Warning, dear reader. This post may shock. It runs against current sentiment by criticizing the recently deceased Pete Seeger. His ardent supporters will consider this post a “smear.” (Have you noticed how specialized this term is ? Its usage almost always signals a leftist writer who objects to criticism of left-wing opinion.) And these very same supporters will no doubt see fit to label me something like a “right-wing extremist,” or a “right-wing nut.” (Ditto.)
Well, as these folks themselves would put it, all hyper-politeness notwithstanding, one must speak truth to power (see below). So here goes.
To begin, Pete Seeger’s death a few days ago was a huge media event. The press coverage was immense, and it was unanimously reverential. Yes, there was mention of his membership in the American Communist Party in the days of Stalin in some of the media, but this was treated, when at all, as a minor and temporary blemish in a career of artistic, and, most of all, of moral triumph.
While the mainline press — the New York Times and the Washington Post — maintained a certain sobriety in its obituary tributes, not so the left-leaning blogosphere. Here is Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:
Pete Seeger’s life, like the arc of the moral universe famously invoked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bent toward justice. He died this week at 94. Pete sang truth to power through the epic struggles of most of the last century, for social justice, for civil rights, for workers, for the environment and for peace. His songs, his wise words, his legacy will resonate for generations.
Of course, and you must check me out on this, Ms. Goodman cannot leave a bad cause without endorsement, nor a good one without disparagement.
In any case, the problematics of Seeger’s early Stalinism and later New Leftism were analyzed by very few (but see the good articles by Michael Moynihan and Ronald Radosh). The problematics of his folklore pretensions — the fakelore, in other words — were completely overlooked. As I shall try to show, these subjects together present us with a life of conflict between surface and substance, in other words a life of dissimulation. From his earliest days to the day of his death, there was a disconnect between his self-righteous, sanctimonious vocabulary on the one hand, and his sometimes veiled, sometimes open endorsement of whatever anti-American, anti-democratic movement or regime was fashionable.
I The Pretensions of Fakelore
The great American foklorist Richard M. Dorson, exposed and battled against the misrepresentation as “folklore” of commercially-produced mass entertainment. These productions were, first of all, composed rather than collected. True, they may imitate genuine folk culture, but only for the purpose of distorting it. Such forms were composed for the sake of commercial and political manipulation. Dorson called these products fakelore. This is what he wrote in 1969:
What precisely did I mean by “fakelore” ? Fakelore is the presentation of spurious and synthetic writings under the claim that they are genuine folklore.
Dorson also took note of the totalitarian governments and movements who have manipulated folk themes for their own purposes. Even more so than the commercial manipulations, he condemned these political ones. (I myself have made a modest contribution to folklore, and, in my own field of Gypsy studies, I have had to endure numerous fakelorists.)
Throughout his career, Seeger promoted fakelore materials, always representing himself as an practitioner of folk art. One of his earliest songs, circa 1940, was this piece of fakelore to celebrate Earl Browder, the American Communist leader of the time (you will find the text quoted in Denisoff — see below):
Away out west in Kansas — the center of our land
The heart of great America, where John Brown made his stand
Let’s tip our hat to Kansas, where prairie breezes call,
For she gave birth to Browder — the greatest of them all
So Earl Browder, Stalin’s faithful lieutenant in America, is painted as an American hero. And this is presented as a piece of authentic “folk” wisdom. As it happened, Earl Browder ran for President of the United States in that very year of 1940. The American voters, as it also happened, awarded him exactly one tenth of one percent of their vote. So when Seeger represented Browder as “the greatest of them all” in the affection of the American folk, whom was he kidding ?
II The Political Life of Mr. Seeger
From the earliest record that we have of his public life in about 1939 until at least the 1980s, Seeger was publicly identified with every twist and turn of the Communist Party. By 1994 he was willing to say that Stalin had been “a supremely cruel dictator, ” but by then, of course, there was nobody left who would defend Stalin. On the other hand, in 1999, he did accept the Order of Félix Valera, Fidel Castro’s highest cultural award.
After the 1956 “secret speech” by Khrushchev, according to R. Serge Denisoff, the American Communist Party was essentially dead in the “folk song” world. In any case, from the 1960’s on, the politics of American Stalinism segued into that of the New Left, with which Seeger fully identified.
In his (full) Stalinist period, Seeger paid lip service to high ideals while all the time serving the Communist Party propaganda objectives. (Later he had reservations about Stalin as a personality, he never withdrew his approbation of the Stalinist system.) Two of his songs illustrate his connection to the Stalinist apparatus and the disconnect between his verbal sanctimony and his underlying totalitarian message.
The first of these songs dates from early 1941, just weeks before Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. It is called The Ballad of October 16, an allusion to the beginnings of the the peacetime draft some months before. Seeger and the CP had been strongly opposed to what they considered the saber-rattling of US imperialism. Seeger at the time was a member of the CP front organization American Peace Mobilization. Here are the lyrics:
It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright
They passed the conscription bill
And the people they did say for many miles away
‘Twas the President and his boys on Capitol Hill.
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’till everybody’s dead.”
When my poor old mother died I was sitting by her side
A-promising to war I’d never go.
But now I’m wearing khaki jeans and eating army beans
And I’m told that J. P. Morgan loves me so,
I have wandered o’er this land, a roaming working man
No clothes to wear and not much food to eat.
But now the government foots the bill
Gives me clothes and feeds me swill
Gets me shot and puts me underground six feet.
Why nothing can be wrong if it makes our country strong
We got to get tough to save democracy.
And though it may mean war
We must defend Singapore
This don’t hurt you half as much as it hurts me.
In other words, war is wrong; what sentiment could be more moral, more altruistic ?
But wait. Some weeks later, on June 22, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, so there was room for another sentiment, another Pete Seeger song. The anti-war American Peace Mobilization converted itself, overnight, to the pro-war American People’s Mobilization. This is now 1942, and Pete sang Dear Mr. President:
Dear Mr. President, I set me down,
To send you greetings from my home town,
And send you best wishes from all the friends I know
In Texas, Alabama, Ohio,
And affiliated places. Brooklyn, Mississippi.
I’m an ordinary guy, worked most of my life,
Sometime I’ll settle down with my kids and wife,
And I like to see a movie or take a little drink.
I like being free to say what I think,
Sort of runs in the family…
My grandpa crossed the ocean for the same reason.
Now I hate Hitler and I can tell you why,
He’s caused lots of good folks to suffer and die.
He’s got a way of shoving folks around,
I figure it’s about time we slapped him down,
Give him a dose of his own medicine…
Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know,
But that ain’t at all important, now,
What is important is what we got to do,
We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do,
Other things can wait,
In other words, first we got a skunk to skin.
War means overtime and higher prices,
But we’re all willing to make sacrifices,
Hell, I’d even stop fighting with my mother-in-law,
‘Cause we need her too, to win the war…
Old battle axe.
Now as I think of our great land,
Of the cities and towns and farming land,
There’s so many good people working every day,
I know it ain’t perfect but it will be some day,
Just give us a little time.
This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.
No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want
A better America with better laws,
And better homes and jobs and schools,
And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,
Like you can’t ride on this train ‘cause you’re a Negro,
You can’t live here ‘cause you’re a Jew
You can’t work here ‘cause you’re a union man.
There’s a line keeps running through my head,
I think it was something Joe Louis once said,
Said, “There’s lots of things wrong,
But Hitler won’t help ’em.”
Now Mr. President, you’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces,
Ships and planes, and the tanks and horses.
I guess you know best just where I can fight,
All I want to be is situated right…
To do the most damage.
I never was one to try and shirk,
And let the other fellow do all the work,
So when the time comes, I’ll be on hand,
And make good use of these two hands.
Quit playing this banjo around with the boys,
And exchange it for something that makes more noise.
So Mr. President, we’ve got this one big job to do,
That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through,
Let no one else ever take his place,
To trample down the human race.
So what I want is you to give me a gun,
So we can hurry up and get the job done.
In other words, Hitler being so evil, we must fight him to the end. What sentiment could be more moral, more altruistic ?
But wait. Just a few months before war was evil. What changed ? Hitler was there before June 22, 1941 as he was after that date. Was he less evil before he invaded Russia, when he only invaded Poland in 1939 (with the help of the Soviet Union), or, in 1940, when he only invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg ?
So no, all these self-righteous lyrics of Seeger obviously did not mean what they said. As long as Stalin stood with Hitler, Seeger opposed U.S. aid to Britain. When the Soviet Union was attacked, Seeger urged war on the Soviets’ side. Quite plainly, all his self-righteous pose notwithstanding, Stalin’s welfare was the only criterion that Seeger recognized.
III Seeger in the Post-Stalin period
In the last period of his life, Seeger continued his fakelore, sometimes on behalf of ostensibly good causes. He was interested in conservation, no doubt a good cause. But should such commitments move us to forget and forgive his perennial hateful politics ?
During the Viet Nam war, Seeger was opposed. In this he was not alone. But what him stand out here was his insistence that the North Vietnamese deserved unconditional support. In 1975, at the conclusion of the war, Seeger expressed his “deep thanks to the heroic women and men of Indochina, who have exposed and expelled American imperialism” (quoted in Lewy, see below). When Joan Baez was moved, in 1979, to speak out against human rights abuses in Viet Nam, she was supported by Ansel Adams, Daniel Berrigan, Pat Brown,Cesar Chavez, Norman Cousins, E. L. Doctorow, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Nat Hentoff, Norman Lear, Staughton Lynd, I. F. Stone, Peter Yarrow, and many others. Seeger kept mum. He could see no evil in the Communist oppression in Asia.
Finally, Israel. In 1948 and for some years thereafter, the Soviet Union supported Israel, and Seeger, naturally, did as well. He recorded some Hebrew songs which he would also sing at some of his concerts. All that changed when the Soviet Union became an enemy of Israel, most definitively at the time of the war of 1967. After that, Seeger was mostly quiet about Israel; the Hebrew songs disappeared from his repertory. He took little interest in the matter, it would seem, and one can find some temporizing statements. He was not vociferous in anti-Israel activity. But, to the end of his life, he made no secret of his radical opposition to the Jewish state.
The most concrete evidence of his commitment against Israel dates from 2002 and continued to the end of his life. It was in 2002 that he wrote a letter to a certain Jeff Halper, who runs a group calling itself the Israel Committee Against Housing Demolition, or ICAHD. In this letter, Seeger told Halper that he greatly admired the work of ICAHD since he is strongly opposed to housing demolition, and that henceforth we would send one half of the royalties for his song Turn, Turn, Turn to support ICAHD.
Now the trouble is that ICAHD, which calls for dismemberment of Israel, and which supports the Islamist Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, and which, moreover, says that those Arabs willing to negotiate with Israel are “quislings,” is only incidentally against housing demolition. Its overall program, which I have previously analyzed, is simply this: Israel must go, period.
It seems that once again Seeger uses an apparently good cause, opposition to human suffering, to hide his basically very bad cause, i.e. the destruction of democratic society worldwide. (It goes without saying that neither Mr. Seeger nor Mr. Halper is on record against the demolition of Jewish homes by Hamas rockets. Nor is either on record as worrying about the massive destruction of homes in today’s Syria.)
Mr. Seeger’s supporter will see my reflections here, as I have suggested, a “smear” of a great man. I shall be happy with this description when it comes from that quarter. It will show that I am on the right path.
Sources for lyrics, etc., are easily found by Googling the internet, except where indicated. Here are the exceptions:
Denisoff, R. Serge, Great Day Coming. Folk Music and the American Left, Univ. of Ill. Press, 1971
Dorson, Richard M., “Folklore and Fake Lore,” American Mercury, March 1950
Lewy, Guenter, Peace & Revolution. The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism. Eerdmans, 1988