Friday, 31 January 2014

So farewell then Pete Seeger, decent songwriter, so-so performer – and keen supporter of Joe Stalin

No, sorry, I’ve tried my best, but whichever way you look at Pete Seeger, it’s impossible to ignore the plain fact that he joined the Moscow-controlled Communist Party of America in 1942, after the mass-purges, the show trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact. Okay, he was young and stupid and we all make mistakes – but it took the cuddly old humanitarian exactly 51 years to publicly repudiate his support for Stalin, the second greatest mass murderer in history (Mao is currently – and, one hopes, forever – the toppermost of the poppermost), and he never rejected communism, offering the decidedly lame excuse that it had never really been tried (well, if a hundred million dead people could talk, they’d probably take issue with that bizarre assertion).

According to Wikipedia (and when was it ever wrong?) Seeger’s first apology for having got it a teensy bit wrong politically came in his 1993 autobiography – but even then he sought to excuse himself with the sort of goofy, puerile argument that would see a ten-year old kicked off the Junior School Debating Team:
…today I'll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was merely a "hard driver" and not a "supremely cruel misleader." I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. ought to apologize 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. Who should my granddaughter Moraya apologize to? She's part African, part European, part Chinese, part Japanese, part Native American. 
If you're not feeling too bilious at the thought of an old man using his granddaughter as a human shield to deflect criticism, I'm sure you'll have noticed the plethora of flaws in this argument. For a start, Christians alive today weren’t around during the Inquisition, and, besides, very few of them were given the choice of whether to support it or not at the time. And when Seeger came up with this pitiful guff, there was no white person alive in America who'd had anything to do with slavery or stealing land from Injuns. As for the admittedly dodgy incarceration of Japanese-Americans in WWII, I wonder how many froze or starved to death while temporarily confined.

Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League in 1936 at the age of 17, before the sheer mind-boggling horror of Stalin’s Russia had become apparent, so we’ll give the idealistic kid from a privileged background a pass on that one. But ol’ banjo-totin’ Pete was 23 when he joined the grown-up Communist Party and would have had to be some kind of stupid not to have an inkling of what was going on back in Mother Russia, and, until he performed at a Solidarity benefit concert in 1982, he didn't even hint at any misgivings  - despite, we’re told, having “disliked” Soviet-style Communism for decades: evidently not enough to speak out against the Soviet suppression of freedom movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or against the erection of the Berlin Wall, or against the Gulags, and not enough to prevent him from travelling to North Vietnam to give succour to yet another peace and freedom-loving Communist regime.

Seeger was evidently a fool or a hypocrite or both – and he deserved to be blacklisted. In his later years, when the music business had passed him by, the sheer monstrousness of communism had been exposed for all but the most wilfully blind to see, and it had become obvious that American workers were somewhat less interested in sitting around camp-fires singing "Kumbaya" than in raising their families in one of those “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” Seeger sneered at in his biggest hit (yes, I know this disgustingly smug slice of leftist snobbery was written by someone else), our hero of the people took up the cause of environmentalism in a big way – evidently unaware that communism’s crimes against nature were as heinous as those they committed against humanity.

Seeger’s voice was too mellow and his performing style too pious to interest me when I was growing up, but I appreciated the fact that he had played a major role in keeping alive the musical traditions of the “old, weird America” long enough to pass them on to the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. It was just a shame that he expected his successors to go on warbling away for all eternity about Joe Hill and the Wobblies and this land being our land to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars: his claim that he threatened to take an axe to the electric cable powering Bob Dylan and the Butterfield Blues Band’s raucous performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival because he wanted everyone to hear the words is about as convincing as his miserable little wet fart of an apology for having worshipped Stalin. Here’s that Dylan performance - the vocals sound clear enough to me:

Still, Seeger wrote (or adapted) some great songs – here are some of my favourite versions of them by other artists:

I’ll end with Lilli von Shtupp doing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, because it’s unintentionally hilawious:


  1. Good post. I think "pious" is spot on. His loftily didactic songs and the nasal tones of warbling song bird Joan Baez, who took the Pious-ometer off the scale, are early childhood memories - my sister was a fan and it was almost the only modern stuff in the house other than Perry Como. I've been trying to shake it off ever since and it's led to a lifetime suspicion of songs with a message. Have you noticed how few of them have a decent tune?

    Having said all that, I didn't feel in any way subverted by them and wonder who would. I could never see the point of the US's 50s blacklists for artists. Fair enough to try and make sure that your nuclear programmes aren't exclusively staffed by people who are microdotting the plans to Moscow at the end of the working day, but a bearded bore with a banjo doesn't strike me as much of a threat to the American way of life. In fact his dignified behaviour in refusing to plead the 5th and taking the consequences probably won him and his cause more supporters than if the government and Congress had ignored him.

    I wondered at the time whether Neil Young's anti-Iraq war "Let's Impeach the President" album and tour was an attempt to get on a banned list of some sort, like the Dixie Chicks. His career was in a bit of a slump and it might have been a good career move. As it was, the tour got a few old Hippies out of the house, attracted a few boos and was then forgotten. His film of it was on Sky Arts recently.

    You might consider another one of your excellent lists on the theme of the 10 most irritating protest songs of all time. I'll start with either "Chicago" or "Military Madness" by Graham Nash. "Russians" by Sting might be in with a chance. I suggest you exclude anything by Joan Baez in order to avoid an uncompetitive monopoly.

  2. He could have rubbed Stalin's feet every night and wouldn't have been as offensive as the damage he's done to my ears.

    Oh Gawd ex..."Russians"

    This whole post makes me want to eat a can of house paint.

    1. Cheer up, e.f. Remember - we shall overcome some day.

      Mind you, whenever I hear that line about the Russians loving their children too, I rather wish Sting had eaten a can of house paint before recording it - this about a state that spent 70 years trying to destroy the family as an institution. Of course, Gordon Sumner used to be a British state school teacher, which explains a lot.

  3. Excellent stuff! I took a parallel approach over on Biased BBC, anticipating the eulogies about to be heaped on the old fraud's head by the Corporation. Over there I explored the role of his half-sister Peggy Seeger and her husband Ewan McColl in the calculated programme MacColl ran to use the 1960s British 'Folk' scene as a tool for the promotion of communism. Oh, and then there was their open propagandising via the BBC. So much for MI5 blacklists!

    Seeger was a monster and the BBC was shameless in its adulation of him.

    1. Agreed! I bet you enjoyed the following tweet (which I found on Biased BBC, naturally) from BBC Radio 6 DJ, Lauren Laverne: "Still thinking abt Pete Seeger's amazing century on earth. Loved & hated by precisely the right people. What a guy."

      Yes, Ewan McColl has always struck me an absolute blister - a rigid, humourless, authoritarian far-left ideologue of the worst kind. I enjoyed the story told by his daughter Kirstie (whose success he evidently resented) playing him her first hit single "There's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis". Apparently, Daddy held out his hand and demanded a copy of the "text". What a guy!

  4. Oh damn - when I posted this, I forgot to include Seeger's best song, "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" - I've now stuck the lovely Jackson Browne/Bonnie Rait reggaefied version of it in just above Lilli von Shtupp.