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Red Warbler

Marching in step with a song and a smile.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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The Protest Singer
An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
by Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 152 pp., $22.95

We are the folk song army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.

So join in the folk song army,
Guitars are the weapons we bring
To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice,
Ready, aim, sing!

--Tom Lehrer

This is an important book. As with any book about which this needs to be said, what's meant is that it isn't important at all. It's a hagiography of Pete Seeger--and not even a proper, thorough one with sheet music, lyrics, and recording history. But there are important aspects to the book, none of them intentional.

Pete Seeger is a modest, unassuming, cheerful, and kind-natured man. He's a good folk singer, if you can stand folk singing. And he's such an excellent banjo player that you almost don't wish you had a pair of wire cutters. His abilities as a composer range from the fairly sublime ("Turn, Turn, Turn") to the fairly awful ("If I Had a Hammer") by way of the fairly ridiculous ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?").

He built his own house--rather badly, as far as I can tell. And he lives in it--rather well, with a loving wife and frequent visits from doting friends and relatives. He's spent his life being in favor of the right things, such as decent wages, racial equality, peace, and a clean Hudson River, and being opposed to the wrong things such as hunger, bigotry, violence, and a dirty Hudson River. He was also a member of the Communist party long past that organization's youthful-idealism sell-by date. Seeger is candid on the subject, his initial adverb notwithstanding:

Innocently I became a member of the Communist Party, and when they said fight for peace, I did, and when they said fight Hitler, I did. I got out in '49, though. .  .  . I should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to. My father had got out in '38, when he read the testimony of the trials in Moscow, and he could tell they were forced confessions. We never talked about it, though, and I didn't examine closely enough what was going on. .  .  . I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin, and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.

Thus is raised a momentous question, maybe the most momentous question of the modern era: How is it that legions of modest, unassuming, cheerful, and kind-natured people pledge their troth to political systems that burn continents and bury innocents by the hundred million?

No doubt the companionship of Pete Seeger is to be preferred to the company of country club Republicans like myself--proud, grasping, crabby, and with hearts as hard as three-wood clubheads. But at least our idea of world domination is to conquer the dogleg on the seventh hole (from the ladies' tee, if no one is looking). Yet when it comes to hagiographies we have to hire some out-of-work English Ph.D. to ghost-write our own: How I Made a Fortune in Downloadable Estate Planning Software--My Triumph of the Will.

Anyway, nice, sweet, and well-meaning busybodies have been wreaking havoc with the globe since at least the days of Rousseau. The Protest Singer offers a pretty good explanation of how the hopeful and the helpful manage to wander into a position of support for a Committee of Public Safety, a Nazi party, a Soviet Union, a Sarajevo, an al Qaeda, and a typical American university education. You don't even have to read the book to gain this understanding; simply scan page three and the dust jacket. The secret of the too-good's complicity in the too-bad seems to lie in a certain feckless disassociation from the real world. This is Alec Wilkinson's sketch of Pete Seeger's early history:

He went to Harvard, joined the tenor banjo society, and studied sociology in the hope of becoming a journalist, but at the end of his second year he left before taking his exams and rode a bicycle west, across New York State.

And this is the publisher's thumbnail biography of Alec Wilkinson:

Alec Wilkinson began writing for The New Yorker in 1980. Before that, he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that a rock-and-roll musician. .  .  . His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lyndhurst Prize, and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Wellfleet, by the way, is a resort town on Cape Cod where the principal crime problems are nude sunbathing and dune buggies crushing plover nests.

Fold two portions of scrambled egghead personal journey into one quote from Seeger's journal.