In Memoriam: Pete Seeger

His legacy was summed up nicely nearly seven years ago by Ronald Radosh:

Today, Jim Brown’s new documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” opens the annual American Film Institute/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival near Washington, D.C.

Two years ago, Mr. Brown asked to interview me for the film. I was a former student and friend of Mr. Seeger’s and have written critically about his life and politics. I asked Mr. Brown whether he would actually use what I said. Mr. Brown responded that Pete and his wife, Toshi, wanted a critical voice in the film and did not want just to paint him as a man without blemishes.

In my interview, I praised Mr. Seeger’s contributions to music and reminisced about being his student in New York while in high school and as a counselor at Camp Woodland, a left-wing summer camp. I also asked why, after supporting Stalin’s tyranny for most of his life, Mr. Seeger had never written a song about the Gulag. He often introduces his song “Treblinka” by saying how we cannot forget the past. Yet he still says nothing critical about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, or any other “socialist” regimes.

Mr. Brown’s film is beautifully crafted and photographed, with great footage and a lot of good folk music. But although my praise and personal memories made the final cut, my critical comments did not. When I spoke to Mr. Brown a few days ago, he told me my remarks weren’t appropriate for a tribute to Mr. Seeger’s spirit and his contributions to America.

Many of today’s obituaries follow Brown’s lead; cutting out of their remembrances Seeger’s horrible political and moral decisions. For a more accurate remembrance of Seeger–though it is not an obituary; it was written nearly five years ago–see this:

. . . there is a dark side to Pete Seeger, one that is airbrushed out of all the effusive hagiography. Seeger was a dedicated Stalinist and has not renounced his devotion to communism, a political ideology, which according to the Black Book of Communism, responsible for the murder of over 94 million people. When you speak out against communism you get booed, when you’re a cheerleader for its mass murderers you get a Kennedy Center tribute and presidential praise.

Seeger was a member of the Communist Party from the 1930s through the 1950s. He left the party but never gave up the faith. He told the Washington Post in 1995 “I am still a communist.” Like his comrades and fellow travelers Seeger twisted and turned with every pronouncement from Moscow. Seeger supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact, a curious position for a noted “anti-fascist.” In 1941 Seeger along with Guthrie was a member of the Almanac Singers, a communist folk group. The group put out the anti-war album Songs from John Doe, containing songs that labeled Franklin Roosevelt a war monger. One of the songs had the following lyrics:

Franklin D, listen to me,
You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea.
You may say it’s for defense
That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

Of course when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Seeger and the Almanac Singer’s literally changed their tune to get in lockstep with Stalin’s new foreign policy. They pulled Songs from John Doe from the market and quickly replaced it with the pro-war, pro-Roosevelt album Dear Mr. President:

Now, Mr. President
You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight …
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!

Seeger’s sycophancy for murderous communist tyrants didn’t end with Stalin. During the Cold War he praised Ho Chi Minh and provided a hearty jacket endorsement for Tomas Borges’ the brutal Sandinista thug’s book.

[. . .]

To be fair Seeger did eventually get around to realizing the horrors of Stalinism, albeit 50 years too late. Quite amazing given that no less than Nikita Khrushchev figured it out as early as 1956. Seeger penned the song “The Big Joe Blues”

I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe
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.

Color me unimpressed. Also unimpressive are the moral equivalencies Seeger used to water down his apology for supporting a regime that murdered more people than 20 million people.

I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Moslems by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks. Europeans could apologize for worldwide conquests, Mongolians for Genghis Khan. And supporters of Roosevelt could apologize for his support of Somoza, of Southern white Democrats, of Franco Spain, for putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

As an apology Seeger’s words are underwhelming. While “cruel misleader” is by no means a term of endearment, in light of Stalin’s monstrous record, it vastly understates the depth of his depravity and the true horror of Stalinism. There are many more apt nouns and adjectives in the English language to describe the man who gave us the purges of the Great Terror, the Gulag, and the Ukrainian Terror Famine. Lost in the obfuscations of Seeger’s moral equivalencies is the fact that contemporary Christians, White people, and Mongolians are not responsible for the acts, however heinous, of Christians, white people, or Mongolians of the past, because they had nothing to do with them. Whereas Seeger is all too culpable for the crimes of Stalin because he was an open apologist for “old cruel Joe” and other communist thugs at the very time they were slaughtering millions.

Some would argue that these inconvenient truths are peripheral to Seeger’s musical achievements and altruistic fight for civil rights. However, that argument ignores the fact that communism, and for a very long part of his life, support of the Soviet Union were central to Seeger’s politics and worldview. Like his boyhood idol Lincoln Steffens Seeger saw the Soviet Union as the way of the future, and Stalin as the man who would lead humanity to the sunny uplands of history. Seeger preached non- violence and considered himself a man of peace yet he aped the party line for a murderous totalitarian ideology. In the end that makes him a hypocrite. Seeger and his comrades on the Old Left and many in the New Left too, were what Lenin called useful idiots. Western dupes, who could be counted on to provide uncritical support for the Soviet Union thereby providing the rope that would eventually hang them.

Seeger was blacklisted for his politics during the McCarthy era. I completely disagree with that stance; as others have stated the best response to bad speech is more speech. But while Seeger’s political persecution was unjust, his political views were equally reprehensible. Far from having been “on the right side of almost every major moral and political issue of the day,” as one fawning, exceedingly foolish, morally monstrous fan put it (no link for said fan), Seeger got more than his share of moral and political questions wrong, and the policies he espoused led to the murder of millions.

But he could sing some nice tunes, which I guess for some people is more important. Writing for myself–and hopefully, for others–however, I think that the attractions of a Spotify list are outweighed by the judgments of history. I may listen to Pete Seeger’s music, but here’s hoping that the artist himself is reunited with his longtime political idol, Stalin, in a place with a relatively warm climate.