Communist activist and troubadour Pete Seeger is dead. The outpouring of vitriol on the right and hagiography on the left is entirely predictable and, with few exceptions, entirely banal. Turning Seeger’s death into another clash in the culture wars somehow seems tiresome, like two old boxers coming out of their corners for the 12th round. Battered, beaten, bloody, all they have left is the instinct to try to destroy each other. Whatever art and artifice they possessed disappeared long before the bell clanged for the last round.
Must we reduce everything in America to a right vs. left Armageddon? One longs for a more complicated, less knee-jerk combative analysis of people like Pete Seeger. Actually, there has been no one like Pete Seeger, and future historians will brush aside most of the shallow, venomous assaults on his memory — as well as the one-dimensional paeans that whitewash his execrable politics — and look at the totality of his life and judge his monumental contributions to American society.
What exactly were those contributions? Conservatives get squeamish when talking about “social justice” because, frankly, it’s a subject that doesn’t play well to our strengths. It suggests that not everything in America has always been perfect or necessarily “good,” which goes against our somewhat fanciful narrative of American history.
But Seeger and his communist allies saw “social justice” as a way to make inroads into mainstream America. What’s truly remarkable is that for all their efforts in this regard, they failed utterly. Their campaigns to achieve civil rights, environmental legislation, and end the Vietnam war may have succeeded to one degree or another. But the Communist Party is nowheresville in America today because the average citizen rejected it for the last eight decades.
It is right and proper that Seeger’s communist past be a featured aspect of his obituaries. But at the expense of his single-minded determination to save the American folk tradition from extinction? The man spent more than 70 years traveling the country, picking up ditties, sea shanties, work songs, disaster songs, songs of love, songs of war and peace, songs of injustice, and songs that were just plain fun. Thousands of songs that were part of the oral traditions of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the old west, the mining communities of the mountains — from sea to shining sea Seeger toiled in near obscurity at times to lovingly preserve this priceless legacy of Americana. The Smithsonian couldn’t have done any better.
We can look back in horror on some of his activism, excoriating him for his support of Stalin and Mao (saying he supported Hitler because he was in favor of the Nazi-Soviet Pact may be stretching the point). But if we examine his militancy in the context of the times, a far different picture emerges.
Seeger and his hobo traveling companion Woody Guthrie sang at labor rallies in the 1930s. This, at a time when companies were still hiring thugs and sometimes working with local police to physically assault strikers and labor organizers. “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?” they sang. Good question for us today. Which side would you have been on?
They sang the same song in the 1950s before Martin Luther King, Jr., before Rosa Parks, before the freedom marches, and before Bull Connor and his dogs.The musical advocacy for civil rights of Seeger and later folkies like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary played a large role in changing the culture. History has proved them right and regardless of what you think of President Obama, in less than a human lifetime we have gone from denying blacks the right to sit at a department store lunch counter to a black president sitting in the Oval Office. For those of a certain age, this transformation is nearly magical and almost impossible to comprehend.
Was Seeger right to sing and agitate for environmental legislation at a time when the Hudson River was so polluted it was oozing rather than flowing? Seeger created an environmental organization to save the river before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Was he wrong?
The point being, Seeger was often on the right side of history, regardless of whether he was a heathen communist or not. It is absolutely essential to criticize him where that criticism is justified. But you cannot separate Seeger’s music from his social activism — an activism that in his early years was certainly aimed in the right direction.
More recently, his anti-capitalist, anti-corporatist hectoring had gotten tiresome. And he adopted every nonsensical trope of the diversity and multi-cultural crowd. Perhaps this was inevitable given his waning influence on the left as he sought to remain relevant.
Howard Husock’s has some thoughts on the origins of Seeger’s activism:
The change that Pete Seeger started with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” can be seen as the culmination of a process launched decades earlier, in 1935, when the Communist Party announced its “popular front” strategy to wrap the causes of the Left in the trappings of American traditions. “Communism is 20th-century Americanism,” proclaimed Earl Browder, the American Communist Party’s general secretary. Or, as the writer V. J. Jerome put it in the title of an address to the Party’s 1951 convention, “Let Us Grasp the Weapon of Culture.” It was the genius of Seeger (who had joined the Party in 1942) to realize that the uncopyrighted songs and musical styles of the rural American South, both white and black, could be adapted to serve as the vehicles for politics.
Is that how we should see Seeger’s efforts to popularize folk music? Part of a master communist plan? Is there no room for Seeger’s passion for the music and, just as importantly, for the people the music talks about? The folk tradition, at bottom, is a musical social history of America. It’s not very pretty, at times. Nor was life in America for blacks, women, hispanics, Irish, Slavs, or any other newcomer very pretty. Listen to the ordinary voices in Page Smith’s wonderful 8 volume People’s History of the United States. Yes, they talk of brutal oppression, but also enduring hope and the certainty that they can make their lives better. This is an America that conservatives can embrace — warts and all. And Seeger, through his music, gave voice to many of the voiceless and shamed those who needed shaming.
His was an immensely consequential life. But what does it say about us that we judge that life based solely on the fact that we violently disagree with his politics? If a man is made up of many layers, do we, when the time comes to judge him, strip away the facade layer by layer and judge him in all his marvelous complexity and contradiction? Or do we take the one-dimensional track and declare him a failure based on his political beliefs?
For Seeger, you can love the artist, but hate the politics.