Until Pete Seeger’s death at 94 last night, he was perhaps the last man alive to say that he supported Hitler, Stalin, and Ho Chi Minh. That’s quite the totalitarian trifecta.
As PJM’s own Ron Radosh — who in his younger days took banjo lessons from Seeger! — wrote in the New York Sun in 2007:
[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.
For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?
According to the film, one of Mr. Seeger’s greatest accomplishments was his tour with third-party Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948. Viewers are told only that Wallace was a peace candidate opposed to the America-created Cold War, and that he was falsely accused of being a communist. Nowhere do we learn that Wallace’s campaign was in fact a Communist Party-run affair, and that had he been elected, Wallace announced he was going to appoint men to his Cabinet who we now know were bona fide Soviet agents. Instead, we are asked to assume that every position taken by the old pro-Soviet left wing has been proved correct.
Given his lengthy career from shilling for the Hitler and Stalin non-aggression pact to dropping by Occupy Wall Street one night in 2011, Seeger was arguably “America’s Most Successful Communist,” as Howard Husock dubbed him in 2005 at City Journal:
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.
“Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever,” Husock writes. Read the whole thing.