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Is It Possible to Love the Artist, but Hate His Politics?

The culture clash over Pete Seeger's legacy.

by
Rick Moran

Bio

January 28, 2014 - 4:07 pm
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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.

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Top Rated Comments   
Can't we just discuss Hitler's art work without bringing up all those dead Jews?

Sounds a little clanky off the ear, if you have a conscience.

Separating the artistic endeavors of a man who advances evil from that evil is not merely difficult for some. It's unworthy to try. And why should they. For those for whom traitorism is the defining characteristic, whitewashing away his "motivations" with puppies and kittens anecdotes is unseemly.

I really don't care what the root causes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Moore and Bill Ayers have to become traitors to the truth. I don't care what motivated Walter Duranty. And I see no need to gush over their great genius.

Once you cross the line into anarchy, treason and advancing tyranny...your artistic or vocational exploits become secondary to your legacy. 100 million dead deserve our memories and sympathies more.

And freedom deserves that we never fail to remember.

Seeger made a choice to soil his legacy. The stain of it isn't wiped away by alibis, excuses or whitewashing of it.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here's the thing: Pete Seeger KNEW about the communist death camps, knew that Stalin out-murdered Hitler, knew about the killing fields and kept on singing communism's praises. So the answer is NO, you can't love someone who not only doesn't walk away from a monstrosity but goes on selling it to his last breath. Not clear enough? Your beloved Pete Seeger was a MONSTER.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Is It Possible to Love the Artist, but Hate His Politics?"

Not for me, but I'm just crazy that way.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (121)
All Comments   (121)
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As soon as someone begins to use his art to advance his politics it becomes appropriate to consider each in the context of the other. There are too many useful idiots out there whose opinions are shaped by constant exposure to subtle leftist messages in the arts, and once those opinions are formed they are almost impossible to reshape. When leftists Grasp the Weapon of Culture we must call them out on it even if it costs us some good music.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
We can enjoy an artist regardless of which side he was on in a labor or environmental dispute. It's quite another thing when an artist uses his art to support, and then call for the destruction of, one genocidal regime at the the behest of another genocidal regime.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Husock refers to Seeger adapting "uncopyrighted songs." Remember "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"? According to Mark Steyn, evidently Pete Seeger AKA "Paul Campbell" was a thief.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I do remember that National Review back in the Buckley era always dubbed ole Pete "the Kremlin songbird." His politics, whether from delusion or deceit, was to "social justice" what the USSR was to a bona fide "people's republic." An utter disconnect.
Seeger is dead but recall that "The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." --William Shakespeare
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
A well-balanced, brief account of Seeger, with some thoughtful and not-thoughtful comments at the end, for those who aren't yet sick of this topic....

http://spectator.org/blog/57576/pete-seeger-rip

As one responder to this brief article stated, "We mustn't fall into the same trap as the Left does - i.e. viewing all "art" through a political lens and giving a pass to unappealing or inept performers because we like their politics and dismissing superior ones because we don't."

And I'll leave it at that. :-)
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, it's all relative. Seeger's politics may have been objectionable, but I'd still rank him a head of Miley Cyrus and any "rap singer."
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
In answer to your lead question - NO!!!!! Certainly not in Pete Seeger's case. He made his career defending the worst sort of totalitarian governments and looking down with disdain at the "bourgeoisie" values of American society. He was more than a fellow traveller. I would argue that he was a full blown apparatchik for the Soviets and would have sold the U.S. out in a micro-second to the Soviets or anyone else if it would have helped "the Cause." He became indeed a true voice of the Left - hectoring, sanctimonious, shallow and preachy while all the time knowing that nobody was going to do anything to him. The "folk music" movement is one of the most unfortunate periods the history of the musical arts and should be interred with Seeger. Yeah - And that includes YOU Woody Guthrie.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment


When Seeger threw his hissy fit at Newport which revisionists scurry to obscure, he blew the cover.

It's all pretty much well known and Dylan recounts the nitty gritty of this in the brilliant Scorcese documentary No Direction Home.

As a folk musician Dylan had no contest, he simply, by talent, observation and humour blew the rest away.

By comparison Seeger was a bitter communist hack and just not in the same league.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with preserving musical tradition and I own about a thousand blues cd's, both ancient and modern which can always enthrall me but once you mix politics into the musical pot the music takes second place.

Whilst Dylan's legacy is incomparable, Seeger painted himself into his Lefty corner and there was nowhere left for him to go.

Dylan's Newport rebellion opened up a whole five bar gate through which he jumped with massive glee and it's pretty much acknowledged that his best work came after.

I don't wish this dead man any vituperation though. He did provide the stepping stone and opened up a whole new appreciation of something in danger of dissolving.

Trouble was he stuck on that self same stone, replacing any forward musical momentum with political angst and his memory post the usual fawning will diminish until a handful of old folkies and the new pretentious ones is all he'll have.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
We've often commented here about Hollywood lefties and their difficulty separating talent from politics. Surely we can be bigger than that.
I like a lot of Seeger's music and his music that I know has the politics buried pretty deep.
I think the movie is called "A Divorced Woman" -- it's a Jill Clayburgh movie, anyway, and she's dating an artist. The artist says, at one point, "A man can be a bastard and still have talent." I'll put it under that category.
I admire GW Bush -- but not as a painter, where he seems only adequate, although that makes him much more of an artist than I am.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't think burying the politics was a choice. It was forced on him by the times and probably by his desire to reach a wider audience. The communist medicine wasn't going down so good in the 50s, so he coated it with American-as-apple-pie flavoring. The message was still there, just not in your face.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Give me a break with the "Seeger was a graet artist" meme. Even after a long lifetime in his chosen field of folk music he never managed to rise above the level of pompous mediocrity. Stand him next to Hank Williams, Bob Dylan or any number of others and contemplate what an artistic midget you are looking at.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
His little brother Mike is ten times the musician, and far more delightful to see and hear. And without the rabid politics. Funny, Pete was the well known one, though mediocre.. he had mastered the art of making a scene. On the other hand, Mike has spent much of his life finding and preserving the true traditions of our forbears and their musical styles as THEY played them. Yet I'll wager not one in fifty reading of pr oraising Pete have ever even heard of Mike. I gave up on Pete decades ago. I still am an avid fan of Mike and his treasure trove of traditional music.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Count me in the group that's never heard of Mike. Thanks for the heads-up. I'll check him out ASAP.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
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