On Sunday, Lincoln Center Out of Doors hosted the third of five days of “New York City Honors Pete Seeger,” or Seegerfest, as the events are called. This was the festival’s main event. A concert featured artists singing songs Seeger was associated with, like “The Hammer Song,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and, of course, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The artists included old-time folkies like Judy Collins, who opened the program, Fred Hellerman of The Weavers, the popular children’s singer Dan Zanes, banjo master Tony Trischka, Tom Chapin and the Chapin sisters, and Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. The artists were a who’s-who of the ’60s folk revival and their current descendants.
Pete Seeger certainly deserves to be remembered. He was the father of the folk revival, the man who almost singlehandedly brought the 5-string banjo to popularity, and who furthered the careers of many people, including a young Bob Dylan. He mastered old-time ballads from Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains, African-American songs from the South and from the days of slavery, sea shanties, and just about everything else folk musicians perform.
But Seeger’s blind spots were his persistent Stalinism, his decades-long love affair with the American Communist Party, and his tendency to endorse and support almost every far-left campaign that asked him to sign on.
Significantly, his very last political act was to join those opponents of Israel who created the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which is dedicated to Israel’s demise and which blames the Jewish state for the entire Mideast’s woes.
The radical far-left politics of the day was symbolized by Seeger’s daughter, Tinya, who gave a pep talk about freeing Leonard Peltier — an American Indian activist found guilty of murdering FBI agents. She noted her father came to Peltier’s defense also. As usual, all the guilty who are politically Left are declared “political prisoners,” a term quickly extended to all American blacks who are serving prison sentences.
In an intermission interview with Lincoln Center’s TV host, singer Tom Chapin was perhaps the only artist who said that he didn’t come for the politics. He urged the TV audience to concentrate on the music. Alas, Seeger’s politics were intrinsic to his music. And more and more, his concerts became rallying grounds for the ultra-sectarian left-wing on campuses and elsewhere, whose main cause these days is hatred of Israel.
There were a few speeches from old timers who were Seeger’s friends over the years. The most prominent was 88-year-old Harry Belafonte, dapper and looking terrific for his age. He long ago lost his voice, but he spoke of how Seeger stood for human rights and peace when everyone else looked away. He praised Seeger’s act of defiance in 1952: Seeger refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, invoking the First Amendment and arguing that to ask one’s political affiliations violated his right to free speech that was guaranteed by the Constitution.
One did not need to have Seeger own up to his political beliefs before the HUAC, since everyone who knew where he stood knew he continually followed the Communist Party line, whatever it was at any moment. In an interview, Seeger actually said he had no interest in being any kind of Marxist scholar, but explained: “We trusted the Communists to know generally the right thing that we should be pushing for, whether it was peace or war.” To put it bluntly, he depended on the party’s commissars to do his thinking.
Belafonte compared Seeger to only one other artist who joined with Seeger in the movement, the noted African-American actor, baritone, football player, and lawyer Paul Robeson. Belafonte, who considers Robeson his mentor, was one of the most prominent defenders of Stalin’s reign, and for his efforts defending the Soviet tyrant, he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.