Le monde moderne n’est pas mauvais : à certains égards, il est bien trop bon. Il est rempli de vertus féroces et gâchées. Lorsqu’un dispositif religieux est brisé (comme le fut le christianisme pendant la Réforme), ce ne sont pas seulement les vices qui sont libérés. Les vices sont en effet libérés, et ils errent de par le monde en faisant des ravages ; mais les vertus le sont aussi, et elles errent plus férocement encore en faisant des ravages plus terribles. Le monde moderne est saturé des vieilles vertus chrétiennes virant à la folie. G.K. Chesterton
“Communism is 20th Century Americanism » Slogan du PC américain
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)
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 par Mikhaïl 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 »)
Franklin D, listen to me, You ain’t a-gonna send me ’cross the sea. You may say it’s for defense That kinda talk ain’t got no sense. Pete Seeger
Now, Mr. President You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses I guess you know best just where I can fight . . . So what I want is you to give me a gun So we can hurry up and get the job done! Pete Seeger
I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. (…) I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. Pete Seeger (réponse au Comité des affaires antiaméricaines, 1955)
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’. Pete Seeger
Today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard-driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks … for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let’s look ahead. Pete Seeger (autobiographie, 1997)
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)
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 »)
Il n’y a jamais eu de bon chanteur de folk républicain. Joan Baez
At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us. Bruce Springsteen
Once called ‘America’s tuning fork,’ Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community — to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Barack Obama
Seeger would sing and give his support to peace rallies and marches covertly sponsored by the Soviet Union and its Western front groups and dupes — while leaving his political criticism only for the United States and its defensive actions during the Cold War. Ronald Radosh
If authoritarianism of the right or left ever comes to America it will come surrounded by patriotism and show business. It will be made fashionable by talented people like Pete Seeger. John P. Roche (president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in the 1960s and speechwriter for Hubert Humphrey)
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
Membre du PC américain jusqu’en 1950, pacifiste et défaitiste révolutionnaire opposé à l’engagement américain dans la Deuxième guerre mondiale jusqu’à comme il se doit l’invasion de l’Union soviétique, excuses aussi tardives que sommaires et réticentes pour son soutien prolongé du régime stalinien, approbation jusque dans les années 70 des expulsions de dissidents par les régimes marxistes tels que le chanteur est-allemand Wolf Biermann, dument en 1999 primé par le régime castriste …
A l’heure où, pour faire avaler sa pilule socialiste, le Handicapeur en chef menace désormais de gouverner par décret …
Et où, au-delà de l’accord général sur l’indéniable apport d’un homme sans qui Bob Dylan ou Bruce Springsteen ou même Woody Guthrie n’auraient probablement jamais existé, la mort, à 94 ans, d’un des véritables pionniers de la musique populaire américaine semble, à l’instar de sa carrière entière, diviser les commentateurs …
Comment ne pas voir, comme a l’honnêteté de le rappeler The Atlantic …
Que, derrière son attachement certes éminemment « américain » (et naïf ?) à la cause du plus faible et de l’opprimé …
Le fils de musicologue passé par Harvard comme son père et, entre l’adaptation d’un livre de la Bible (L’Ecclésiaste pour « Turn, turn turn« ) et d’un chant ukrainien (« Where have all the flowers gone ?« ) sans parler d’une chanson miltaire israélienne (Tzena, Tzena, Tzena et d’un chant zoulou (“Wimoweh”), d’un chant national cubain (« Guantanamara« ) et de son célibrissime hymne au marteau et à la faucille (« If iI had a hammer« ), co-auteur de l’hymne de la lutte des droits civiques (« We shall overcome« , à partir d’un vieux negro spiritual) …
A vraiment représenté l’idéal-type, redoutablement efficace, de l‘idiot utile du communisme ?
The folksinger’s romance with Stalinism remains disturbing, but it can’t be separated from the rest of his work—nor from U.S. history.
David A. Graham
Jan 29 2014
Pete Seeger chats with Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace aboard a plane during a 1948 barnstorming tour. (Associated Press)
In death as in life, Pete Seeger brought Americans together, then divided them into warring ideological camps. To oversimplify, one can lump the political reactions to Seeger’s death on Monday at 94 into two groups. There are those, generally on the center-left, who praise Seeger heartily, accenting his stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while quietly—if at all—acknowledging his disturbingly durable devotion to Communism. And there are those, mostly on the right, who acknowledge Seeger’s importance and praise his less political songs while arguing, in essence, that his politics sadly tainted the rest of his career.
Both approaches offer serious problems. Seeger’s political record—as a whole, not taken selectively—is exactly the point. As Andrew Cohen wrote in his appreciation, Seeger was often described as “anti-American”:
I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.
Seeger’s beliefs sometimes led him to grievously wrong conclusions, but it’s not un-American to be wrong, and that same politics is what also led him to stand up to McCarthyism, fight for the environment, and march with labor unions, too. (To which one might waggishly add, can anyone to whom Bruce Springsteen had dedicated a tribute be anything other than All-American?) Nor can one separate his music from his politics, something former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to do.
To understand why the full range of Seeger’s political activities are indivisible from his music, you have to begin with his childhood and entry in the folk scene through his parents’ involvement. There’s an instructive comparison here with Nelson Mandela, whose relationship with the Communist Party was a newly contentious topic in the days after his death. Unlike Mandela, whose alliance with Communism seems to have been a brief and opportunistic response to the brutal apartheid regime, Seeger’s was deeply rooted. Unlike the rural folk musicians he emulated, Seeger was no naif. His father was a Harvard-educated musicologist and his stepmother a composer, both early folk aficionados; he himself enrolled at Harvard. Later, Seeger also worked as an intern for the great folk-song collector Alan Lomax. The recordings that early 20th century collectors made are the basis of what we now know as American music, from blues to old-time country.
The early folk movement was overtly and radically political, reaching across class boundaries and celebrating of common people.
It’s easy to mock folkies as bearded hippies today, but the early folk movement was overtly and radically political, reaching across class boundaries and celebrating of common people. The participants were preserving what seemed to them to represent an important part of the American identity, a part that was in danger of disappearing under pressure from the modern world. The class consciousness of that movement easily (perhaps inevitably) led to socialist and communist politics. As my colleague Rebecca Rosen notes, even Seeger’s choice of an instrument was charged. Like James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (or for that matter The Grapes of Wrath), the early folk collectors evinced a belief in the wisdom of the common people, but also an anger at their destitution—all the more extreme in an era before New Deal infrastructure projects and labor reforms. Even after FDR, that radicalism remained. There’s a reason that the New York folk scene was viewed with suspicion by anti-Communists in the 1950s and 1960s: Many of them were Communists.
This worldview led Seeger to some distressing and dangerous positions. He opposed American involvement in World War II up until the moment Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Though he’d quit the Communist Party by 1950, he never owned up adequately to having served as a useful idiot for the regime. The apology he delivered in his 1997 autobiography, quoted by Dylan Matthews, is shockingly terse and grudging:
Today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard-driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks … for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let’s look ahead.
As late as the 1970s, in his column in the left-wing folk magazine Sing Out!, Seeger was giving space to horrifying ideas. Dealing with the case of Wolf Biermann, a socialist singer expelled from East Germany for dissidence, he gave space to correspondents arguing that there might appropriately be limits on what artists should say in an ideal Marxist regime. In 1999, he accepted an award from Fidel Castro’s regime. It’s hard to square these actions with the ideas Seeger promoted elsewhere, and they deserves condemnations.
But while the class-leveling ambitions of Seeger and his ilk may have been extreme or wrong, labeling them un-American is ahistorical, as is the conviction that they were inevitably doomed to failure. To call Seeger’s Communist affiliation un-American is to beg the question. In Seeger’s eyes, the ideas the Communist Party stood for were quintessentially American: It sought to protect the little guy and to defend him against avaricious attacks from the powerful. He and his comrades believed they were defending the ideals the country was founded on, and if they were wrong—the country was, after all, founded by wealthy landowners—that was because they were foolish enough to naively believe the national myth.
But while the class-leveling ambitions of Seeger and his ilk may have been extreme or wrong, labeling them un-American is ahistorical, as is the conviction that they were inevitably doomed to failure.
It’s harder than ever to imagine a truly leftist America today. Labor unions are on the wane, faith in government programs is at a low, and even an elaborate, market-based plan to expand healthcare is decried as socialism. (Incredibly, Seeger managed to remain optimistic, even as his brand of politics became an odd antique.) During the 1930s, when Seeger was in his twenties, that wasn’t unpredictable. As Jacob Remes notes, Earl Browder, the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, was around that time using the slogan, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism, » arguing for a patriotic leftism.
There’s no moral equivalence between Stalin’s regime, with its millions of victims, and the 20th century American government, it’s important to remember that for Seeger and his comrades, the question of who was defending liberty was not so clear, especially at a remove from the Soviet Union. As Seeger notes in this video, he had friends who died fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, as part of the Communist and republican opposition to Francisco Franco, who was backed by Hitler. More to the point, Seeger was famously called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional body devoted to depriving Americans of their livelihoods and freedom. In Seeger’s case, they were nearly successful. An investigation managed to derail his band, the Weavers, and got him blacklisted. After refusing to testify before HUAC in 1955, he was charged with contempt of Congress in 1957 and sentenced to a year in prison in 1961, though the conviction was overturned. The incident limited his career opportunities for years to come.
Over the following decades, and as Seeger came to be seen more as a kindly uncle and graying institution than a dangerous radical, the same commitment to social justice that had led him to naively embrace Communism also led him to pen the defining anthem of the modern civil-rights era, “We Shall Overcome” and to stand side by side with Martin Luther King. It led him to protest the Vietnam War, and later against the war in Iraq. It led him to speak out against tobacco and to argue for environmental conservation. It led him to sing “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration, and it led him to march with Occupy Wall Street protesters, many angry at Obama, in 2011. In its strange way, it also led to his conniption when Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport, even if the story of Seeger trying to take an axe to the electrical cord is apocryphal. Many of these stands were and are politically contentious: King is now a celebrated idol, while the Vietnam War still divides. But each of them represented Seeger situating himself in the middle of a heated American political debate.
Unionism, Communism, pacifism—each of these political movements is an important part of both Seeger’s story and the American story. Seeger—who demanded to know, “Which side are you on?”—was perhaps not the type to embrace political ecumenicism, but trying to wipe these chapters from history or declare them outside the bounds of national identity is to perpetuate an impoverished and incomplete idea of what it means to be American.
Here in the June 1941 Atlantic, political theorist Carl Joachim Friedrich writes to condemn Songs for John Doe, an album of antiwar songs by the Almanac Singers, a group that included a young Pete Seeger on banjo and vocals. See page 668.
The Poison in Our System (The Atlantic, June 1941)
Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 94.
His death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was confirmed by his grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson.
Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10, from college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.
For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.
In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
In 2007, Pete Seeger performed in Beacon, N.Y. and spoke with The Times’s Andrew C. Revkin about climate change. Mr. Seeger died on Monday at age 94.
Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
A Generation’s Mentor
Mr. Seeger was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the ’50s and ’60s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew from Mr. Seeger’s repertory of traditional music about a turbulent America in recording his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Mr. Seeger at the Obama inaugural. At a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday, Mr. Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
Although he recorded dozens of albums, Mr. Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.
Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.
During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Mr. Seeger disappeared from commercial television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.
“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
Peter Seeger was born in Manhattan on May 3, 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.
He began playing the ukulele while attending Avon Old Farms, a private boarding school in Connecticut. His father and his stepmother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, collected and transcribed rural American folk music, as did folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. He heard the five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.
Young Pete became enthralled by rural traditions. “I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing,” he is quoted as saying in “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a biography by David Dunaway. “The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”
Planning to be a journalist, Mr. Seeger attended Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. After two years he dropped out and went to New York City, where Alan Lomax introduced him to the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Lomax also helped Mr. Seeger find a job cataloging and transcribing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
Mr. Seeger met Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Guthrie, Mr. Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, learning and trading songs.
When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line. Guthrie soon joined the group.
During World War II the Almanac Singers’ repertory turned to patriotic, anti-fascist songs, bringing them a broad audience, including a prime-time national radio spot. But the singers’ earlier antiwar songs, the target of an F.B.I. investigation, came to light, and the group’s career plummeted.
Before the group completely dissolved, however, Mr. Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. He married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough in 1943. She would become essential to his work: he called her “the brains of the family.”
When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Inc., which published political songs and presented concerts for several years before going bankrupt. He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. Mr. Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1948.
Forming the Weavers
Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. (He lived in Beacon for the rest of his life.) In 1949, Mr. Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as the Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, who was the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra. With Jenkins’s elaborate orchestral arrangements, the group recorded a repertoire that stretched from “If I Had a Hammer” and a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda), to an Israeli soldiers’ song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Onstage, they also sang more pointed topical songs.
In 1950 and 1951 the Weavers were national stars, with hit singles and engagements at major nightclubs. Their hits included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” and they sold an estimated four million singles and albums.
Their commercial success was dampened, however, when “Red Channels,” an influential pamphlet that named performers with suspected Communist ties, appeared in June 1950 and listed Mr. Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He later criticized himself for not having left the party sooner, though he continued to describe himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’ ”
By the summer of 1951, the “Red Channels” citation and leaks from F.B.I. files had led to the cancellation of television appearances. In 1951, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition. And in February 1952, a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were members of the Communist Party.
As engagements dried up, the Weavers disbanded, though they reunited occasionally in the mid-1950s. After the group recorded an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mr. Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.
Shut out of national exposure, Mr. Seeger returned primarily to solo concerts, touring college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps, building an audience for folk music among young people. He started to write a long-running column for the folk-song magazine Sing Out! And he recorded prolifically for the independent Folkways label, singing everything from children’s songs to Spanish Civil War anthems.
In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his testimony he said, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” He also stated: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”
Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.
Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty. After the indictment, Mr. Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”
The Folk Revival Years
By then the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Mr. Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10.
Like Mandela, Mr. Seeger had the rare ability to accomplish great things through humility and good will. How fortunate we humans have been…
In the early Sixties my friends and I attended the UCLA Folk Festival ~~ after attending workshops with The New Lost City Ramblers, Mance…
When I got home from work yesterday, the first thing my 10-year old son told me was that Pete Seeger had died, and his entire school sang…
Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.
He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963 and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his “We Shall Overcome.”
Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from Lucille Simmons, one of the workers, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.
Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ’50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.
The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.
Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan set aside protest songs for electric rock. When Mr. Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band, some listeners booed, and reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax. But witnesses, including the festival’s producer, George Wein, and production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)
In later recountings, Mr. Seeger said he had grown angry because the music was so loud and distorted that he couldn’t hear the words.
As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.
Fighting for the Hudson River
During the late 1960s Mr. Seeger started an improbable project: a sailing ship that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he raised money to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop, which was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education.
In May 2009, after decades of litigation and environmental activism led by Mr. Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, General Electric began dredging sediment containing PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson. Mr. Seeger and his wife also helped organize a yearly summer folk festival named after the Clearwater.
In the 1980s and ’90s Mr. Seeger toured regularly with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and continued to lead singalongs and perform benefit concerts. Recognition and awards arrived. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. In 1994 he received a Kennedy Center Honor and, from President Bill Clinton, the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”
Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the category of early influences, in 1996. Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” had reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.
Mr. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete” and, in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”
Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Ms. Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. That August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.
Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; two half-sisters, Peggy, also a folk singer, and Barbara; eight grandchildren, including Mr. Jackson and the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural; and four great-grandchildren. His half-brother, Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.
Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”
We shouldn’t forget that Pete Seeger was Communism’s pied piper.
National Review online
January 29, 2014
For some liberals, there really are no adversaries to their left. President Obama’s statement Tuesday on the death of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 was remarkable. Seeger was a talented singer, but he was also an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995, when he finally apologized for “following the [Communist] party line so slavishly.” You’d think Obama might have at least acknowledged (as even Seeger did) the error of his ways. Instead, Obama celebrated him only as a hero who tried to “move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”
“Over the years, Pete used his voice — and his hammer — to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation,” said Obama. “We will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Not even a hint that the “world peace” Seeger was seeking was one that would have been dominated by the Soviet Union.
I found Seeger a highly talented musician who raised American folk music to a new standard. But, as with other artists — the Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and the fascist poet Ezra Pound — an asterisk must be placed beside their names for their service in behalf of an evil cause.
Time magazine’s obituary of Seeger was entitled: “Why Pete Seeger Mattered: The Pied Piper of the People’s Music.”
Recall that the original Pied Piper lured away the children of an entire town. They disappeared into a cave and were never seen again. When Seeger sang “If I Had a Hammer,” what he really meant was “If I Had a Hammer and Sickle.”
As historian Ronald Radosh wrote: “Seeger would sing and give his support to peace rallies and marches covertly sponsored by the Soviet Union and its Western front groups and dupes — while leaving his political criticism only for the United States and its defensive actions during the Cold War.” Radosh, an admirer and onetime banjo student of Seeger’s, says he is grateful Seeger ultimately acknowledged the crimes of Stalin.
Fair enough, but it’s not enough to say, as liberal blogger Mike O’Hare wrote, that Seeger “was wrong ‘for the right reasons’ (ignorance and misplaced hope, not bloody-mindedness or cruelty), and in the days he got Stalin wrong, a lot of good people did the same.”
Actually, the vast majority didn’t, and we shouldn’t forget those who did. The late John P. Roche, who served as president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in the 1960s and was a speechwriter for Hubert Humphrey, once told me that the success American Communists had in the 1930s by wrapping their ideology in the trappings of American traditions had to be remembered. “If authoritarianism of the right or left ever comes to America it will come surrounded by patriotism and show business,” he told me. “It will be made fashionable by talented people like Pete Seeger.”
Roche vividly recalled how American Stalinists suddenly flipped on the issue of Nazi Germany after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 brought the two former adversaries together. “Stalinists acclaimed this treaty as the high point of 20th century diplomacy,” Roche wrote in 1979. He vividly recalled “the laudatory speech” that the future congresswoman Bella Abzug gave in support of the pact at Hunter College in 1940.
The next year, Pete Seeger, a member of the Young Communist League, lent his support for the effort to stop America from going to war to fight the Nazis. The Communist-party line at the time was that the war between Britain and Germany was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. The album Seeger and his fellow Almanac Singers, an early folk-music group, released was called “Songs for John Doe.” Its songs opposed the military draft and other policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Franklin D, listen to me,
You ain’t a-gonna send me ’cross the sea.
You may say it’s for defense
That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.
Just one month after the album was released, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The album was quickly withdrawn from circulation, and Seeger and his buddies immediately did a 180-degree turn and came up with new songs:
Now, Mr. President
You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight . . .
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!
Seeger may have formally left the Communist party in 1949, but for decades afterward he would still identify himself as “communist with a small c.”
We can honor Seeger the singer and mourn his passing. But at the same time we should respect the power that popular culture has over people and warn against its misuse. The late Andrew Breitbart lived largely to remind us that culture is upstream of politics — our culture is a stream of influence flowing into our politics.
Pete Seeger aimed to change both our culture and our politics. Howard Husock wrote at NRO this week that he “was America’s most successful Communist.”
I recall interviewing East German dissidents in 1989 who were still angry at Seeger and Kris Kristofferson for the concerts they did on behalf of the Communist regime that built the Berlin Wall. He was hailed in the pages of Neues Deutschland, the Communist-party newspaper in East Berlin, as “the Karl Marx of the teenagers.”
By all means, let’s remember Pete Seeger for his talent while also remembering the monstrous causes he sometimes served.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.
Al Jazeera America
29 January 14
Like his party associates, Seeger was consistently on the right side of history
hen the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94, remembrances of him, unsurprisingly, focused less on his music than on his social activism. All the better – Seeger, the epitome of tireless commitment to « the cause, » would have liked it that way.
Some comments were laudatory, praising every aspect of his advocacy. But most of them struck the balanced tone of The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, who tweeted: « I love and will miss Pete Seeger but let’s not gloss over that fact that he was an actual Stalinist. »
Such attempts at balance miss the mark. It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a Communist.
This point is not to apologize for the moral and social catastrophe that was state socialism in the 20th century, but rather to draw a distinction between the role of Communists when in power and when in opposition. A young worker in the Bronx passing out copies of the Daily Worker in 1938 shouldn’t be conflated with the nomenklatura that oversaw labor camps an ocean away.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, time after time American Communists such as Seeger were on the right side of history – and through their leadership, they encouraged others to join them there.
Communists ran brutal police states in the Eastern bloc, but in Asia and Africa they found themselves at the helm of anti-colonial struggles, and in the United States radicals represented the earliest and more fervent supporters of civil rights and other fights for social emancipation. In the 1930s, Communist Party members led a militant anti-racist movement among Alabama sharecroppers that called for voting rights, equal wages for women and land for landless farmers. Prominent and unabashedly Stalinist figures such as Mike Gold, Richard Wright and Granville Hicks pushed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to be more inclusive and led the mass unionization drives of the era. These individuals, bound together by membership in an organization most ordinary Americans came to fear and despise, played an outsize and largely positive role in American politics and culture. Seeger was one of the last surviving links to this great legacy.
« Stateside Communists were the underdogs, fighting the establishment for justice – the victims of censorship and police repression, not its perpetrators. »
American communism was different during those years. It wasn’t gray, bureaucratic and rigid, as it was in the U.S.S.R., but creative and dynamic. Irving Howe thought it was a put-on, a « brilliant masquerade » that fought for the right causes but in a deceptive, opportunistic way. But there was an undeniable charm to the Communist Party – an organization that hosted youth dances and socials, as well as militant rallies – that first attracted Seeger. One need only reread the old transcripts from his 1955 run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee to see the difference between the stodginess of the interrogators and the crackling wit of the young firebrand.
Stateside Communists were the underdogs, fighting the establishment for justice – the victims of censorship and police repression, not its perpetrators.
Seeger, like other party members, came to regret the illusions he held about the Soviet Union. He apologized for thinking that « Stalin was simply a ‘hard-driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. » But he never abandoned his commitment to organized radical politics. Along with Angela Davis and other prominent former Communist Party members, he helped form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a democratic socialist group, in 1991.
At the folk legend’s 90th birthday celebration, Springsteen delivered a heartfelt, beautiful speech
January 28, 2014
Bruce Springsteen made no secret of his admiration for American icon Pete Seeger. In 2009, at a 90th birthday celebration held at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden in the latter’s honor, Springsteen put into words just how he felt. It’s a lovely, touching speech — especially today as we remember the folk legend — and you can watch it here:
Below is a transcript of Springsteen’s words:
As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama’s Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of « We Shall Overcome. » How it moved from a labor movement song, and with Pete’s inspiration, had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang « This Land Is Your Land, » I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the Sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable, and Pete had 30 extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was so happy that day. It was like, « Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man! » It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like 15 degrees, and Pete was there. He had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing.
Look back at Pete Seeger’s remarkable life in photos
And I asked him how do you want to approach « This Land Is Your Land? » It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, « Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote. Especially the two that get left out: about private property and the relief office. » And I thought, of course, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won’t let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country’s illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us.
On top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He’s funny and very eccentric. I’m gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. It says, « Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy / Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries / Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air / Look for me, Mom, I’ll be there. »
Well, Pete has always been there.
For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it’s simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals.
I’m happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.
This is for Pete…
Remarking on Seeger, Bruce Springsteen once said that « he’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. »
In stark contrast to the role played by state socialists abroad, that’s a good way to describe the legacy of the Communist Party at home, a legacy Seeger never recanted.
See Also: Here’s the Amazing Transcript of Pete Seeger Pissing Off the House Un-American Activities Committee