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Pete Seeger's Magnificent, But Messy, Legacy

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Have you ever heard a recording of Pete Seeger singing one of his anti-war hymns from the period, 1939 to 1941, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany? Pete Seeger in those performances sings in a lovely naïve tone, as always. His charming banter is childlike in its simplicity—his denunciations of the capitalist imperialists who might like to see America go to war foolishly against the Nazis.

It is true that, in later years, the mad-dog ultra-right-wingers and the McCarthyite demagogues tormented Seeger endlessly for those foolish performances, and they succeeded in ruining his musician's career, for a while—which could lead you to raise a fist and insist that something in his Soviet-line period must have been commendable, in spite of everything. But this would be a mistake. Pete Seeger's anti-war performances from those years are revolting. He and his musical colleagues sang anti-war songs in 1939-41 because, in the Soviet Union, Stalin had decided that an alliance with the Nazis was a good idea; and the order to support Stalin had gone out to every Communist Party in the world; and Pete Seeger was, in those days, a good Communist. And so, he picked up his banjo and leaned into the microphone, and his vocal warblings and his banjo plunks were exactly what Stalin wanted to hear from Pete Seeger.

Allow me to point out, however, that maybe it is good, in retrospect, that Pete Seeger's early, objectionable, Soviet-line performances can still be heard. His musical style was folk-primitive, with a decided tilt toward children and the grandeurs of sing-along mass participation; and the power of that style is too powerful for anyone's good. You could suppose, listening to Pete Seeger perform, that only a fascist maniac could entertain opinions contrary to those of Pete Seeger. This is a dangerous thing to suppose.

It is unclear to me what was Seeger's precise role in the creating of "We Shall Overcome," which became the anthem of the civil rights revolution in the 1950s and '60s. But no one played a greater role than Seeger in popularizing the song, and a magnificent song it was: an expression of moral grandeur. "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. It is good to despise Generalisimo Francisco Franco, the Spanish fascist; and it is good to reflect that, at one moment or another, the enthusiasm for progressive causes can lead you over the cliff. Let us sing "If I Had a Hammer," then, and, at every third verse, let our hammers bop Pete Seeger on the head for having been a fool and an idiot; and, at every fourth verse, let us applaud him still more, and thrill to his virtuoso banjo riffs and his warbling tenor and his political ideals.

I used to attend Pete Seeger concerts in the 1970s, I'm not sure why. I was young, and his audiences in those days were, by and large, middle-aged or older, as if his concerts were reunions of the Communist Party, or maybe the ex-Communist Party (the ex-Communist Party was an excellent party) of the 1930s.  Yet no matter how old his audience may have been, Seeger was a genius at conjuring an atmosphere of the childlike and the simple; and he was a genius at joining together the childlike atmosphere with a left-wing call for democratic equality. Did he ever fully come to grips with the grotesqueries of his Communist past? I look forward to reading my friend Ron Radosh, the ex-Communist, currently right-wing Republican, ex-banjo-player on this question—Radosh, with whom I agree 10 percent of the time, but who remained, I know, somehow in contact with Seeger, even into recent times. I expect Ron to denounce Pete. I am sorry to remind Pete's fans that denunciations by Ron Radosh are Pete's fate.

Still, I recall the last time that I saw Pete, live, in performance. It was at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan in 1982, and it was not a concert. The event was a meeting in solidarity with the Polish trade union, Solidarity, which was doing its best to overthrow Communism and Soviet domination in favor of democracy. The most famous speaker at that Town Hall meeting was Susan Sontag, who denounced Communism as a species of fascism. Sontag made fun of The Nation. Good for her! But Pete Seeger spoke, too. He supported Polish Solidarity. This was, on his part, the evidence that he had come to his senses, and his ideals were authentic. I listened to him say his few words, and I was moved. If he had a hammer, he seemed to be saying, he would hammer away at whoever was oppressing the ordinary mass of humanity, even if the oppressors called themselves (however falsely) left-wing. This was excellent. It is my last memory of him. The memory is beautiful. It leads me to say: Long live the magnificent heritage of Pete Seeger! And if his heritage is not entirely magnificent, all the better, say I. His failings will remind us that everyone has failings, and let us tread carefully, and let us support the cause of equality and justice, even so. With a hammer!