Communist activist and troubadour Pete Seeger is dead. The outpouring of vitriol on the right and hagiography on the left is entirely predictable and, with few exceptions, entirely banal. Turning Seeger’s death into another clash in the culture wars somehow seems tiresome, like two old boxers coming out of their corners for the 12th round. Battered, beaten, bloody, all they have left is the instinct to try to destroy each other. Whatever art and artifice they possessed disappeared long before the bell clanged for the last round.
Must we reduce everything in America to a right vs. left Armageddon? One longs for a more complicated, less knee-jerk combative analysis of people like Pete Seeger. Actually, there has been no one like Pete Seeger, and future historians will brush aside most of the shallow, venomous assaults on his memory — as well as the one-dimensional paeans that whitewash his execrable politics — and look at the totality of his life and judge his monumental contributions to American society.
What exactly were those contributions? Conservatives get squeamish when talking about “social justice” because, frankly, it’s a subject that doesn’t play well to our strengths. It suggests that not everything in America has always been perfect or necessarily “good,” which goes against our somewhat fanciful narrative of American history.
But Seeger and his communist allies saw “social justice” as a way to make inroads into mainstream America. What’s truly remarkable is that for all their efforts in this regard, they failed utterly. Their campaigns to achieve civil rights, environmental legislation, and end the Vietnam war may have succeeded to one degree or another. But the Communist Party is nowheresville in America today because the average citizen rejected it for the last eight decades.
It is right and proper that Seeger’s communist past be a featured aspect of his obituaries. But at the expense of his single-minded determination to save the American folk tradition from extinction? The man spent more than 70 years traveling the country, picking up ditties, sea shanties, work songs, disaster songs, songs of love, songs of war and peace, songs of injustice, and songs that were just plain fun. Thousands of songs that were part of the oral traditions of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the old west, the mining communities of the mountains — from sea to shining sea Seeger toiled in near obscurity at times to lovingly preserve this priceless legacy of Americana. The Smithsonian couldn’t have done any better.
We can look back in horror on some of his activism, excoriating him for his support of Stalin and Mao (saying he supported Hitler because he was in favor of the Nazi-Soviet Pact may be stretching the point). But if we examine his militancy in the context of the times, a far different picture emerges.
Seeger and his hobo traveling companion Woody Guthrie sang at labor rallies in the 1930s. This, at a time when companies were still hiring thugs and sometimes working with local police to physically assault strikers and labor organizers. “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?” they sang. Good question for us today. Which side would you have been on?
They sang the same song in the 1950s before Martin Luther King, Jr., before Rosa Parks, before the freedom marches, and before Bull Connor and his dogs.The musical advocacy for civil rights of Seeger and later folkies like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary played a large role in changing the culture. History has proved them right and regardless of what you think of President Obama, in less than a human lifetime we have gone from denying blacks the right to sit at a department store lunch counter to a black president sitting in the Oval Office. For those of a certain age, this transformation is nearly magical and almost impossible to comprehend.