I’m willing to forgive Seeger his Stalinism. Some of my most-admired artists were Stalinists, for example, Bertolt Brecht, whose rendition of his own “Song of the Unattainability of Human Striving” from The Threepenny Opera is the funniest performance of the funniest song of the 20th century. I can’t forgive him his musical fraud: the mind-deadening, saccharine, sentimental appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste in his signature songs — “I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and so forth. Bob Dylan (of whom I’m not much of a fan) rescued himself from the bathos by poisoning the well of sentimentality with irony. His inheritance is less Dylan than the odious Peter, Paul and Mary.
One of Seeger’s great selling points is that during the great leveling of the 1960s, any idiot who could play three chords on a guitar could plunk and howl through most of his repertoire. Try to play like Robert Johnson. There’s a great gulf fixed. Johnson may have been self-taught, but his music sought to rise above adversity and sorrow with craft and invention. The folkies aimed lower. Tom Lehrer got it exactly right half a century ago. I know how mean-spirited and vengeful this sounds, but after suffering through this pap through my childhood, I feel entitled. Everyone deserves a few free passes at petty rancour, and I am going to use one of mine on Pete Seeger.
Related: For more thoughts about Seeger, don’t miss Ed Driscoll on “Pete Seeger’s Totalitarian Trifecta,” and Rick Moran, who asks, “Is It Possible to Love the Artist, but Hate His Politics?”