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Ron Radosh

On the Nature of Academic Freedom and Bob Cohen on Pete Seeger

April 30th, 2009 - 1:24 pm

Pete Seeger’s birthday: Part 2

Today I am printing an e mail I received from one of my oldest friends, Bob Cohen, currently Cantor at a Reform synagogue in Kingston, New York. Cohen, folk music aficionados may know, was a member of the folk era group, “The New World Singers,” with Happy Traum and Gil Turner. The liner notes for their Atlantic Records album was written by a new young singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. Dylan wrote this about Cohen:

” Bob Cohen’s quiet – I first seen him at a City College folksong hall an’ thought he was some sort of a Spanish gypsy by the way he wore his sideburns an’ moustache an’ eyebrows – but he didn’t talk so I couldn’t tell – I must a sat an hour next to him waitin’ to hear some gypsy language – he never said a word – he laughed a few times but all folks no matter what race laughs in the same tongue – I seen him sing later that night an’ it didn’t bother my thoughts no more as to if he was gypsy or gigolo – he tol’ me more about my new world in that ten minutes time than the pop radio station did all that week. ”

The group was the first to record Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” which the great Atlantic impresario Ahmet Ertegun refused to include in their record, unless they change the words to make it into a love song. Eventually it appeared in the Folkways/Smithsonian anthology of songs from Broadside magazine,  where those interested can hear it. You can read more about Bob and hear him sing on his website. Now, Cohen on Seeger:

“I was wondering what with all that is being written about Pete from a political perspective, no one has picked up on, at least according to his biographer, David King Dunaway, Pete’s antipathy, or one could say anger, at Israel.  If I remember correctly, he once put his fist through a wall in anger over whatever he thought Israel had done to the Palestinians – this is a long time ago.  Yes, the Weaver’s sang “Tzena Tzena” and an earlier pioneer song “Artsa Alinu”, but, as you have pointed out, in the beginning (of the founding of Israel) the Nation under Freda Kirchway, was very pro-Israel and now is the exact opposite.

In the broader context, for many Christians, especially clergy in some Protestant churches, and for some Jews, as long as the Jews were or are victims, it is alright to celebrate them.  Once they get some power, as in Israel, or for that matter in AIPAC, then they are the “enemy”.  I am reminded of reading that Leon Trotsky condemned his people (the Jewish pioneers) in then Palestine because they were “exploiting” the workers – Arabs.

So with these folks we are back in a world of the exploited and the exploiters – the workers and the bosses.  The irony and horror that when their brother and sister communists got into power they exploited and mass-murdered every being that had a light in their eyes, it never seems to have struck them, and Seeger is definitely one of them, as strange, pathetic, horrific.

Connected with that is Seeger’s insistence in the last book he wrote that “Zhankoye” the song that boasted of the Jewish collective farmers in Biro-Bidjan, was still authentic as a song when some Russian Jew, one of the few who remained there, asked him to sing it.  I was once asked to sing that song at a party in NYC and refused.

The self-righteousness and arrogance of the Left is un-ending and very Manichean – black and white – which side are you on?  It will be interesting to see as Obama pursues his be-nice-to-the-dictators project, how the “them” become “us” in the liberal-left press.  Will the Left ask Ahmadinejad which side is he on?  Or the same for Hugo, Raul, and Kim Il Jr?

There is, I think, a deep seated hatred and self-hatred, stemming from Karl Marx all the way down and up for Jews that cannot be blamed purely on the traditions of Christianity although it certainly has played its role.  Some of it comes from a romanticization of the workers, the folk, the people, a messianic vision of them as our saviors, angels in disguise – better than us.  If they rise up and kill us, it is our fault.

Has Seeger ever thought of taking his Clearwater project over to China which has been leaping forward in the past three or four decades in its effort to poison the world’s air?  Has anyone ever asked him that if he and Robeson had raised their voices to condemn the “harshness” of Stalin and exposed to the Western world what was going on, how many lives it may have saved?  And that not only by keeping quiet, but by denying that mass murder was taking place, they, as popular spokespeople in the West, gave their OK to what Uncle Joe was doing.  It’s easy to scoff and say that Stalin and his henchmen would have continued no matter what.  But they were also concerned about their propaganda and how the world was seeing them.  If we pause and think about how the media would have picked up on Pete and Paul making a petition, singing out, speaking out against the inhumanity of the Soviet Union, the very people who had sung it’s glory – it certainly might have saved lives – to save even one life, in Judaic belief, is to save the world.

My last thought would be to paraphrase the old song “16 Tons” – St. Peter doncha call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the communist lore (or maybe “gore” is more accurate).”

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