In the New York Sun, Ronald Radosh explores the early days of Pete Seeger:
The film’s most egregious moment comes when it tells us that Mr. Seeger joined the Communist Party in 1939, and drifted out of it a decade later. It relates how in 1941 he joined the first folk music group, the Almanac Singers, which sang for the labor movement and the CIO. Next the film mentions that Mr. Seeger entered the Army during World War II, another sign of his patriotism.Nowhere does this documentary describe the Almanac Singers’ very first album, “Songs for John Doe.” As readers of this newspaper know, in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a 180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR’s America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.
In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Another song, to the tune of ” Cripple Creek” and the sound of Mr. Seeger’s galloping banjo, said, “Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain’t a-gonna send us across the sea,” and ” Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me.”
The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.
Fellow useful idiots to Stalin such as Dalton Trumbo and Charlie Chaplin would make similar pivots at the same moment; it’s even possible to observe 180-degree pivots today if you look carefully enough.
Update: Orrin Judd puts it succinctly: “A few good tunes for nursery school kids don’t make up for being an agent of a murderous enemy power.”