Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pete Seeger: American Hero

This post about Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer, caught my attention the other day.

The Ranting Raven is a friend of mine whose politics tend to skew pretty hard right most of the time. After reading his post I felt that I should offer some kind of defense of a man who I believe to be a true American hero.

Raven seems to think that Seeger’s music - including famous songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “We Shall Over Come” - is all part of some kind of grand communist conspiracy to brainwash our youth and open our nation up to being set upon by commie hordes. The musical equivalent of putting fluoride in the drinking water, I guess.
All of Seeger’s songs “were designed by a self-admitted communist for the express purpose of altering your outlook to be more favorable to the communist cause,” Raven rants.
Of course, I think this is silly nonsense. But I was intrigued by the link he provides to a “conservative intellectual” who authored a lengthy article in some right-wing journal that calls Seeger America’s Most Successful Communist.

It is true that Seeger was a member of the American Communist Party beginning in 1942 and that he continued to hold very strong leftist and socialist views after leaving the party in 1950. But some of the things that Husock alleges aren’t borne out by the facts.
Husock writes:

In keeping with the line adopted after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact (which caused many U.S. party members to quit in disgust), for example, the Almanacs warbled against American entry into World War II, foreshadowing the preference for peace at any price that later characterized the McGovernite Left. “Franklin D., listen to me,/You ain’t a-gonna send me ’cross the sea.” The group continued in this vein into the late 1940s.

Note: The Almanacs was the musical group that Seeger was a member of at the time.
But that does not jibe with Seeger’s biography in Wikipedia:

An example of Seeger's pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin attitude can be seen during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the short-lived alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. His anti-war record Songs for John Doe, released in 1941, where he called President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warmonger who worked for J.P. Morgan, expressed his displeasure about FDR's increasingly confrontational attitude with Nazi Germany. Like most members of the CPUSA, Seeger was opposed to any action against Hitler from the time of the signing of the non-aggression pact until it was broken by Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. After the breaking of the pact, Seeger along with the rest of the Almanacs, ordered all copies of "Songs for John Doe" be recalled and destroyed. Only a few copies exist to this day. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Seeger returned to his earlier stance as a strong proponent of military action against Germany; he was drafted into the Army, where he served honorably in the Pacific. Seeger left the Communist Party in 1950, five years before Nikita Khrushchev's Secret speech revealed Stalin's crimes and led to a mass exodus from the Party. He became an anti-Stalinist but retained his belief in Socialism.

So, far from continuing the ‘peace at any price’ stance into the late ‘40s, as Husock claims, we see that Seeger had already reversed himself by 1942 and then served honorably in the Army during WWII.

Seeger was still a leftist. There is no doubt about that. But so what? All that means is that he had a good heart and wanted to help people who were suffering.
Raven points to another Seeger song “Turn, Turn, Turn” based on a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (it was a hit for The Byrds in the late-‘60s) and takes offense at the last line that he added “A time of peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

Raven notes this “anti-war twist” as an example of how “the bustards permeated our society, and using such tactics, managed to hide in plain sight.”
Adding a line about peace in a Biblically-based song is somehow supposed to be subversive???

The sad thing is that Seeger was an extremely talented musician and songwriter who could have been far more successful during his career except that he was blackballed during the McCarthy period.

…Regardless of Seeger's feelings about the Party, it didn't take him very long to realize that amidst the paranoia and reaction of the Cold War, the union movement had no interest in associating itself with singing radicals. In 1948 Seeger accompanied Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace as he toured the South, an experience that seemed particularly depressing and alienating. Soon the People's Songs collective Seeger had established in 1945 fell apart. On September 4, 1949, Seeger's car was attacked and his wife and three-year old son were slightly injured by shattered glass at the infamous Peekskill, New York, riot. Seeger's creativity has always seemed nurtured by adversity. Amid the siegelike climate of the late '40s, he and Lee Hays co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," one of the most optimistic paeans to the possibilities of constructive social change. By 1950 Hays and Seeger, along with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, formed the Weavers and enjoyed instant success with highly sweetened versions of "Goodnight Irene" and other folk tunes.

Just as quickly as the Weavers topped the charts, however, their career was torpedoed by blacklisting, Red-baiting, and numerous cancellations of their performances at the last minute. Seeger spent the fifties defining and nurturing his own audience. He still performed occasionally with the Weavers, but he mainly supported his family with appearances on the college circuit and at Left summer camps. He also recorded five to six albums per year for Folkways Records.
In 1955 Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and became one of the few witnesses called that year who didn't invoke the Fifth Amendment. In a dramatic appearance before the committee, Seeger claimed that to discuss his political views and associates violated his First Amendment rights.
The following year, which saw Seeger compose "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", Seeger, Arthur Miller, and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives. In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt and on April 2 he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The following year his ordeal ended when the case was dismissed on a technicality.

It is scary to think that the madness and hysteria of the McCarthy era could erupt here again one day.

Seeger never shied away from doing what he thought was right no matter what it did to his career as a musical artist. He was active in the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the anti-war movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s and, later in life, became very involved in the environmental movement.

Today Pete Seeger is 86 years old. He has finally received some of the acclaim that was long denied him:

In 1994, Pete received the Presidential Medal of the Arts and a Kennedy Center Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 for his contribution to the development of rock. In April of the same year he received the Harvard Arts Medal. Finally, in February of 1997 he won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album for his work, Pete.

Perhaps Seeger’s music did have some influence on political events of the past 60 years, but if so all I can say is that it was to the betterment of our society and our nation. We are a better country as a result.

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