The Enigma of Pete Seeger
Legendary musician Pete Seeger died January 27 at the age of 94.
By all accounts Seeger lived a rich and rewarding life. He died just six months after the death of his wife of 70 years, Toshi-Aline Ota. Their marriage produced three surviving children, all artists in their own right, and six grandchildren.
Seeger grew up in a world full of art and music. Scion of a family with centuries-old roots in New England, his father was a Harvard-trained musicologist his mother was a concert violinist trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music and later a teacher at the Julliard School. His stepmother was Ruth Crawford Seeger, considered one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century.
His brother Mike Seeger, and sister Margaret “Peggy” Seeger (who survives) were also prominent folk singers. Seeger’s uncle was the poet Alan Seeger, who gained posthumous fame for “I Have a Rendezvous’ with Death” after he was killed in the Battle of the Somme, 1916, while fighting with the French Foreign Legion.
In 1936 at the age of 17, Seeger discovered what was to be the driving passion of his life when he visited the Mountain Dance and folk Festival in North Carolina, organized by his father and folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford under the auspices of the WPA Farm Resettlement music projects.
There Seeger heard the five-string banjo for the first time and the rest, as they say, is history.
It was also the year Seeger joined the Young Communists League. He became a member of the Communist Party USA in 1942.
Seeger’s importance to music is something scholars are going to be investigating and arguing about for generations. Sometime back then musicologists realized the vast majority of music produced by the human race had left no record, as if vast empires had arisen and fallen without leaving a trace.
Seeger and others sought out folk music and recorded it so that it might never be lost. But more than that he composed original music based in the folk tradition.
And of course what Seeger is remembered for is putting his music to work in service to the causes dear to his heart. When we are forgotten people will still be singing his adaptation of the old spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
Seeger stood up to be counted from the very beginning of the Civil Rights era, against the Vietnam War, and at the very end was marching – or hobbling, on two canes with the Occupy Movement.
He raised public awareness of the pollution of the Hudson River, defied network censorship of controversial views, and took a stand for the First Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee, earning a year jail sentence, overturned on appeal.
During the Second World War he joined the Army and entertained troops in the South Pacific with Special Services.
But before that he spoke of Adolph Hitler as a benign leader who only wanted peace while Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were pals.
“Franklin D, Franklin D, you ain’t a gonna send me across the sea,” he sang.
He turned on a dime when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and beat the drums of war.
Most biographies say he “drifted away” from the Communist Party in the late ‘40s to early ‘50s. It’s also possible he was ordered to distance himself from them as spies and prominent people the Soviets found useful often were. So far none have been uncharitable enough to suggest that.
He identified himself as a “communist with a small ‘c’” after that.
He once said, “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”
Well you could describe the program of the Khmer Rouge that way too. We don’t know what Seeger thought about that because he never condemned the Killing Fields of Cambodia, or at least not loudly enough that anyone remembers.
Seeger’s affection for the Soviet Union lasted through revelations of Stalin’s crimes against humanity, the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. He remained an admirer of Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Min.
He did ultimately express some regret for slavishly following Stalin, after the fall of the Soviet Union. But when he did it was tepid and self-serving.
Seeger was by all accounts a sweet and gentle man who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Supremely gifted, generous, loving husband and father, and apologist for mass murderers.
How can one person reconcile those ghastly contradictions within himself?
I don’t know how. I don’t know that I ever will.