe très propre sur soi Kingston Trio en 1962.

 

Mais aussi transformant une vielle chanson de gospel (« I shall overcome ») en le célèbre hymne du mouvement des droits civiques autour de Martin Luther King (« We shall overcome », repris plus tard par Joan Baez et tout récemment par Springsteen).

 

Et, si bien sûr l’essentiel de la musique populaire n’a jamais été politique, sera ainsi initiée toute une tradition de la chanson progressiste à texte avec leurs émules Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, jusqu’aux Bono et Green Day d’aujourd’hui.

 

Mais qui, comme le conclut très malicieusement Howard Husock, peuvent être réutilisées d’une manière dont Seeger et ses émules n’auraient probablement jamais imaginée, comme ces manifestants taiwanais reprenant il y a deux ans les paroles de « We shall overcome » et « Blowing in the wind » pour… protester contre les menaces d’invasion de leur île par le totalitarisme chinois!

 

Extraits:

 

Il est tentant de rejeter la portée de la politisation de la musique populaire comme quantité négligeable. Mais comme le front populaire l’avait bien compris, la culture est importante – et la musique peut-être encore plus. Reprenant Platon, Allan, Platon a écrit que « pour prendre la température spirituelle d’un individu ou d’une société, il faut écouter sa musique.’ « En Amérique, la musique populaire fournit en quelque sorte la bande-son de l’adolescence. Et les paroles de cette musique fournit trop souvent le message que nos dirigeants sont des « idiots, » qui notre politique est corrompue, que la vie bourgeoise est sans but, que ce pays n’est pas plus libre que n’importe quel autre – et probablement moins. Comment alors s’étonner de la froide indifférence qui caractérise tant de jeunes qui ont grandi dans l’abondance, la liberté, et la paix ?

 

Heureusement, certains reprennent l’héritage du Front populaire d’une manière que Seeger n’avait pas prévue et qu’il n’approuverait probablement pas. En mars dernier à Taïpeh, une foule de plusieurs centaines de manifestants a chanté « We shall overcome » et « Blowin in the wind » dans le cadre d’une protestation contre l’annexion de force par la Chine – et donc la perspective de la prise du pouvoir par le Parti Communiste.

 

America’s Most Successful Communist
It was no surprise last year when rock stars, led by Bruce Springsteen, barnstormed battleground states for John Kerry, and no surprise that, save for a handful of country singers, George W. Bush could count on no similar support from pop performers.
Howard Husock
City Journal
Summer 2005

 

It was no surprise last year when rock stars, led by Bruce Springsteen, barnstormed battleground states for John Kerry, and no surprise that, save for a handful of country singers, George W. Bush could count on no similar support from pop performers. After all, American music stars are overwhelmingly left-liberal, and often publicly so—from punk rockers Green Day, who recently recorded American Idiot, a “George W. Bush Rock Opera,” to Grammy-winning blues rocker Bonnie Raitt, who once dedicated an album to “the people of North Vietnam.” Asked why President Bush’s iPod featured songs by singers who’d campaigned against him, White House advisor Mark McKinnon dryly observed: “The fact is that any president who would limit themselves to pro-establishment musicians would have a pretty small collection.”

 

The conventional wisdom holds that it was ever so—that American popular musicians have always been leftists, and that music-as-radical-politics has stretched across the decades, expressing the nation’s social conscience. The late New Left chronicler Jack Newfield, for instance, celebrated a “native tradition of an alternative America” that included not just such openly activist musicians as Woody Guthrie but also apparently non-political singers like Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson.

 

Yet this “native tradition” is a myth. Until quite recently, popular music’s prevailing spirit was apolitical: “It has a good beat, you can dance to it, I give it a 95,” as fifties teens gushed about new records on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.

 

One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.

 

Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser. “In the Far East, Japan kept growing bolder. The Kremlin leadership . . . now felt its sole hope lay in a military-political blockade with the Western powers.” Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.

 

The Popular Front sought to enlist Western artists and intellectuals, some of them not party members but “fellow travelers,” to use art, literature, and music to insinuate the Marxist worldview into the broader culture. The murals of Diego Rivera, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the novels of Howard Fast—all exemplified this approach. It’s an irony that communists should seek to change the culture, of course, since Marxism holds that culture is merely a reflection of underlying economic structures, whose transformation will bring about capitalism’s inevitable collapse.

 

Still, the party kept sending its legions to the cultural front lines, even after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact abruptly ended the Popular Front coalition-building. The American Communist Party’s bluntest expression of the idea of culture as a revolutionary tool came in writer V. J. Jerome’s talk “Let Us Grasp the Weapon of Culture,” presented to its 15th national convention in New York in 1951. “Cultural activity is an essential phase of the party’s general ideological work,” Jerome observed. Federal officials cited the speech as an “overt act” seeking the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, landing Jerome in prison for three years.

 

It took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.

 

It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.

 

For Seeger, the sixties breakthrough came after decades’ worth of mixing music and politics. His belief in music’s potential political power ran in the family, reports biographer David King Dunaway. Seeger’s eminent father, Charles Seeger, a musicologist teaching at Berkeley in the early 1900s (the folk-music archive at Harvard is named after him), found the plight of California migrant workers so disturbing that he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, despite being a pure son of the American upper class with Puritan ancestors; later, he conscientiously objected to World War I. Anticipating the Popular Front, he yearned for a revolutionary classical music that would help usher in a new political order. Though he ultimately made little headway in marrying politics and music, his son—who shared his view that realizing the American dream meant economic as well as political egalitarianism, and that in turn meant communism—succeeded brilliantly.

 

Pete Seeger’s life mission first took shape as he toured the rural South with his father in the mid-thirties, listening to performances of traditional music and thrilling to their authenticity as perhaps only a Connecticut boarding-school product could. He listened attentively also to his father’s close friend Alan Lomax, assistant director for the Library of Congress music archive and another man of the Left. Using primitive early recording equipment, Lomax and his father, John Lomax, who preceded him at the Library of Congress, brought to the library’s vaults a priceless treasure of traditional music from the American South: the African-tinged singing of the Georgia sea islands, the Elizabethan ballads of Appalachia, the blues of the Mississippi Delta (including the first recordings of the great Muddy Waters, made on the famous Stovall’s Plantation outside Clarksdale), and powerful gospel songs by poor whites and blacks alike.

 

The Popular Front Left saw such homespun music of poor rural Southerners—eventually labeled American “folk” music—as perfect for molding into a new Marxist cultural vernacular. “[W]hen the Communist Left and its intellectuals . . . tried to sink roots in American tradition, radicals turned a new ear to traditional folk tunes,” notes Dunaway. They could cast folk music as the politically pure art of America’s noble rural proletariat—plus, because this non-commercial music wasn’t copyrighted, they could adapt it freely.

 

Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax took on this project with gusto. Lacking a real tradition of social protest in American folk music, the pair set out to create one. The music served as the crucible of Seeger’s own style: “Folk songs, radicalism and patriotism blended in his mind,” Dunaway observes. Through Lomax, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a March 1940 New York benefit concert for California migrant workers. (The Popular Front might not have invented the benefit concert to fund political causes, but it certainly helped boost the institution, which lives on in the form of Farm Aid, Live Aid, Live 8, and the like.) Made to order for the Popular Front, Guthrie was a middle-class Oklahoman with a calculated aw-shucks cowboy manner, who just happened to be a Communist Party sympathizer and had written for communist newspapers. As Lomax later put it: “Go back to that night when Pete first met Woody Guthrie. You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night.”

 

Guthrie, with little or no popular following down home, was by no means an indigenous representative of some vital American political folk-music tradition. He owed his eventual lionization to Seeger, who formed with him the Almanac Singers, which first brought his work to popular attention. If Guthrie’s songs based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (“Tom Joad” and other “Dust Bowl Ballads”) became some of the most influential American recordings of the twentieth century, journalist Joe Klein, a Guthrie biographer, argues, it was only because Seeger tirelessly promoted them.

 

Seeger and Lomax also helped popularize—and politicize—the blues music of Huddie Ledbetter (nicknamed “Leadbelly”), another major figure in their made-up “tradition” of American protest music. The African-American Ledbetter had no real politics, and no commercial recognition, before the Lomaxes helped get him out of a Texas prison and move him to New York. But Lomax soon co-wrote a song with him called “The Bourgeois Blues”: “Home of the brave land of the free/I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”

 

Before Leadbelly’s radicalization, the traditional folk music of American blacks—among whom social protest music would seem most likely to find a home—tended to be personal and religious, not political. Gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, in her classic “That’s Enough,” expressed this apolitical spirit: “The mean things you said don’t make me feel bad/’Cause I can’t miss a friend that I never had/I’ve got Jesus, Jesus, and that’s enough.” In the same spirit, Martin Luther King’s favorite song, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?,” was a deeply personal response to injustice penned by Mississippi Delta gospel musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples.

 

During the early 1940s, Seeger and the Almanacs—later reconstituted as the Weavers—bluntly propagandized in their songs. Writes Dunaway: “They opposed war and promoted unions the way early Christians believed in the Church.” Union organizers in the past had sometimes put political lyrics to gospel music, as when Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill sang of the wonder-working might of the union (rather than of the blood of the lamb). Popular Front supporters, the Almanacs included, made this approach their trademark.

 

Party stalwarts Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson had already penned one of the classics of the form, a tribute to Joe Hill himself, a Swedish immigrant executed in 1915 in Utah for committing a murder for which many leftists believed the authorities, influenced by the mine owners, had framed him. Hayes and Robinson composed the song during the summer of 1936, at Camp Unity, a left-wing retreat in New York’s Dutchess County, setting their lyrics to a traditional folk melody (“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”). Joan Baez later sang “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” at Woodstock in 1969:

 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead!”
“I never died,” says he. . . .
“From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill,
Where workers strike and organize,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

 

Another Popular Front success from this period was the 1937 reworking, at Tennessee’s communist-founded Highlander Folk School, of the traditional black gospel number “I Will Overcome” into “We Shall Overcome,” soon a labor rallying song.

 

Though Seeger didn’t formally join the Communist Party until 1942, the Almanacs’ lyrics marched in lockstep with the party’s views well before then. In keeping with the line adopted after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact (which caused many U.S. party members to quit in disgust), for example, the Almanacs warbled against American entry into World War II, foreshadowing the preference for peace at any price that later characterized the McGovernite Left. “Franklin D., listen to me,/You ain’t a-gonna send me ’cross the sea.” The group continued in this vein into the late 1940s. Campaigning for Progressive Party anti–cold war candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, they regularly performed a send-up of Harry Truman, to the tune of “Oh, Susannah”:

 

We’ve got to jail the communists
To keep this country free.
And everyone’s a communist
Who doesn’t vote for me.

 

(The lyrics referred to the newly enacted Smith Act, requiring Communist Party members to register with the government.) A more militant Seeger-Guthrie song, “66 Highway Blues,” threatened: “Sometimes I think I’ll blow down a cop/Lord, you treat me so mean. . . . I’m gonna start me a hungry man’s union,/Ain’t a-gonna charge no dues,/Gonna march down that road to the Wall Street Walls,/A-singin’ those 66 Highway Blues.”

 

The Almanacs/Weavers also dressed the part of authentic jes’ plain folks, sporting farmer’s overalls on stage. Anticipating the fashion affectations of later pop stars, in which studiedly grungy clothing often serves as both costume and political statement, they suffered from what biographer Dunaway calls “a bad case of proletarian chic.”

 

Ironically, given such heavy-handedness, Seeger and company would gain a far bigger influence over the broader culture through the subtlety of their later work. It was a changed America—a McCarthy-era country that now regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy, not an ally—that pushed Seeger toward a more refined style. “As the labor movement kicked out the radicals,” Seeger recalled, “I settled for ‘Let’s get America singing’; maybe the basic democratic philosophy in these folk songs will filter out subliminally to the American people.”

 

After the Weavers had some mild commercial success, including the song “Goodnight, Irene” (reportedly requested by atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to accompany their march to the electric chair), the group’s Communist Party connections drew the attention of those on the Right seeking to expel the Left from American popular culture. After the onset of the Korean War, the blacklisted group abruptly found itself without invitations to record or perform. Seeger—whom critics dubbed “Khrushchev’s songbird”—made ends meet largely by playing children’s concerts at such venues as the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and its upper school, Elisabeth Irwin High, which, as historian Ronald Radosh recounts, was known for hiring former New York City public school teachers unwilling to sign a loyalty oath.

 

In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee, holding hearings in New York on communist influence in the entertainment industry, subpoenaed Seeger. He refused to answer committee questions, including whether he was a Communist Party member, not on the usual Fifth Amendment grounds but on the grounds that he had a First Amendment right to sing and associate with those interested in hearing him. Seeger thus opened himself to criminal charges of contempt of Congress that would hang over him until 1962, when a federal judge threw out a looming ten-year prison sentence, decreeing that the singer couldn’t be held to have violated committee rules because those rules were unclear.

 

Shortly after his contempt indictment, Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” adapted from a Ukrainian folk song (quoted by Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov in his novel And Quiet Flows the Don):

 

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
The girls have picked them, ev’ry one.
Oh, when will you ever learn?
Oh, when will you ever learn?

 

And the young girls have gone to take husbands, the husbands have gone to be soldiers, the soldiers have gone to their graves, and around and around in the tragic cycle:

 

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers, ev’ry one.
Oh, when will you ever learn?
Oh, when will you ever learn?

 

Under duress, Seeger had replaced propaganda with a softer idealism. The song portrayed all war as futile, only implying that those who saw the Soviets as a threat worth fighting were—like warmongers historically—misguided, or worse.

 

Seeger had composed one other such number. Written with Weavers bandmate Lee Hayes and first performed at a 1952 benefit for communists in legal trouble, “If I Had a Hammer” was an extraordinary anthem. It pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle, and extolling freedom and justice while implying that these quintessentially American qualities were the very virtues that American society lacked:

 

If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land.
I’d hammer out a danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out of love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.

 

And so, too, if he had a bell to ring and a song to sing:

 

Now I have a hammer
And I have a bell
And I have a song to sing
All over this land.
It’s the hammer of justice,
It’s the bell of freedom,
And a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.

 

“Only Commies used words like peace and freedom,” Seeger later recalled. “The message was that we’ve got tools and we are going to succeed. The last verse didn’t say, ‘there’s no hammer, there ain’t no bell but honey I got you.’ ” No flinching for Seeger.

 

Both songs owed much to Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” his 1940 response to Irving Berlin’s straightforwardly patriotic “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s proclamation that “this land is made for you and me” contained an accusation that an unjust social system was robbing the country’s rightful owners—an accusation that a couple of verses made quite directly:

 

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

 

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

 

Seeger, for his part, was leaving such rhetoric far behind. So brilliantly understated did he become that he even crafted a protest song out of the Old Testament. His musical version of chapter three of Ecclesiastes—“Turn, Turn, Turn”—amended slightly the words of Scripture, transforming the meaning of the biblical poetry. Ecclesiastes observed, but did not judge, the cycles of life: “To everything there is a season.” To the penultimate phrase, “a time for war, a time for peace,” Seeger added his own: “I swear it’s not too late,” giving the words an activist edge. The song became an anti–Vietnam War anthem and a Number One hit for songwriter Seeger, thanks to the Byrds’ folk-rock version, which topped the Billboard pop chart in December 1965.

 

Even earlier, of course, the civil rights movement had given further momentum to the politicization of popular music. (The Popular Front had long recognized that the plight of American blacks offered an effective tool in its effort to discredit the American system as a whole.) Seeger ardently supported the civil rights movement, and his “We Shall Overcome” concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1963—two months before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—marked a watershed in it. The “We Shall Overcome” concert would have been notable for its name alone, which made a household word of what had already become a civil rights standard. But there was much more: the show ran through the whole Popular Front songbook, from Guthrie and Leadbelly to a Spanish civil war ballad and the beautiful “Oh Freedom,” a song not originally of the Left but of black Union troops joining with other Americans to bring slavery to an end.

 

I remember buying the album of the concert and singing along with it endlessly. Among its songs was “Little Boxes,” Berkeley songwriter Malvina Reynolds’s sarcastic dismissal of the aspirations of American suburban homeowners. “Little Boxes,” a sneer of alienation, expressed a new sort of critique of capitalism—one that would have many echoes in later pop music. For Reynolds, it seemed, mass prosperity was no better than the Great Depression.

 

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.
And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers, and business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.
The counterculture was knocking at the gate.

 

Seeger debuted another soon-to-be-classic left-wing war-is-never-the-answer number at Carnegie Hall: “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a hymn-like vision of nuclear apocalypse written by a talented young songwriter:

 

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

 

The songwriter, Bob Dylan, would shortly overtake Seeger as the leading force politicizing popular music.

 

The young Dylan quickly mastered the anthemic songwriting style of “If I Had a Hammer.” The same month that Seeger performed at Carnegie Hall, Peter, Paul, and Mary released a version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with its unmistakable, though implicit, references to the civil rights struggle. It suggested that America was no more just, and probably less so, than other nations:

 

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man? . . .

 

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

 

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

 

If Seeger was the Popular Front’s Lenin, Dylan was its Che Guevara, complete with motorcycle. Dylan clearly absorbed Seeger’s lesson on subtle songwriting. In his recent memoir, Chronicles, he notes that “protest songs are hard to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional.” But Dylan went beyond Seeger by being rock-star glamorous. Heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beats as well as the political Left, Dylan struck a pose of alienation and nonconformity that has served as a model for so many popular musicians since. Picking up where “Little Boxes” left off, he mocked the senseless striving and meaningless materialism of American life, scoring hits like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a surreal pastiche of urban hopelessness boasting a line that would inspire a wave of leftist extremism: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

 

Thirty years after the Popular Front issued its call to transform culture through music, it had now become proper, even natural, for popular music to embrace leftist moral and political causes and for many young Americans to look to musicians for guidance on such matters. As Joan Baez, then emerging as a glamorous folk diva and Dylan duet partner, put it: “There’s never been a good Republican folk singer.” The Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, in his great novel of post-colonial Africa, A Bend in the River, captured the self-indulgence of these attitudes of opposition and protest when expressed by those who enjoyed, as did Baez and Dylan, the prosperity and security of a free society:

 

I asked Indar, “Who is the singer?”
He said, “Joan Baez. She’s very famous in the States.”
“And a millionaire,” Yvette said.
I was beginning to recognize her irony. . . . You couldn’t listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn’t sing songs about the end of the world unless . . . you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it.

 

By no measure has all, or even most, popular music since the 1960s been overtly political. But the Popular Front’s ethos, styles, and heroes have become part of the American cultural mainstream. The annual Woody Guthrie Award ceremony, recognizing singers “who exemplify Woody Guthrie’s social activism and personal commitment to the visions and hopes of people,” takes place at the Waldorf-Astoria, for instance. What Howe and Coser wrote in 1957 remains true: “Between the ‘progressive’ sentiments of Popular Front politics, and a certain kind of urban middle-brow cultural yearning, there was a deep rapport—most of all, a common anxiety and pathos—which the Communists brilliantly exploited. . . . Even after the Popular Front lay shattered . . . the style of American mass culture retained many of its crucial elements.”

 

Its echoes in music are ubiquitous. We hear them in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a vapid celebration of moral relativism that, like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” tells us that no cause is really worth fighting for:

 

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
No religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

 

We hear the echoes, too, in the music of the man who organized the Artists for John Kerry tour: Bruce Springsteen, who specializes in depicting the desolation of American life in albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad (a self-conscious reference to Guthrie). The emblematic Springsteen song, “Born in the USA,” laments the meaningless sacrifice of the Vietnam vet, the ultimate used and abused working-class hero:

 

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up.

 

Born in the USA, I was born in the USA
I was born in the USA, born in the USA.

 

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man.

 

Born in the USA. . . .

 

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son, if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand?” . . . .

 

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.

 

Born in USA, I was born in the USA. . . .

 

Juxtaposed with the bleak lyrical narrative of tragedy and indifference, the song’s seemingly celebratory chorus becomes a parody of patriotism, implying the foolishness of the benighted blue-collar victim of the system, naive enough to think that it’s really a good thing to be an American—or, God forbid, that America might be worth fighting for.

 

It’s tempting to dismiss the politicization of popular music as of limited consequence. But as the Popular Front keenly grasped, culture matters—and music matters perhaps most of all. Allan Bloom, glossing Plato, wrote that “to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or society, one must ‘mark the music.’ ” In America, popular music provides a soundtrack for growing up. And the lyrics of that music too often deliver the message that our leaders are “idiots,” that our politics are corrupt, that bourgeois life is purposeless, that this country is no freer than any other—and probably less so. How can we find ourselves surprised, then, by the cool indifference that typifies many kids raised in times of affluence, freedom, and peace?

 

For his part, Pete Seeger, who lives near the Hudson in Wappingers Falls, New York, continues to perform, now singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” as a protest against the Iraq war, a radical to the end. “I’m still a communist, in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” he told Mother Jones last autumn. (The lefty magazine crowns Seeger “the grand old lion of the Left.”)

 

Happily, some have embraced the Popular Front’s legacy in ways that Seeger probably didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t likely approve. In March, a crowd in Taipei, several hundred thousand–strong, sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” as part of a protest against forcible annexation by mainland China—and the prospect of Communist Party rule.

 

Voir aussi (merci Nihil Obstat)

Seeger Speaks — and Sings — Against Stalin

Ron Radosh – Special to the Sun
August 31, 2007

 

Pete Seeger, America’s best-known and most influential folksinger, wrote me a letter a few days ago. I did not expect to hear from him. Last June, I wrote in these pages about the new documentary on his life. The article ran under the headline « Time for Pete Seeger To Repent. »

 

My complaint was that the film, good as it is, did not give a completely honest account of Mr. Seeger’s politics. The filmmaker, Jim Brown, interviewed me on camera, but he did not include any of my critical remarks in the final version. In my interview, I pointed out that Mr. Seeger had been a lifelong follower of the Communist Party, changing his songs and his positions to be in accord with the ever-changing party line. He attacked the blacklist of the 1950s, which kept him off the air, but never seems to have said anything about Stalin’s death list. As Martin Edlund has written in The New York Sun, Mr. Seeger has always been inseparable from his social mission. Much of it deserves praise – he was at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights – but much of it must be condemned and not hidden from sight.

 

In particular, I said that Mr. Seeger had supported Stalin’s tyranny for so many years yet had never written a song about the Gulag. Yet some acknowledgment of his former support would have been appropriate, especially considering the songs he has sung about the Nazi death camps, which he often introduces by saying, « We must never forget. »

 

So I felt some trepidation when I got Mr. Seeger’s letter. Surely he was angry, or at the least peeved, by my article. I had been a banjo student of his in the 1950s and regarded Mr. Seeger as my childhood hero and mentor. But for decades since then, I have been publicly identified as an opponent of much of what he has believed — that the Rosenbergs were innocent, for example, or that Fidel Castro was a friend of the poor.

 

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. »

 

I was deeply moved that Mr. Seeger, now in his late 80s, had decided to acknowledge what had been his major blind spot – opposing social injustice in America while supporting the most tyrannical of regimes abroad. Mr. Seeger rarely performs anymore. But if he does, and if he sings this song, I suspect that few in the audience would have any idea of what it is about. And I doubt that any other singer today would cover it. Only an audience composed entirely of the now-aging old left veterans would understand it instantly. Undoubtedly, many of them would be shocked.

 

I phoned Mr. Seeger at his home in Beacon, NY, and thanked him for his letter and its warm and supportive tone. We spent some time reminiscing about the old days and people we knew and things we had experienced together. Turning to a discussion of the community he lives in, Mr. Seeger told me he’s a friend of the Republican mayor of his town, who sponsors community events and welcomes him as a participant. Mr. Seeger, it is clear, believes in bringing people together for good works, and in reconciliation.

 

Mr. Seeger is still a man of the political left, 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.

Un commentaire pour Musique: Que sont devenues les fleurs? (Pete Seeger: How Khrushchev’s songbird took over Tinseltown)

  1. […] La politisation de la musique populaire américaine date des années 60, mais elle est le produit d’une patiente stratégie politique de gauche qui a commencé au milieu des années 30 issue de l’effort du Front populaire du parti Communiste d’employer la culture populaire pour avancer sa cause (…) Une figure ressort tout particulièrement dans cette entreprise: ‘la légende de la musique folk’, chanteur-parolier et ancien pilier du Parti, Peter Seeger, maintenant âgé de 86 ans. Etant donné son influence décisive sur la direction politique de la musique populaire, il est bien possible que Seeger ait été le communiste américain le plus efficace de l’histoire. (…) Si Seeger était le Lénine du Front Populaire, Dylan était son Che Guevara, moto comprise. Howard Husock […]

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