Pete Seeger’s death at the age of 94 has brought forth scores of celebratory tributes. America had long ago showered him with honors, which all but made up for the scorn with which he was once held in the age of the blacklist. Seeger received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994, as well as multiple Grammys. He was named one of America’s “living legends” by the Library of Congress, was asked to sing at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had become, as a Washington Post story once put it, “America’s Best Loved Commie.”
Without Seeger’s influence and sponsorship of folk music, from traditional Appalachian ballads to slave songs of the Old South, many would never have appreciated folk music, nor would it have become a genre whose influence has spread far and wide. He experimented with “world music” long before anyone had used that term; when abroad, he collected songs and brought them back to the United States. “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” written by Solomon Linda and used in The Lion King, is a major example of a South African song Seeger brought here generations before Paul Simon.
What other artist would receive a statement from the president of the United States honoring him, not to speak of the scores of senators and members of Congress who found inspiration in his voice and his singing?
Yet, an honest appreciation of Pete Seeger cannot be left at what most accolades have done. Indeed, since his political vision, his service over the decades to the brutality of Soviet-era Stalinism and to all of the post-Cold War leftist tyrannies, was inseparable from the music he made, it simply cannot be overlooked. For, more often than not, Seeger’s voice was heard in defense of causes in which only fools could still believe. As Paul Berman put it, “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 calling him a fool and an idiot is, indeed, not too harsh a judgment to make about Pete Seeger. I say that sadly, as a person for whom Pete was a childhood hero. I studied banjo with him, got to know him, and visited him at the legendary home he built from scrap in Beacon, New York.
For years, all that Pete Seeger said about Joseph Stalin, whose regime he served without a blink for decades, was that the Soviet leader was a “hard driver.” Only half a century after Stalin’s death, and after the fall of the Soviet Union (when I personally called him out on his views and wrote a column for the New York Sun entitled “Time for Pete Seeger to Repent”) did Pete send me a letter in response, writing: “I think you’re right—I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” Seeger also enclosed a blues song that he had just written titled “Big Joe Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers-type yodel that said, in effect, that Joe Stalin was the real threat and not, as he once thought, Joe McCarthy.
I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe, the lyrics read.
He ruled with an iron hand
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land
He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race
Instead he set it back
Right in the same nasty place
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast)
I got the Big Joe Blues
(Do this job, no questions asked)
I got the Big Joe Blues.
It was, I think, hard for Seeger to write. Still, he only sang it privately, for trusted friends—and it came too late in the game, a half-century too late; by the time he wrote those verses, in 2007, it no longer mattered.
One had to wonder: What if he had dared to sing that song in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when the Soviet Union still existed—when the old apparatchiks who ruled after Stalin’s death still oppressed the people of the USSR, and their waging of Cold War threatened the world?
Instead, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he sang songs like “Hey Zhankoye,” a paean to Soviet collective farms run by Jews in the Crimea, heralding Stalin’s supposed freeing of Soviet Jews—at a time when he was preparing for the murder of the Jews of Russia and had arrested and murdered famous Jewish poets as American spies and Zionist agents.
During the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-41), Seeger sang antiwar songs that, in effect, called for the support of Hitler. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he withdrew the songs he had just recorded and suddenly supported the “antifascist alliance” between the United States and the Soviets. During the Cold War, he supported unilateral American disarmament and backed one Soviet propaganda campaign after the other. “Put My Name Down, Brother, Where Do I Sign?” he sang, calling for signatures on the Stockholm Peace Petition developed by KGB fronts in Europe.
During the Vietnam war, Seeger not only helped lead the antiwar movement, he also sang in praise of the brutal Ho Chi Minh. Lyndon B. Johnson was called “a big fool” in one of his most famous songs, while he sang of Ho Chi Minh: He educated all the people, / He demonstrated to the world, / If a man will stand for his own land, / He’s got the strength of ten.
In 1999, Seeger traveled to Cuba to receive an award from the Castro regime. The fading Cuban tyrants honored him with their highest cultural award, given for “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism,” which was in and of itself a travesty. Accepting an award from Fidel Castro should make it clear that Seeger’s would-be humanism and protest was aimed at one side only: his own country, which he clearly thought was led by the world’s sole oppressors.
One cannot hope to be thought of as a defender of human rights and also accept an award from the Cuban police state. That, too, must be taken into consideration when evaluating what Pete Seeger really learned from his own Stalinist past.
In his last years, Seeger, who, in the period when the Soviet Union was briefly pro-Israel, sang songs in both Hebrew and Yiddish (including Israeli songs), gave his support to boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) against Israel, even to the extent that he handed over royalties from “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the movement.
A great folk singer who contributed much to the American story, he was fatally flawed by the leftism he imbibed with his mother’s milk. How telling that a man who sought social justice, peace, and a livable world could, at the same time, believe that serving leftist tyrants was somehow compatible with his dream of universality and solidarity.
Ronald Radosh has written widely on folk music and politics, and is the author, with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.