Ron Radosh

My Final Words on Pete Seeger: Part II

Last time I wrote about Pete Seeger, my friend Chris Gersten posted a comment, betting me 10 to 1 that although I called my blog “My Final Words on Seeger,” that they wouldn’t be.  You win, Chris!

The reason is the amazing blog on Huffington Post- yes the liberal Huffington Post- by writer Jesse Larner, a man of the Left, and a devoted fan of traditional folk music. Lo and behold, Larner is even tougher on old Pete than me! I better watch out or my reputation will dwindle. Larner confesses that although he is supposed to feel “mystically uplifted by the dean of activist folkies,”  he writes, “I never could stand Pete.” Boy, I can just see his hate mail arriving in the droves in his email box. The HuffPo will be overwhelmed, and his blog will endanger their server.

The reason he dislikes him is that he argues Seeger’s music- which he argues is not really folk music- “has done tremendous damage, and his politics” have done even more. He writes that the music the 50’s and early 60’s folk groups sang were not the real thing, but “denatured coffee-house comforts that have little do with the life that informed the originals.”

That argument goes back to something I wrote decades ago. In fact, it was my very first published article, appearing in Sing Out! way back in 1959! It was called “Commercialism and the Folk Music Revival,” and it too kicked up a storm among fans of The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, and all those ersatz groups. I argued therein that these so-called folk groups were nothing but “prostitutes with banjos and guitars,” (I was not too subtle back then) and the music they sang took all the power away from the original artists whom they were covering.

I did, however, exempt Seeger and The Weavers from my critique. Back then, I believed that they made the songs more accessible, and would lead people back to the originals. Now, it is Bruce Springsteen that serves that task, as I argued here.

But Larner deserves great credit for putting into words what is so special and exciting about the great traditional artists that we thankfully can still access on newly remastered CD’s, some from back in the 1920’s. He compares Doc Watson’s version of “Tom Dooley” favorably to the hit single of The Kingston Trio, which he rightfully says is full of “anguished artistry.” One might also listen to the original the Trio and Watson learned it from, the old recording “Tom Dula”  by Frank Warner, who collected the song on his travels. All of the copycats, he says, are guilty of “bowdlerization of the folk tradition.”

Larner also makes a good comparison between Pete and Bob Dylan, the latter who was once seen as the folk/protest successor to Woody Guthrie. Seeger, he claims, came from a distinguished family of musicians and academics, filled with CP style “class-consciousness.”  They believed that “art is a weapon,” a slogan Seeger adopted for himself in the 30’s and 40’s. Dylan, on the other hand, came to music without this old Left political agenda. When his Trotskyist friends at UM tried to proselytize him, it didn’t take, just as Dave Van Ronk failed when he did his best to convert and educate Dylan.  What Dylan did, Larner writes, was to “bend the tradition to his personal artistic purposes, while still being true to his essence and power.”  His songs made a point in a subtle fashion, and he steered clear, for the most part, of “over polemic.” It was Dylan who rudely told his friend Phil Ochs, “You’re not a singer-songwriter, Phil, you’re a journalist.”

Dylan, he writes, was “nobody’s spokesman, nobody’s pet ‘protest’ singer.” Quite true. Most people do not realize that Dylan never showed up for any anti-Vietnam war protest rally or event, despite many people assuming he was part of it. Turning to Dylan’s famous going electric at Newport 1965, Larner speculates that Seeger’s much repeated claim (including in Jim Brown’s recent movie) was only upset because the sound was so poor, and people couldn’t hear Dylan’s socialist message, is what Larner calls “a lie, or more charitably, an example of the malleability of self-interested memory.”

Larner is more correct than he realizes. He obviously did not read the new edition of David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, published by Villard Books in 2008. Seeger gave Dunaway his actual diaries.  In them Seeger wrote: “Last week in Newport I ran to hide my eyes and ears because I could not bear either the screaming of the crowd nor some of the most destructive music this side of Hell. Who knows, but I am one of the fangs that sucked Bob dry? It is in the hope that I can learn that I write these words asking question I need help to answer; using language I never intended; hoping perhaps I’m wrong. But if I’m right, hoping that it won’t happen again.”

It was but a short trip to one of the left-wing protest singer types screaming out during Dylan’s British tour, “Judas,” as he got on stage with The Band. And Pete’s colleague and fellow Communist, the late Ewan MacColl, publicly condemned Dylan in the pages of Sing Out! for abandoning folk music and the Guthrie-Seeger oeuvre for his own personal stream of consciousness songwriting.

Turning to politics, Larner actually endorses my political critique of Seeger- a brave thing for a man of the Left to do. And he ridicules Seeger’s words explaining that it wasn’t simply Stalinism or Leninism that was wrong, but simply “the human faith in violence.” He points out something I did not know- that Pete recently received a medal of honor from Fidel Castro, that probably stands alongside the one he got from President Bill Clinton after the Kennedy Center awards.  Seeger’s so called idealism, Larner writes, “is disgusting.”

Getting an honor from Castro, Larner says, “is one of those clarifying events for those who may be trying to figure out how to think of Seeger.”In other words, it’s not just Pete’s past in the30’s and 40’s that we’re taking into account. It’s his politics today, in the world in which we now live. And to accept an award from the ruler of the Cuban gulag is both inexcusable and unconscionable.  

So Larner has it right: One must view Seeger’s music and politics as a whole—“as a kind of condescending sentimental reductionism that masked a fierce identification with power.” All that stuff by Seeger about “fighting for justice,” he writes, is something Seeger never really meant.

Here, I must disagree. The great irony is that Seeger did care, deeply, about the deprivation of civil rights by American blacks in the era of segregation. He stood with them and made their songs popular. He was right; he was part of a cause of those who sought to make American democracy a complete reality for all its citizens. His mistake was to never get past that point. When Al Sharpton led a fight on behalf of the phony Tawana Brawley, Seeger picketed with him and helped destroy the life of the brave prosecuting attorney who brought charges against her. He did not seem to realize that America had moved on.

So I understand Jesse Larner’s anger and disgust not only with Seeger, but with those who celebrate him. The recent tributes are both “embarrassing and humiliating.” And his review of Seeger’s recent CD simply demolishes it completely as “ridiculous, earnest, puerile nonsense. And having heard it, I would add very bad songs as well. You can be sure Dylan won’t play any of them on “Theme Time Radio With Bob Dylan.”

Pete, he concludes, wants tyrants dead, but only “the right kind of tyrants,” not those on the Left, whom he still reveres.

So Kudos to Jesse Larner and Huffington Post, for his decision to write this article and HoffPo’s willingness to write it. May it spread through the internet, and infuriate the true believers of the Left.