I first heard Pete Seeger perform when I was five or six, when I was a red-diaper baby and he was blacklisted and drunk. What I recall most about the encounter was that the tip of his needle-nose glowed bright red. He was performing for a children’s group of some sort at a time when his Communist background kept him out of public venues. His records — not just the Weavers albums, but the early Asch 78’s of the Almanac Singers — were daily fare in my home, along with Woody Guthrie’s children’s songs. My parents knew Guthrie casually; my father once organized a concert for him at Brooklyn College, and my mother was Arlo Guthrie’s nursery-school teacher.
I was not just a Pete Seeger fan, but a to-the-hammer-born, born-and-bred cradle fan of Pete Seeger. With those credentials, permit me to take note of his passing with the observation that he was a fraud, a phony, a poseur, an imposter. The notion of folk music he espoused was a put-on from beginning to end.
There is no such thing as an American “folk.” We are a people summoned to these shores by an idea, not common ties of blood and culture. There is folk music in America where pockets of ethnicity resisted assimilation: African-American blues, for example, or the English songs frozen in amber in white Appalachia. That is why the best American popular music always came from black sources, performed either by black musicians or white emulators from George Gershwin on down.
Seeger’s (and Guthrie’s) notion of folk music had less to do with actual American sources than with a Communist-inspired Yankee version of Proletkult. The highly personalized style of a Robert Johnson and other Delta bluesmen didn’t belong in the organizing handbook of the “folk” exponents who grew up in the Communist Party’s failed efforts to control the trade union movement of the 1940s. The music of the American people grew out of their churches. Their instrument was the piano, not the guitar, and their style was harmonized singing of religious texts rather than the nasal wailing that Guthrie made famous. Seeger, the son of an academic musicologist and a classical violinist, was no mountain primitive, but a slick commercializer of “folk” themes with a nasty political agenda. His capacity to apologize for the brutalities of Communist regimes — including their repression of their own “folksingers” — remained undiminished with age, as David Graham reported in the Atlantic.
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?”