Within 12 hours of Pete Seeger’s death, he’d been eulogized far and wide, hailed as a “champion of folk music”, “one of the most enduring and best-loved folk singers of his generation” and “one of the most important American musical voices of the 20th century.” Even Fox News had kind words for Seeger—who’s known as much for his liberal and environmental activism as for his music.
But Seeger hasn’t always been universally beloved. Sixty years ago, he was (accurately) labeled a Communist and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Over the course of his 70-year career, he’s been derided as a Soviet sympathizer and banned from appearing on TV. But the adulation journalists are heaping on Seeger today isn’t due to the convention not to speak ill of the dead. His reputation underwent a drastic transformation over the past few decades—even if the man himself didn’t.
In “Resurrecting the Red: Pete Seeger and the Purification of Difficult Reputations,” a 2002 paper in the journal Social Forces, Northwestern University sociologists Minna Bromberg and Gary Alan Fine tried to get to the bottom of how Seeger had gone from fringe to status quo without really changing his act. “Seeger’s reputation has changed…from his near-public ruin in the 1950s to his 1994 season of honors,” wrote Bromberg and Fine.
“This case elucidates the possibilities for purifying sullied reputations. Seeger’s shift from political deviant to cultural icon lends support to the argument that reputations are radically malleable, even when the figure has not changed dramatically….The case of Pete Seeger provides a powerful instance of the institutional establishment of a reputation in the face of potential objections.”
“How can we explain Seeger’s evolving reputation, from subversive to saint? By examining four distinct time periods, we analyze how Seeger’s reputation has shifted in light of changing communities of concern.”
1940s: Subcultural recognition of Seeger among leftist circles
“By singing at political rallies and labor union gatherings during the 1940s…Seeger became increasingly well-known among Communist and leftist groups…His social movement activity was directly linked to the Communist Party and had a strong revolutionary (although nonviolent) component.”
1950-1962: Reputational ruin in the McCarthy period and the subsequent anti-Communist years
“Following the accusations of Seeger’s leftist politics in the 1950 publication Red Channels and subsequently during the time of his testimony before HUAC, those who were opposed to Seeger’s political affiliations were effective in shaping his reputation because his potential defenders were also being attacked. By 1953 the Weavers’ record label, Decca, had dropped them…Reputational ruin caused Seeger to be banned from many mainstream venues either because there were outspoken anti-Communists to oppose him or because venues wished to avoid potential controversy…Seeger’s reputation had become disjointed: highly positive with a small, intense community, and generally negative with a larger but more diffuse public.”
1960s: Renown, beginning with the folk revival and the emerging social movements of the 1960s
“The cultural and political successes of the movements he participated in and the social position of members of these movements strengthened Seeger’s reputation....
"The reputational problem to consider is how Seeger’s positive reputation expanded while his negative reputation contracted. The explanation involves generational change coupled with an altered, and diminished, role for opponents of domestic Communism. By winning politically, the anti-Communists faced cultural defeat….From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, Americans witnessed a ‘folk revival’…It was during this period that Seeger’s reputation witnessed a generational shift…Seeger was forced underground; he reorganized his career by singing at colleges and reaching a younger generation that was ready to adopt figures who would challenge the status quo....
In the 1970s and 1980s, Seeger’s ‘lovable underdog’ image continued to gain ground. The opposition to his political views remained sporadic as his reputation grew. While occasional local protestors recalled Seeger’s Cold War notoriety, for most the old Left seemed to be merely a curious historical relic....
"During this period, with the virtual disappearance of the Communist Party as a major force within the U.S., Seeger himself became more open about his previous CPUSA affiliations, seeing Communist Party membership as no longer fundamentally discrediting and perhaps as part of a nostalgic past….nostalgia is by far the most striking feature of this period. This backward-looking attitude had the effect of turning Seeger into a living legend, his reputation taking on a ‘frozen in amber’ quality.”
Institutionalization as a cultural icon culminating in his 1994 Kennedy Center Honor
"Why do establishment elites applaud Seeger for his behavior and allow him to perform songs that many might view as insulting? It seems that there is no need here to sell out in order to maintain an ‘official’ reputation. Rather, the freezing-in-time of nostalgia seems to take care of Seeger’s more problematic expressions. He is not dangerous, because he is not taken seriously. He is not fully heard, free to sing whatever he likes because this saintly old man can hardly be ‘seriously’ proposing rebellion. His reputation traps him."