Ron Radosh

Happy Birthday Pete! Seeger at 90!

For those who are not aware, this coming week the bard of American folk music, Pete Seeger, turns 90. As many of my readers undoubtedly know, I have mixed feelings about Pete. A childhood hero of mine, and my first 5 string banjo instructor, I have had the occasion to write about him a lot, and to reconsider my first impressions of his life, politics and career. 

For that reason, I will throughout the week post various columns written by myself and others about Seeger. To start, I am posting Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn’s blog of April 27th. For the record, I agree with Zorn’s last sentence, about Seeger’s contribution to not only American roots music, but American music, period. 

But I also think that the 1996 column Zorn rescues from oblivion, by Stephen Chapman, is also on the mark. Later in the week, I will post more recent columns of my own that relate to the points Chapman made at the time of Seeger’s Kennedy Center award. 

So, Happy Birthday, Pete! 

Folk legend Pete Seeger turning 90 in style by Eric Zorn

Forty years after writing the stirring lyric, “Old devil time, I’m goin’ to fool you now,” Pete Seeger will turn 90 on Sunday.The sold-out concert in his honor at New York’s Madison Square Garden will feature him, of course, as well as  —
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Dave Matthews  
  • Eddie Vedder
  • John Mellencamp
  • Abigail Washburn 
  • Arlo Guthrie
  • Bela Fleck 
  • Kate & Anna McGarrigle
  • Billy Bragg
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Del McCoury
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Joan Baez
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Tom Paxton
  • Steve Earle  

— and many more amazing artists.

I wrote a letter of appreciation to Seeger in 1991. Dr. Seuss had just died, and I’d been struck by how pleased he would have been to have read and heard all the sentimental slop from grown-ups about how much his books had meant to them.

Seeger recordings gave me pleasure for years — my parents played them for me when I was a toddler —  and helped inspire me to learn to play, however indifferently, several folk instruments. And I guessed that someday soon I’d wake up and read his obituary and regret never having thanked him.

So, tactfully not mentioning what I supposed to be the inevitability of his demise as my motivation, I wrote him a brief but warm letter of thanks and received a friendly reply.

Yes, his politics were extreme and naive at times, as my colleague Steve Chapman observed in a 1995 column, but his contributions to American roots music were phenomenal.

January 1, 1995 by Tribune columnist  Stephen Chapman.

Americans have a great capacity to forgive and a small capacity to remember, which has been a great asset to the career of folk singer and national monument Pete Seeger. He was recently given two of the country’s highest arts awards despite a life spent laboring on behalf of the most malignant political ideology ever put into practice.

It is doubtful that anyone with a long history of association with Nazism could gain popularity and respect in America-even someone who had repented. But Seeger proves that a long and continuing history of association with communism is no bar to success in the leading capitalist nation on Earth.

Last week, CBS broadcast the Kennedy Center Honors, which included a tribute to Seeger. At 75, he has gained a measure of immortality for writing or co-writing such songs as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” as well as remaking an old spiritual into the protest anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” In October, President Clinton gave him the 1994 National Medal of the Arts. He praised Seeger as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”

Clinton didn’t bother to inform his unwitting constituents that the way Seeger saw things was invariably the way the Communist Party saw them. Seeger was a member from the 1930s into the 1950s. Ronald Radosh, a historian at Adelphi University and an authority on the American Left, recalls that one of Seeger’s best-loved songs, “If I Had a Hammer,” was written for a fund-raising rally to help Communist leaders arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate overthrowing the government.

Clinton further obscured the truth by saying it was a “badge of honor” that Seeger was blacklisted from radio and TV during the McCarthy era. Blacklisting was a bad thing, but some care should be taken to distinguish between those people who were harmed when they were falsely accused of being communists and those people who were harmed when they were accurately accused of being communists. Not all victims of McCarthyism were innocent victims.

Seeger generally comes across as an all-purpose idealist, portraying his career as one of “singing for civil rights, singing for peace.” The Kennedy Center press release played along, noting his “pro-union and anti-fascist songs” and his effort in the “civil rights and anti-war movements.” But when interviewed recently by The Washington Post, the old apologist for Stalin declared with pride, “I am still a communist.”

His life has been one of tireless loyalty to that set of beliefs. His father was a member of the Communist Party, and Seeger was captivated at age 11 by the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens-the American journalist who said after visiting Lenin’s Soviet Union, “I have been over into the future, and it works.”

During the Great Depression, Seeger became friends with Woody Guthrie, another folk singer who was also a faithful member of the Communist Party. In 1955, Seeger refused to testify about his party connections before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was convicted of contempt of Congress (though the conviction was overturned on appeal).

He was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, but his agenda was not quite the same as that of Eugene McCarthy or Jesse Jackson. In 1970, he wrote a song celebrating the North Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh that included these memorable lines: “He educated all the people, he demonstrated to the world: If a man will stand for his own land, he’s got the strength of 10.”

Joan Baez, one of the leftist singers he inspired, opposed the Vietnam War, but she also denounced political repression in postwar Vietnam and sang about Soviet dissidents. Seeger’s concern for justice and human rights didn’t extend quite that far. He did, however, write a song claiming that the Soviet Union had liberated Jews from oppression.

He apparently has learned nothing from the record of Stalin and his progeny. Ronald Radosh was surprised recently to see a book of writings by the brutal Sandinista Interior Minister Tomas Borge with an effusive jacket endorsement from — you guessed it — Pete Seeger.

He is not one of those artists whose art can be considered separately from his politics-like, say, Wagner or Picasso. It would be like separating the green from the grass. He has always believed in the old communist slogan, “Art is a weapon.” Nor can he be excused on the grounds that he has changed, because he hasn’t.

For his entire career, Seeger’s art has been a weapon in the service of a cause that has produced more suffering, destroyed more lives and piled up more corpses than any other form of government in human history.

Somehow, a few nice tunes don’t seem to make up for all that.