Some people can’t let go of the past, and like the greedy chimpanzee who grasps the rice in the jar, and then is trapped when he cannot pull out his fist nor will he give up his prize to save his freedom, they trap themselves out of a good life.
Cover of 1996 album of songs, “Pete.” Seeger, born May 3, 1919, is 88 years old now.
Like this fellow, whose father’s dislike of an old political position of Pete Seeger kept them both from a good concert. He appears to agree with his father, though, thinking that somehow Seeger is responsible for the evils of Stalinism, and complaining that Seeger was tardy in making note of the fact that Stalin was evil. And Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds agrees, profanely, and inaccurately, as I’ll explain below the fold. But heed this warning: I’m explaining at length.
Get a life, people! Pete Seeger did.
Glenn Reynolds has it right about Pete Seeger and Communist tyranny.
When I was a freshman at Columbia – long, long ago – my father once came to New York for the day, and since there was a Pete Seeger concert at Barnard that night, I bought tickets for us both, thinking my father would enjoy the old-leftiness of it all. Old Left my father was, but Seeger’s very first number was “a folk song of the Jewish people in Birobidjan in the Soviet Union”. (You have to imagine that oddly canting, yet upper class voice of Seeger’s, announcing this.) My father was furious, loudly said “What kind of Stalinist crap is this??”, stood up, and insisted that we both walk out immediately. Which we did.
Over the course of the twentieth century, there were certainly a very few Socialists and others on the Left, including the far Left, who weren’t shills and cheerleaders for the Soviet and other Communist regimes – as Seeger perennially was. Yet as Reynolds says, Pete Seeger may now acknowledge a bit more about the reality of Communism than many on today’s Left can yet bring themselves to do. Very few among the Left’s leaders, and fewer still among the rank-and-file believers, have ever made a reckoning, in any intellectual or emotional depth, with the horrors of twentieth century Communism – or indeed with the disasters of “post-Liberation” Third Worldism.
By “serious reckoning”, I don’t mean verbal self-protection like “Of course Stalin was terrible. But…” As in, “But weren’t we wonderful to bring an end to the Vietnam war?” – i.e. to ensure Communist victory there. Or, “And wouldn’t it be awesome if we could do the same (mutatis) in Iraq?”
P.S. Birobidzhan was Stalin’s black-humour “homeland” for the Jews: a tiny, isolated, desolate tract on the Manchurian border in the Soviet far east. It might have become Stalin’s Auschwitz, if the plans to “deport” all the Jews there had come to pass. But Stalin died – or was bumped off by his nervous comrades-in-arms – just as the post-war anti-semitic campaign in the USSR was coming to a head in 1953.
UPDATE: In the comments section, “Bleepless” and “Punditarian” point out something I hadn’t known – but should have figured: when World War II began in Europe, Party-liner that he was, Pete Seeger sang songs against America fighting the Nazis. With the Hitler-Stalin Pact, this was perfectly consistent with Communist pro-Nazi policy worldwide. These ditties of Seeger’s were withdrawn, of course, when Hitler betrayed his ally and invaded the USSR. Here is the text of one of Seeger’s songs, from March 1941:
Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea,
‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea, You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea.
You may say it’s for defense,
But that kinda talk that I’m against.
I’m against, I’m against,
That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.
Lafayette, we are here, we’re gonna stay right over here…
Marcantonio is the best, but I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the rest…
J. P. Morgan’s big and plump, eighty-four inches around the rump…
Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D., seems to me they both agree,
Both agreed, both agreed,
Both agree on killin’ me.
You might want to take a long, hot shower now.
The trigger for this Seeger-bashing was a letter from Seeger to a former banjo student who had complained in print that Seeger had not forcefully enough rejected Joe Stalin. So Seeger wrote a letter admitting his error, to The New York Sun.
Can’t keep an unreasonable critic happy simply by doing what he insists you should do, however. So rather than compliment Seeger on meeting their “demands,” both Reynolds and Schwarzchild take the opportunity to bash Pete.
The complete column from the Sun, by a guy named Ron Radosh, is reproduced way below (I don’t know how soon it goes away at the Sun’s site, or whether it goes away at all; just preserving the material for readers).
Radosh has the guts to compliment Pete on his letter, acknowledging that Seeger may be late in criticizing Stalin. That’s a great credit to Radosh.
One hopes that Glenn Reynolds and Maimon Schwarzchild will have the guts of Radosh and Seeger, and admit their complaints have been met at least — if not apologize for their post-apology crabbiness.
Seeger as an icon, and Seeger in real life
My path crossings with Seeger are a lot older than I’d really like to confess.
First: In the late 1960s I was in a rock and roll band, a high school garage band, and we got to the point that we had gigs at least every other week. I played bass. We did a few surf instrumentals, and a lot of top 40. Leon Anderson usually played a vintage Fender Stratocaster blond-neck that his father had played before, but he stumbled into a good buy on a Vox Phantom 12-string, and that opened possibilities. We started covering the Byrds, “Tambourine Man,” “A Whole Lot Better,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The first was a Dylan tune, I think the Byrds wrote the second, and the third was a popular folk song, written by Pete Seeger. We talked into joining us a woman from my French class, Julene, who sang in the choir and had long hair, so we covered Jefferson Airplane — and we also gained a great voice to add high harmonies to the Byrds covers.
I think we paid off our guitars and amplifiers with the what we made; we didn’t get a lot money beyond that. It was a lot of fun, though.
This was in Utah, and at the time Latter-day Saints organizations sponsored a lot of Saturday night dances; we played a lot of them. The Mormons didn’t want music that advocated drug use — we got a lot of mileage with the organizers of these affairs pointing out that the covers we did of Paul Revere and the Raiders included “Kicks,” a definite anti-drug song.
In Lehi, about 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, we got to be sort of the house band. One night, in the second half of our two hours of danceable noise, an older woman, in a dress and hat with a veil (not common then, let me tell you) wandered in, and pushed right up to the edge of the stage. She studied each one of us, stayed for at least a half-hour, and then quickly turned and left.
As it happened, we were in Lehi again soon. We were setting up on stage, including my silly use of a poster for an opera produced at Brigham Young University, Andrea Chenier – a microphone stand had put a hole in the grill cloth of my amplifier, and I wanted to cover it up — when the old woman came back with a man in a suit. He introduced himself as the bishop of the ward in which this church recreation hall was located, and he said he was concerned about the drug implications and political overtones of our music. Unfortunately my band mates took a quick powder “to get water,” and left me to deal with this odd issue.
After the bishop and the woman went through our song list line-by-line, title-by-title, they picked on a couple of things. First they asked me about the opera poster, and I pointed out it was opera, produced at Mormon-flagship BYU, and had nothing to do with our performance other than decoration. The poster was a garish red, and I’m not sure they were convinced. Then they asked about the Byrds covers: “Mr. Tambourine Man” sounded like a drug song to them; I showed them the lyrics of the one verse we performed, and told them it was about a guy on the street who played tambourine (and maybe it is). “A Whole Lot Better” was just a good dance tune featuring the 12-string, about the end of a romance.
Then they asked about “Turn, Turn, Turn.” “Is this a drug song, or a political song?” the Bishop queried. No, it’s rather abstract, about life and change, though it has a call for peace at the end, I explained. “Who wrote it?” he demanded. I didn’t lie. “Pete Seeger wrote it” — and the woman spat out “communist agitator!” “He took the words from Ecclesiastes,” I said, hoping to gain a little credibility with the Bishop. And then a miracle happened.
“Ecclesiastes?” the bishop exclaimed. “What in the world is that?” I let the question hang in the air for a while, not quite sure if he was playing the line to set a hook, or if he’d just had a minor stroke. There was no chance he didn’t know Ecclesiastes very well; there was just a glimmer of a chance he didn’t realize what it was, so far out of the context where he familiarly found scripture. If he wasn’t setting some trap that I couldn’t see, I needed to point out his silly response in a way that would allow him to save face and understand that he should just leave us alone.
“Oh, you know Ecclesiastes very well, Bishop — you know, the book in the Old Testament.” He blanched. He’d fallen into a trap I hadn’t intended to set. And he was caught fast. “Oh” he mumbled. “Of course. I didn’t expect to find that here.” Then with an abrupt military twirl, he turned to the old lady. “I think these kids are alright!” He took her by the arm and lifted her out of the gym.
Pete Seeger’s inspiration for the lyric had saved us. We played many more nights in Lehi, until our band broke up about a year later. We were never challenged on lyrics again.
Second: My old friend Ben Davidian – I haven’t seen him in at least 20 years — believe it or not (and Californians, you’ll have a tough time believing it), spent his first two years in college at BYU. Politically, it would have seemed a good fit. Socially, it’s lucky they didn’t kill each other, Ben and the university. Ben was a friend and former student of our high school forensics coach, Evelyn (then) Rasmussen, and she brought him in to our forensics class to try to teach us something — he having been extemporaneous speaking champion of California out of Tracy High School. He was also in the Air Force ROTC, and a big promoter of all things patriotic. When he discovered I was studentbody president, he put the whammy on to get an ROTC group to come perform, and recruit. A free assembly! Who wouldn’t jump?
“The Footprints of Freedom” featured more than a dozen students, ROTC cadets and the women’s auxiliary (in the days before gender-integration in the military). They used some taped accompaniment, and some piano, but it was about an hour of uplifting, patriotic tunes more like the New Christy Minstrels than “Up with People,” owing a bit to both. As a student officer, I often acted as m.c. for these things, and Ben and I had a great time sitting in the wings during the performance, talking politics and watching the women’s auxiliary members. Our band had been dead for some time, and I lamented that I didn’t have a group to sing with, especially since I’d gotten quite a bit deeper into folk music, and knew a lot more about Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and the blacklist.
They closed the show with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a song that every Utahn and every Mormon knows from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version, at least. The kids sang it well, four part harmony and all, and they got more than the usual bored reaction from the high school students. Several of our top students signed up for Air Force ROTC, though I’m not certain this performance pushed them to action.
As the ROTC group was packing up, I mentioned to Ben that I thought it a great commentary on America that they’d close a performance of patriotic music with a song written by a communist. Ben cocked his head, laughed, and invited the director of the group in on the joke. He didn’t laugh. The director said he hadn’t known who wrote the song.
The next time I saw the group, they’d cut the Guthrie song. I think they closed with “America, the Beautiful,” and Woody Guthrie’s work was completely missing.
Ben transferred to the University of Utah the next fall (a good move), I started at the U, and together we joined Alan Ingersoll in some great off-campus living. (It turned out that Ben loved Joan Baez and carried a wonderful collection of her albums with him. He’d complain that her politics were wacky and wrong, but he’d play the songs just the same.)
Sorry, Woody. Didn’t mean to get your song cut.
Third: Graduate study in speech at Arizona didn’t really appeal to me until Tim Browning figured out a way for me to really study rhetoric. Rhetoric wasn’t listed in the catalog. We’d have to blaze a new trail. Browning was debate coach. He offered me a fellowship to coach debate and teach another course. Arizona’s squad was very good, with at least one team bound for the National Debate Tournament; Tucson was a great place to be, I hoped, for the budding presidential campaign of Mo Udall. After we got settled in with tournament scheduling, I turned to the unanswered question of the topic of my thesis. After a lot of work, I determined to do an analysis of the rhetoric of Pete Seeger, with five different kinds of rhetoric neatly corresponding to the five strings on Pete’s Banjo. Andrew King directed me to long nights in the library figuring out sources available there, and figuring out where to go for other sources.
The program didn’t work out, and I left Arizona after a year. The rhetoric program missed a key deadline needed for approval, and I got crossways with the department chair over a very obscure political issue in the faculty senate (where I represented graduate students). Tim Browning later left and took over his father’s business in Centralia, Washington, where he’s served as mayor to the great benefit of the city. I came away with a powerful appreciation for the size and scope of the body of work Seeger has. As a performer, there would be a lot to cover. Seeger also composed, and when blacklisted, he taught guitar, banjo and 12-string, on record. His archival work was significant. His column in the folk-music magazine he helped start, Sing Out!, continued for more than 20 years. His travels in support of causes, especially pacifism and unions, could be a volume by itself. Performance, composing, writing, political causes and travel — it would have been a massive thesis, just in cataloging.
Fourth: Earlier, in 1973, I was recruited by the Louis August Jonas Foundation to staff a scholarship camp for kids with great leadership potential, Camp Rising Sun in Rhinecliff, New York. My Scout experience coupled with the great athletic and outdoor program at Utah gifted me with many of the needed certifications — Red Cross Advanced First Aid and Water Safety Instructor, canoeing and rowing, hiking and rock climbing. They asked me to come do something, specific assignment to be determined based on what other skills they could recruit.
The Jonas Foundation was founded to continue the camp; the camp was founded in 1929 by George Jonas, to give guidance and hope to kids who could then go on to be leaders. Campers were selected on the basis of recommendations from teachers and counselors, and then alumni. By 1973 campers numbered about 60 — 20 from around New York, 20 more from around the U.S., and 20 more from around the world. The great work of the camp has expanded to include a camp for women in Red Hook, and affiliations in other camps internationally.
- Photo of Pete Seeger at age 87, by Jim McKnight, Associated Press; note inscription on the banjo head: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
Among the alumni of the camp is Pete Seeger, who attended as a 15-year-old in the 1930s. Pete by 1973 had long settled down to his little forest in nearby Beacon, and had dropped by the camp on occasion. In 1974 he toured several East Coast venues with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and they produced a marvelous live album — two vinyl discs.
In the summer of 1976, in the middle of another concert tour with Arlo, Pete stopped at Rhinebeck driving back home from one of the dates, spent the night with us and most of the next day. That was the first time I’d noticed the saying inscribed on the head of his banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He said he’d borrowed it from Woody (photos of Woody show a sticker on his guitar, “This machine kills Nazis”). Seeger was — is — one of the nicest people you could ever meet. In several hours of conversation he said no bad word about anyone. He was careful to sing songs from several foreign countries, nations from which we had campers. And he sang a song on a request from the gardener/maintenance guy, John Mestré: “Guantanamara,” featuring the poetry of Cuban poet and hero José Marti.
Mestré was a refugee from Castro’s Cuba. John’s wife had been the camp cook years before. After her death, his brother Frank, another refugee, took on the job of gardener. When Frank died, John took over the gardening and maintenance duties. Frank’s tomatoes were famous with the cook Theodora Glenn — Mama Glenn to anyone who had any respect — especially the green ones for early June frying (it was my introduction to fried green tomatoes). I knew both Frank and John for my few years with the foundation, but their history went back much farther, and John continued, I believe until his death.
José Marti is a hero especially to Cuban political refugees. A couple of years before somebody got out a guitar and we sang the song, and I caught Frank sneaking away to hide his tears. It was no secret that the Mestrés wanted to return to Cuba, at least for a visit, because their parents had died, and their siblings were ill and dying. When Seeger sang it for John, John, too, was overcome with emotion. I asked John later about the irony of Seeger, considered a left-wing sympathizer, singing the song, and John vigorously defended Seeger as a great man, a man of sympathy to the refugee cause and, as a singer of Marti, no friend of Castro.
During his day at Camp Rising Sun, I asked Pete if there were any chance he would be touring the west, perhaps coming to Salt Lake City. He said a couple of good words about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s singing Woody Guthrie tunes, I recall, but he explained he was sticking close to his home in Beacon. Concerts would usually be no more than a day’s drive from Beacon. Why? He explained that some time before there was a local issue — he said it didn’t matter what the issue was, PTA meeting, zoning meeting, something — and he had spoken on one side. Someone else following Pete made a comment about how only local people should be allowed to speak, that there was no need for outside agitators. Pete said that his travels had allowed him to be unknown to his neighbors. He said he was going to concentrate on local action, and he said he was worried about water pollution in the Hudson River. His words have stuck with me: “Can you imagine: They didn’t know I was their neighbor, but I didn’t know them, either.” Pete didn’t blame others unjustly, nor alone — he accepted blame for the situation. And he resolved to fix it.
By now we all know of the sloop Clearwater that Pete and his foundation revived, to sail up and down the Hudson Valley campaigning for clean water and a beautiful river. Cities and villages from Albany to New York City have annual “Clearwater Festivals” now, where folksingers and other musicians perform, where local issues are discussed, and where a local fair and festival usually break out, bringing communities together and making them stronger. These festivals woke up a lot of people.
The Hudson flows much cleaner and clearer today than it did in 1976, largely because local people spoke up for action to clean the river.
Several years later my wife and I caught Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in concert at the amphitheatre at Wolftrap Farm National Park, outside of Washington, D.C. — during the Reagan administration. As usual, it was a great concert. The audience was dotted with a few officials I knew in the executive branch, and from Republican congressional staffs, most bringing their children for a good night of folk singing, some nostalgia, and a little politics. No one walked out. That was the last time I saw him in person.
Criticism generally unfair, ill-informed
The criticism of Pete as a Stalin-lover and apologist has always puzzled me. I’ve never heard Seeger claim that Stalin was a great hero of anything. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Seeger mention Stalin, except in passing, in introductions of songs about people oppressed in prison and the need to change things, or mentioning the great error of Soviet communism in failing to support freedom of expression. Glenn Reynolds’ and Maimon Schwarzchild’s come in this tempest in a tepid teapot vein: They think Seeger didn’t criticize Stalin early enough or hard enough. It’s a cinch that Stalin never listened to Seeger, or at least that Stalin didn’t take Seeger’s advice on freedoms for all people. Of course, neither did Dwight Eisenhower take his cues from Seeger, nor Lyndon Johnson, even in supporting civil rights legislation, nor Richard Nixon, nor Ronald Reagan, at least not in any overt way.
No one seriously suggests that Seeger could have stopped Stalin. Criticism is always phrased in this fashion: ‘Well, Pete may be right about that issue, but once upon a time he was wrong about Joe Stalin and that’s the one unforgivable sin.’ Really?
I’m spending the time to write this out in detail because it is time we stopped this damaging, destructive criticism. If Pete Seeger’s actions are weighed, in context, his voice against tyranny and oppression has been as loud and as important as anyone else’s. Schwarzchild’s father had no reason to avoid an otherwise pleasant concert.
Seeger has been consistent through the years in his advocacy for a handful of things that anyone should find admirable. That advocacy, to improve things, is what has driven his music and work.
Seeger endorses community, and friends. He claims never to have found an audience of any size that wouldn’t sing along. Singing together is one of the great attractions of any Pete Seeger concert — and you can bet you’ll be singing a song you didn’t know before. Beyond singing together, Seeger’s work constantly endorses local groups to organize for action — see the entire body of his pro-union work. From “Union Maid” to the songs about the Clearwater, Seeger encourages people to join in locally-decided political action.
Seeger stands against oppression of ideas. He’s often defended the First Amendment and freedom of thought in commentary at his concerts. A consistent theme in his songs is people who sing to alert others (“If I Had a Hammer”) and people who stand up to those who would oppress. Pete’s touchingly renders the last song written by Victor Jara, who was murdered with thousands of others when Gen. Pinochet assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende (“Estadio Chile” on Pete and Arlo, Together in Concert, 1975). Critics complain so many of his songs highlight the oppression of right wing dictators, and I think of my Cuban refugee friends who found his singing of Cuba to support their own spirits — but we also must note that in no case has Seeger ever endorsed any censorship, that I’ve found, by anyone, for anything. Freedom of conscience is so ingrained in him that I think he can’t excuse even his favorite causes, or even his friends, who engage in such activities. (Speaking of Chile: Did Seeger’s critics ever demand of Milton Friedman that he denounce Pinochet’s murders? Why the inconsistency?)
Pete Seeger likes children, and he encourages parents to be good parents. He didn’t have a happy, idyllic childhood, but he is well aware of the value of loving family, and the value of loving family even when they have not been perfect. Pete’s still married to Toshi, and they still live in a house Pete built; he still cuts the wood for the stove. Pete’s songs for children still celebrate the freedom children have, and the potential they have to grow up to create peace.
Seeger prefers non-violence. Long before Martin Luther King, Jr., came to prominence in Montgomery in 1956, Seeger was singing and advocating pacifism as a preferred course. Critics are rough on his urging the U.S. to stay out of World War II until after Hitler turned on Stalin. Pete was in the large majority of Americans at the time (something his critics generally fail to note), and he was among the vocal minority who urged U.S. intervention against Hitler, when a large group of Americans thought the U.S. should enter the war with Germany, against Britain. Seeger didn’t have the foresight of Winston Churchill with regard to Stalin — but neither did Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or a host of other Americans who actually made the policies of our nation. When the supply ship, U.S.S. Reuben James, was torpedoed, and Woody Guthrie put to music the anti-Nazi sentiments, and Pete sang them, too, they were hooted for urging going to war. They were right then, and the critics need to give credit where it is due. Seeger was drafted, and served. He’s a veteran of the U.S. armed services, unlike most of his critics I encounter.
Pete’s nonviolence stand isn’t blind or stupid, but principled, and thoughtful. Seeger celebrates those who defend rights in wars, too.
Pete’s stand for life-long learning, for broad, liberal education in the best sense of the tradition, is a founding pillar of American culture, and important for our freedom. Especially in the past 30 years, every Seeger performance is a study in globalization — in accepting other peoples for their virtues, which are encouraged, and for standing against the evils that result from blind commercial development, such as pollution, unemployment, and child labor. Seeger created a tune that has repeatedly made the U.S. hit charts, “Wimoweh,” from a southern African tribal tune. He sings in Spanish, in Russian, in Portuguese. He whistles when he can’t sing in Chinese. He sings of other nations, of religious traditions anyone can value.
Pete stands for human rights. He’s for working people’s organizing against oppressive employers; he’s for average citizens organizing to throw the bums out, and vote in honorable people. He’s for the ballot box over the rifle. And when his friends in unions didn’t support civil rights, Pete was still for ending racial discrimination. Eventually the unions came around. When it was not cool, Seeger urged women be accepted in the workplace, in nontraditional jobs (listen to his renditions of his sister’s tune, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer”). It’s no accident the Highlander School invited him to teach civil rights workers how to sing, and what to sing.
Seeger urges, as the Boy Scouts do, that we learn about nature, celebrate it, and protect it. No Seeger fan is surprised to learn that he was a devotee of Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the U.S. Scouting movement. More importantly, Seeger has promoted the wise development songs of people like Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes”) . He insisted on singing his antipollution tune “Garbage” though it probably cost him future appearances on NBC. His support for clean water and the local organizations to demand it and keep it, make a model for community organizers.
These things he has consistently supported, in the face of critics, in the face of criticism from his friends.
Seeger’s life stands as a sharp contrast to a man of genuine evil, like Stalin. It takes a lot of irrational denial to avoid that realization.
It’s nice that Seeger has openly noted that Stalin was evil. It wasn’t so necessary as his critics claim. Now we have one more way to measure whether the critics are fair, or hypocritical. Will the critics knock off the nit-picking, going-out-of-their-way criticism? Or will they let the man sing?
Pete Seeger, America’s best-known and most influential folksinger, wrote me a letter a few days ago. I did not expect to hear from him. Last June, I wrote in these pages about the new documentary on his life. The article ran under the headline “Time for Pete Seeger To Repent.”
My complaint was that the film, good as it is, did not give a completely honest account of Mr. Seeger’s politics. The filmmaker, Jim Brown, interviewed me on camera, but he did not include any of my critical remarks in the final version. In my interview, I pointed out that Mr. Seeger had been a lifelong follower of the Communist Party, changing his songs and his positions to be in accord with the ever-changing party line. He attacked the blacklist of the 1950s, which kept him off the air, but never seems to have said anything about Stalin‘s death list. As Martin Edlund has written in The New York Sun, Mr. Seeger has always been inseparable from his social mission. Much of it deserves praise – he was at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights – but much of it must be condemned and not hidden from sight.
In particular, I said that Mr. Seeger had supported Stalin’s tyranny for so many years yet had never written a song about the Gulag. Yet some acknowledgment of his former support would have been appropriate, especially considering the songs he has sung about the Nazi death camps, which he often introduces by saying, “We must never forget.”
So I felt some trepidation when I got Mr. Seeger’s letter. Surely he was angry, or at the least peeved, by my article. I had been a banjo student of his in the 1950s and regarded Mr. Seeger as my childhood hero and mentor. But for decades since then, I have been publicly identified as an opponent of much of what he has believed Â– that the Rosenbergs were innocent, for example, or that Fidel Castro was a friend of the poor.
I almost fell off the chair when I read Mr. Seeger’s words: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” For years, Mr. Seeger continued, he had been trying to get people to realize that any social change had to be nonviolent, in the fashion sought by Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Seeger had hoped, he explained, that both Khrushchev and later Gorbachev would “open things up.” He acknowledged that he underestimated, and perhaps still does, “how the majority of the human race has faith in violence.”
More importantly, Mr. Seeger attached the words and music for a song he had written, “thinking what Woody [Guthrie] might have written had he been around” to see the death of his old Communist dream. Called “The Big Joe Blues,” it’s a yodeling Jimmie Rodgers-type song, he said. It not only makes the point that Joe Stalin was far more dangerous and a threat than Joe McCarthy – a man Mr. Seeger and the old left view as the quintessential American demagogue – but emphasizes the horrors that Stalin brought.
“I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe,” the lyrics read. “He ruled with an iron hand / He put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast) / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Do this job, no questions asked) / I got the Big Joe Blues.”
Mr. Seeger continued in his letter to me: “the basic mistake was Lenin’s faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!” He often tells his left-wing audiences, he said, to read Rosa Luxemburg’s famous letter to Lenin about the necessity of freedom of speech. And despite all of my criticisms of Mr. Seeger over the years, he ended warmly, saying: “You stay well. Keep on.”
I was deeply moved that Mr. Seeger, now in his late 80s, had decided to acknowledge what had been his major blind spot – opposing social injustice in America while supporting the most tyrannical of regimes abroad. Mr. Seeger rarely performs anymore. But if he does, and if he sings this song, I suspect that few in the audience would have any idea of what it is about. And I doubt that any other singer today would cover it. Only an audience composed entirely of the now-aging old left veterans would understand it instantly. Undoubtedly, many of them would be shocked.
I phoned Mr. Seeger at his home in Beacon, NY, and thanked him for his letter and its warm and supportive tone. We spent some time reminiscing about the old days and people we knew and things we had experienced together. Turning to a discussion of the community he lives in, Mr. Seeger told me he’s a friend of the Republican mayor of his town, who sponsors community events and welcomes him as a participant. Mr. Seeger, it is clear, believes in bringing people together for good works, and in reconciliation.
Mr. Seeger is still a man of the political left, and I’m certain we disagree about much. But I never thought I would hear him acknowledge the realities of Stalinism. I honor and admire him for doing so now.
- Rutherford Institute interview of Pete Seeger by John Whitehead, published January 2006. No, really: The Rutherford Institute
- Salon review of the 1996 recording, “Pete.”
- The New Yorker profile of Pete, “The Protest Singer,” April 17, 2006
- Associated Press story, “Pete Seeger is still plucking at 87,” upon the release of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.”
- Living on Earth radio, “An Afternoon with Pete Seeger, April 28, 2006; transcript, MP3, RealAudio
- PBS Great Performances: Bruce Springsteen: The Seeger Sessions Live
- National Archives site on U.S.S. Reuben James