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!
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.
I seem to stagger about this agonized world as a clown, dressed in happiness, hoping to reach the hearts and minds of the young.
Mix vigorously with a statement by Wilkinson.
. . . all human beings are created equal and have equal rights. In the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, such a conviction made a person not a patriot, but a socialist.
And you get a taste of the sharing, caring, lame-o lefty mind omelet that spreads mood-poisoning to the masses.
The other momentous question of the modern era is what to do about it. The Protest Singer tells us what not to do. The slim volume is padded with a 28-page transcript of Seeger's August 18, 1955, testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (This committee is sorely in need of reconstitution, considering how many new activities have emerged that are un-American. The other day I saw a fellow turn off his BlackBerry before sitting down to a restaurant meal--and I had no one to report him to.)
Seeger was questioned by HUAC's chairman, Democratic congressman Francis E. Walter of Pennsylvania, a New Deal hack and coauthor of the McCarran-Walter "Yellow Peril" Act that tried to limit non-European immigration. Assisting the inquiry was the committee counsel, Frank S. Tavenner Jr., who seems to have been an idiot. The result of Seeger's being grilled was a sort of reverse waterboarding that, had it gone on much longer, would have had committee members and staff confessing to attempted suicide attacks on Joseph McCarthy.
Here are a few tidbits.
MR. TAVENNER: What is your profession or occupation?
MR. SEEGER: Well, I have worked at many things . . . and I make my living as a banjo picker--sort of damning, in some people's opinion. . . . It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school--
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?
MR. SEEGER: I have to explain that it really wasn't my profession. . . .
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you practice your profession?
MR. SEEGER: I sang for people, yes . . . and I expect I always will.
MR. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker [containing] this advertisement: "Tonight--Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming." I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party? . . .
MR. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs . . . or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked. . . .
MR. TAVENNER: I have before me a photostatic copy of . . . the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker [containing] this statement: The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," . . . will be given at a testimonial dinner . . . at St. Nicholas Arena. . . . MR.
SEEGER: I shall be glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs. . . .
CHAIRMAN WALTER: . . . I direct you to answer . . .
MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. . . . I am saying that my answer is the same as before. I have told you that I sang for everybody.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Wait a minute. You sang for everybody. Then are we to believe, or to take it, that you sang at the places Mr. Tavenner mentioned? . . .
MR. SEEGER: . . . I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.
We all know the types who listen to Pete Seeger songs; even Pete admits they aren't interesting. Nonetheless, Seeger has labored long and hard among these featherheads. As Wilkinson says, "He hoped that by making people feel themselves to be elements of a collective identity, he could intensify their experience--enlarge and encourage them and help hold oblivion at arm's length."
Oblivion being what Robespierre, Mao, Pol Pot, et al. pressed to their bosoms. Pete Seeger fans do, indeed, keep such gruesome results of their ideological turpitude at arm's length, as Pete himself did. And we sensible conservatives should be thankful to Seeger for all he's done to help make himself and the rest of these nitwits less effective at generating oblivion.
It's hard to build a gulag when you're busy organizing a hootenanny.
P.J. O'Rourke, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Driving Like Crazy.