“If I Had a Hammer,” which he composed, is immortal. I do not know if people will be singing “If I Had a Hammer” a hundred years from now, but they would be fools not to do so. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?“—this is magnificent. Those songs, with their crowd-sourcing capacity, are tremendously moving. And yet, if you can persuade crowds of people that simple morality and a childlike vision of right and wrong can be summed up in a few phrases, there is nothing you cannot achieve, and some of what you might achieve could turn out to be disastrous in the extreme—e.g., Stalin’s idea of dividing up the world with Hitler.
So it is good to remember that Pete Seeger, in his younger years, entertained some foolish and reactionary ideas. The appreciation of his errors can introduce a note of reflective irony into your excited response to his songs in favor of the civil rights revolution, and generally his songs in favor of the causes of democratic equality and rational reflection.
Moynihan is less forgiving:
[A]s the encomiums threaten to overwhelm, it’s important to remember that Seeger, once an avowed Stalinist, was a political singer once devoted to a sinister political system–a position he held long after the Soviet experiment drenched itself in blood and collapsed in ignominy.
So while we wistfully recall the foot-stomping versions of This Land is Your Land, let us not forget Seeger’s musical assaults on the supposedly warmongering F.D.R. (see the justly forgotten Ballad of October 16th, which was featured on a record presciently released on the very day the Nazi-Soviet Pact collapsed. As Moscow instantly shifted its position from fascist accommodationism to fighting what it had previously denounced as a war for big business, Seeger and his fellow folkies in the Almanac Singers recalled the record and retooled their allegiances. It was soon replaced by a series of pro-war, pro-F.D.R. songs. Art must be used in service of the people—and is always subject to the vicissitudes of the party line.
In a 1999 interview, Seeger explained how his relationship to communism had changed:
I’m still a Communist in the sense I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. I think that the pressures will get so tremendous, if they’re not already that big, that the social contract will just come apart. On the other hand I’m no longer a member of the Communist Party, as I was in the 1940s. It was very sad to see the enthusiasm of the people in Russia who in those days thought we are going to create a new society, and how their dreams just came apart. There’s more socialism in America and around the world today than most people realize. The GI Bill was basically socialism. Public education is basically socialism. You might consider that all armies are basically socialist organizations.
But, despite his dedication to the proletarian cause, Seeger was a millionaire:
Seeger was exceedingly generous with both his money and his time. Thanks to this war on his own wealth, Seeger escaped inclusion in the infamous “1 percent” (a good thing, too, given that he was active in the Occupy Wall Street protests). But he was dangerously, perilously close: a recent estimate of his net worth pegged it at $4.2 million, putting him just a couple million shy of that infamous percentile. This accumulation of wealth may have been his greatest failure — perhaps his only failure. The man who sang at hobo camps, labor halls and at union rallies just couldn’t stop making money. An accidental entrepreneur and unwitting capitalist, Seeger was, despite his best efforts, the quintessential American success story.
Seeger, like other successful musicians of his era, also profited from the work of black songwriters:
His first major group, the Weavers, had a hit with their recording of “Goodnight, Irene,” the folk standard that Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, first recorded. (They also recorded “Wimoweh,” a mishearing of ““Mbube,” first recorded by the South African musician Solomon Popoli Linda.) Some contemporary reviews noted that the Weavers had made a song about suicide and romantic disappointment more palatable for a mass audience by eliminating some of Lead Belly’s lyrics, but the song went to number one and stayed there for thirteen weeks. In the version of the song I’ve linked to here, the groups works an acknowledgement of their debt to Ledbetter into their performance, and notes that he died before the song he originated became a national sensation. It’s a poignant illustration that the difficult conversations about race, credit, and art that occur today have been a feature of the American cultural landscape for sixty-five years.
Adam Garfinkle has mixed feelings about the man, but credits him for the enduring cultural impact of the protest song:
When you come right down to it, what Seeger did, probably without knowing it, was to devise a kind of new-age folk religion out of musical protest rituals. What he did made people feel good, made them feel like a part of something larger than themselves at a time when traditional means of religious communal expression weren’t working so well. The merging of environmental consciousness into the older leftist portfolio was almost too good to be true for this purpose: Lenin plus Gaia equaled countercultural nirvana. It was fine for most never to get beyond the lyrical slogans to the second paragraph of any thought about a political topic—that just wasn’t the point. Communal singing is a very powerful form of human celebration that creates and sustains spiritual connectedness; if you don’t realize that, it means you’ve never been involved in it. For all I know it probably has health benefits as well.
Josh Marshall examines Seeger’s influence on folk music and everything it touched:
One little nugget: It was Seeger who changed the cardinal lyric from “We will overcome” to “We shall overcome”, which he said “opened the song up.” And if you sing it to yourself you can hear how it does. A tiny little thing, far tinier than most of his achievements. But another of these little centralities. If you look back at the fabric of folk music and 30s labor radicalism, the civil rights movement and modern environmentalism, you see that if you pull the Seeger thread from it the fabric doesn’t quite fall apart but it’s simply not the same.
Jack Hamilton highlights Seeger’s stance against McCarthyism:
In 1955 Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names. “I will tell you about my songs,” he declared, “but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”
This is an extraordinary and brilliant statement, one that turns the inherent democracy and availability of folk music into a clarion call of moral righteousness. Seeger would ultimately be indicted and convicted for contempt of Congress, though his conviction was overturned in 1962. Of the many great things one can say about Pete Seeger, this might be the best: When the country he loved did its best to destroy him, he loved it too much to let it.
Update from a reader:
Okay, so the day after Seeger dies, you post links to three pieces that highlight his ties to communism as a young man. I guess when taking the measure of his 94 years-his activism in the labor and civil rights movements, his testimony before HUAC, or his work on the environment- that’s what you thought was most notable. Fair enough (except, Moynihan, really?). Now, I’ll admit that my economic politics might be closer to Seeger’s than to yours (the same could probably be said for your new crush Pope Francis), but that’s not what bothered me. What bothered me is that the post seemed the result of a google search of “Seeger + communist.” It seemed pretty lazy, as a matter of fact. If you weren’t going to give him a fair (read: balanced) shake, I can’t understand why you acknowledged his death at all, except for the fact that it led a lot of other news outlets? And to focus so narrowly on one aspect of his earlier life, on the day after he died, seemed a bit sensational to me, an attempt at contrarian “edginess.” He was, before all else, a musician, who made a huge contribution to the preservation of traditional folk music in America. Oh, and I can assure you that he hurt far fewer, and helped far more, than Ken Mehlman.
Your caritas for people, as you call it, seems to be increasingly selective. Please cancel my subscription.