Reflections on Seeger

A few weeks ago in this space, we kicked around the question of what defines patriotic. Unfortunately, the discussion was spawned by Michele Obama’s comments, and it’s near impossible to have a reflective conversation that’s not tainted by the passion of a current campaign.

As it happens, though, I stumbled across an American Masters documentary on PBS last night on Pete Seeger, who changed a lot about this country with a banjo and a song.

It came painfully says Seeger, now nearly 89, who acknowledges he still has some friends who are Communists. “I read their newspaper and there’s occasionally some good stories there. And I read the Wall Street Journal and occasionally they have some good stories there.”

His biographer noted that the FBI pursued Seeger until the only job he could get was singing to kids, said David Dunaway. “They never thought there’d be a problem with Pete Seeger singing to six year olds. Little did they know that out of that came not a subversive movement, but an American folk music revival that I think we have to give the FBI credit for helping to establish.”

“My father was a total patriot and his patriotism was completely misunderstood,” his son said in the documentary.

Seeger also visited North Vietnam during the war, though anecdotal evidence suggests he’s not quite as reviled in some quarters today as Jane Fonda, who also visited Hanoi.

Lost amid the fog of age, however, is the role a TV variety show could play in political debate in the ’60s. In November 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, the Smothers Brothers invited Seeger on their show (he hadn’t been allowed on TV in more than a decade), in which he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” It was censored by CBS. The Smothers Brothers protested, and he was allowed back to sing it again He set the audience up with 4 minutes of traditional folk music considered acceptable, and then hit them with one of the most powerful — if forgotten — moments in the history of television.


Well, I’m not going to point any moral;

I’ll leave that for yourself

Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking

You’d like to keep your health.

But every time I read the papers

That old feeling comes on;

We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool says to push on.

Pete Seeger still stands on a street corner of his town in upstate New York, holding up a sign that says “Peace,” and people still drive by wondering why one person thinks he can change the world.

  • Michelle M

    I was a part of the discussion on patriotism that was spawned by Michelle Obama’s comments and I happen to think that the conversation ended up being reflective and not altogether unfortunate. It was definitely a conversation taking place between people with different points of view, and we could have stuck to our that-side’s-yours-this-side’s-mine mentality, but it seems to me that we found some common ground and came to a sort of meeting of the minds.

    Looking at the things said in that conversation, I too believe that I can make a difference. I don’t stand on a street corner holding up signs and I’ll probably never be on a television show, but I do treat the people that I meet in a peaceful way with the hope that they will do the same. Is that patriotic? I feel like it is.

  • Steve Schober

    There are some comments by Harry Chapin on his ‘Gold Medal Collection’ CD about Pete Seeger.

    When Seeger was asked by a reporter about involvement in causes, he said that means “… that you are involved with the good people. The people with the live hearts, the live eyes, the live heads”.

    It seems to me like a good philosophy to surround yourself with people who are ACTIVELY involved with their lives.

  • http://www.lungmn.org Bob from ALAMN

    The Seeger thing was pretty good, wasn’t it? I watched it again last night.

    I particularly like when Johnny Cash spoke about Seeger’s patriotism.

  • Bob Collins

    Michelle, actually, I should clarify that. I wasn’t saying the conversation had here wasn’t rich — I’ve pointed it out to a number of people around here as an example of a really good online discussion. I was more looking at the question in the totality of it, not in the News Cut version of it.

    Seeger gives us a chance to step back a little bit and look at the entire context of the question, given that he’s gone from pariah (in the eyes of the government) to a medal winner.

    His 89-year story may be THE best lab rat EVER in this country for the discussion about what it means to be an American.

  • Michelle M

    Ah. Got-cha, Bob.

    I do think that is awesome that voices like Pete Seeger’s are heard, even when attempts are made to quiet them and I have a renewed respect for the Smothers Brothers.

  • c

    “His biographer noted that the FBI pursued Seeger until the only job he could get was singing to kids, said David Dunaway. “They never thought there’d be a problem with Pete Seeger singing to six year olds”

    Dear FBI –

    Holy sht! what happen to that man’s freedom of speech? Does anyone else see this as criminal behavior?

    So in America you can say what you want but Big Bully FBI (my big brother wouldnever do such a thing so the FBI doesn’t get that title) doesn’t like it you will never find work.

    nice.

  • Bob Collins

    Well, yeah, there’s that. But you also have to keep things in the context of the times. Many of our mothers and fathers wouldn’t eat in the same building as African Americans. That was them then. Doesn’t mean that’s them now.

    Imagine what it must’ve been like to hear about this thing… “an atom bomb” in real time, and then find that there was one pointed at you.” It doesn’t seem, maybe, like a real big deal now….but back then…

    I can remember President Kennedy’s Vietnam speech in which he talked about gorillas in Vietnam. That was enough to scare me. You can get pretty scared when you don’t know much. You can do some pretty whacky things when you’re scared.

  • c

    re: fear of gorillas

    So Bob, confess, what whacky thing or stuff did you do because President Kennedy scared you with the gorilla story?

    My dad flew in Nam…I was maybe 4 or 5. I remember looking up at the bottom of the ironing board while my mom was ironing and asking, “Mom where’s dad?” and mom would answer “He’s in Nam”

    That was an answer and I had no idea what that meant and so I just went about my business

  • c

    Hey Bulb-

    So you are justifying what the FBI did back then to this Pete Seeger because his lyrics were scaring people? You are saying that the FBI probably saved the public from unnecessary hysteria by keeping a lid on this guy?

    What ARE you saying Bob?

  • Bob Collins

    Nope, I’m saying exactly what I said. That in evaluating historical record, you have to account for historical context, and come up with any judgment based on that. Right? Wrong? That’s for you to judge.

  • GregS

    It would have been nice had Pete Seeger taken his sail boat to Vietnam to rescue the million people cast upon the seas by his buddies in Hanoi – but then one has to guess – he was on to other “moral” causes by then, and couldn’t be bothered.

    Pete Seeger embodies the vicious double-standard of the American left.

    In a New York Sun critique, a former student of Seeger’s writes about how firmly seated this hypocrisy was in the singers life.

    Time for Pete Seeger to Repent

    “Nowhere does this documentary describe the Almanac Singers’ very first album, “Songs for John Doe.” As readers of this newspaper know, in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a

    180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR’s America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.

    In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Another song, to the tune of “Cripple Creek” and the sound of Mr. Seeger’s galloping banjo, said, “Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain’t a-gonna send us across the sea,” and “Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me.”

    The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when � two months after “John Doe” was released � Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.”

  • Bob Collins

    Greg, FYI, the link you provided is the one that was in the original post.

  • c

    “Pete Seeger embodies the vicious double-standard of the American left.”

    I had a friend and co-worker who was a young female architect from Russia. She and I would exchange stories of growing up and I always loved what her opinion is of America. First left me say that she has never bad mouthed America. She has only given me observations. For instance, one day we were talking about going to the grocery store and she commented that in America we have at least 10 to 20 different kinds of everything. In Russia, one…maybe two. One observation that I had made about my friend from Russia is that she didn’t jump on the American band wagon of having 10 or 100 of everything. She had some very nice hair pieces, maybe one or two, a couple very nice outfits, she was not wasteful. She took very good care of what she did have. She shared recipies with me, where all parts of the fruit and vegetable were used. I think that some aspects of socialism are something to be admired.

    I live in a house that was built in 1911. The closets by todays standard are not big enough to fit a new borns wardrobe. In this day the closets are called “California” or “Walk-in” and are about the size of my whole bedroom. This is Capitalism? Consuming more and more on invisible money while wasting our natural resources or going to war to keep up with the wastefulness.

    Is this what Pete Seeger’s double standardism is about?

  • GregS

    Is this what Pete Seeger’s double standardism is about?

    The double standard is about a number of things. For Pete Seeger it was about involving himself in unions and foreign causes as long as those things advanced Totalitarian Socialism.

    When unions in foreign places worked against Totalitarian Socialism like Solidarity in Poland, Mr. Seeger and his banjo were noticeably absent.

    As for your 1911 house, I doubt if it would measure up to typical suburban new construction. Modern houses use MUCH less building material and require MUCH less energy than houses built a century ago.

    Modern houses tend to have more square footage, but also tend to make better use of space.

    But you bring up an excellent point — liberals of Mr. Seeger’s ilk do value older more unsustainable architecture – then feel free to complain about the consumption habits of others.

    Yes, that is a double-standard.

  • c

    “Totalitarian Socialism” please enlighten me.

    You seem to come across as the expert in a vast number of topics. I don’t even know where you are coming from to understand your point.

    and now you are an expert on architecture

    I do know that most new houses are junk. Junk that will not last long. Kind of like the 3 pigs house of straw. Space efficient…uuuhhhhh…no. Over sized..yah.

    I think that your idea of “complaining liberals” is anyone who challenges what they believe to be unfair and unjust.

    If you noticed, what I comment on is what I have experienced first hand. Observations.

  • GregS

    Pete Seeger is un-repentant Stalinist, a man who never faced to or admitted his mistakes.

    As for new houses, I agree they are not built from virgin white pine stripped from old-growth forests. Instead, they are made from sustainable resources, like concrete, sand (glass and spun fiber-glass insulation), gypsum and wood grown on tree-farms and carpets made of corn-starch or engineered wood made of laminents.

    It is great to live in an old house. It is also great to understand the cost to the environment of building such a house.

  • GregS

    To be fair to Seeger, he was a Stalinist in belated opposition to Stalin.

    From Wikipedia

    Seeger has made his rejection of Stalin publicly explicit several times. Among these are his 1993 book Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine. In 2007, he wrote a song condemning Stalin, “Big Joe Blues”, and also a letter to historian Ron Radosh, an anticommunist critic of Seeger, apologizing for being blind to Stalin’s failings. “I think you’re right,” wrote Seeger, “I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in U.S.S.R.” [14]

    Fancy that, the jerk waits until after the Berlin Wall fell to rethink his Soviet-style Socialism.

  • c

    You’re a trip Greg

    My point on this Seeger Guy is that I can see how an individual, like himself, could be attracted to some socialist ideas. I am not sold on the all Capitalism idea. Afterall take a look around you today. (By the way, how many houses are sitting empty, and we need to build more?)

    Instead of reading ALL your information out of a book why don’t you get out there and experience it.

  • GregS

    My point on this Seeger Guy is that I can see how an individual, like himself, could be attracted to some socialist ideas.

    I can understand how people were attracted to Hitler, but I have no sympathy for their repulsive ideas.

    Instead of reading ALL your information out of a book why don’t you get out there and experience it.

    Excuse me, but I have been to the other side of the wall, when there still was a wall.

    As for houses being empty while houses are being built – there is a thing called “choice”

    It goes with a thing called “freedom”.

    Given your sympathies with Seeger’s stalinism, I can understand your difficulty with those two words.

  • c

    “Given your sympathies with Seeger’s stalinism.”

    I am empathetic with Seeger an I have never said anything about Hitler.

    I can clearly see that you and I do not agree.

    This is freedom of choice.

  • GregS

    I am empathetic with Seeger an I have never said anything about Hitler.

    This is what I cannot understand. Stalin and Mao were by any reasonable measure, far worse than Hitler.

    Anyone today who expresses the slightest sympathy with Hitler becomes an instant pariah, yet the left has never really exorcised the ghost of Stalin — it is the double-standard that I spoke of up thread.

    It is in a word – disgusting.

    You are correct, we do not agree, shame on you!!

  • c

    “shame on you”

    Is that some sort of Catholic Curse you are casting on me?

    You are such a freak.

    Maybe Seeger has never admitted to his mistakes because he feels as though he has never made any. eh?

  • GregS

    Maybe Seeger has never admitted to his mistakes because he feels as though he has never made any. eh?

    I am sure that he does not regret doing the bidding of a dictator that murdered 20 million people.

    That what my point.

    The fact that you defend him, was also my point.

  • LeslieM

    Some facts are presented about Mr. Seeger’s actions at different times in his life, and those facts suggest he experienced a significant change of mind and heart. For a singing group to withdrew their album from circulation and ask others to return it is pretty amazing. For a pacifist to choose to serve in a combat position in the military is a significant change. There’s a much more complex story here and I’d love to hear it from Pete Seeger.

    Like all of us, he made decisions with the information he had at the time; unlike many of us, he lived a full and active life driven by his ideals. To change one’s mind in response to new information and changing circumstances is not hypocrisy. It’s growth and learning. That’s what he demonstrated. If only our current “president” had similar ability.

    I can’t imagine what is being considered a double standard in this story. He lived out his values in every possible way, bringing considerable hardship on himself and his family for doing so. He did not live in plenty while preaching about those with little. He went to war himself – he didn’t send other people’s children.

    What an amazing life – a good life, from which we may yet learn.

  • c

    nicely put Leslie

    greg how is stalin’s murders different than george bush’s

    do you defend/support george bush?…how many lives have been lost in the current war?

  • GregS

    Some facts are presented about Mr. Seeger’s actions at different times in his life, and those facts suggest he experienced a significant change of mind and heart. For a singing group to withdrew their album from circulation and ask others to return it is pretty amazing. For a pacifist to choose to serve in a combat position in the military is a significant change. There’s a much more complex story here and I’d love to hear it from Pete Seeger.

    First of all, you have to have a familiarity with Stalin’s control of the American Communist Party. The party was ordered by Stalin in the mid-1930’s to oppose fascism, the result of this was things like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade organized to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

    Shortly after the Spananish Civil War, Stalin signed the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact agreeing to split Poland with Hitler. Suddenly people like Pete Seeger who were once for armed struggle against Hitler — became “pacifists”, opposing intervention against the Nazis. Now they worked for both Hitler and Stalin.

    This lasted until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, then Seeger and ilk, in an afternoon, tossed their “pacifism” out to door and went to war for Uncle Joe Stalin.

    Seeger was never an American patriot. He was until the fall of the USSR – a Soviet Stooge.

    “Pacifists” like Mr. Seeger, and most other “anti-war” activists ONLY opposed war when it was in opposition to Socialism. They never stood against the USSR or China, even when the communists invaded Hungary, Tibet Czeckloslovakia and Afghanistan.

    It is about time we begin seeing these people for who and what they are.

  • GregS

    greg how is stalin’s murders different than george bush’s do you defend/support george bush?…how many lives have been lost in the current war?

    I am mature and honest enough to understand who is killing whom.

    Stalin killed 20 million. All of them innocent people who had done nothing wrong. Most were not even freedom fighters, or interested in opposing Stalin, they were just people caught in the insanity inherent in Socialism.

    I also understand who is doing the majority of killing in Iraq and it is former Socialists from the Baath Party, Al Qaeda and Shiite radicals, not the United States;

    Maybe I am just an honest intelligent person but I cannot bring myself to the supreme lie of convincing myself and my friends that it is Bush who is the one responsible for the killing in Iraq.

    It would be nice if people who claim to be moral would interupt their mindless howling about Bush to comdemn the slaughter of the people who oppose freedom in Iraq.

    But then that would be a first.

  • David Wilford

    Quoted from the Wikipedia entry on Pete Seeger:

    “Seeger left the communist party in 1950 and openly rejected the policies of Stalin and the Stalinist form of Communism practiced in the Soviet Union. After 1950, Seeger became an anti-Stalinist socialist and continued strong support of the labor movement in the U.S.”

    Just thought it would be good to set at least one fact straight here.

  • Sara

    In my college years in the 1950’s, Pete Seeger came to campus every quarter — he would do a concert, and then a master class in either Guitar or Banjo. Many of us had fascinating discussions with him.

    Seeger had refused to answer questions about his political views and beliefs or memberships when called before the various Congressional Investigating Committees, and he was charged with contempt of Congress, but due to the Watkins decision in 1957, holding that Congressional Investigations are limited in the scope of inquiry to those things about which they can legislate — and personal political views are not included — he then no longer was scheduled for prosecution, and he got his passport back in 58 or 59. I think he benefited from the court ruling on Arthur Miller’s case, which similarly had refused him a passport.

    So because he was involved in litigation over these matters, specifically whether anyone can be forced to testify on personal beliefs — Seeger intelligently did not publicly discuss these things. However his views on virtually anything one wanted to know were contained in his lyrics — so if you were interested you could critique his art.

    His reasons for leaving the Communist Party in 1949 had a great deal to do with his art. The anti-cosmopolitian line that emerged in the USSR in 1946 eventually arrived in CPUSA circles, and Seeger was subject to intense criticism of his art within the party by those responsible for imposing the line, (keeping the discipline), and his response was just to quit, and carry on with his musical career. He didn’t denounce anyone, he didn’t collaborate with the FBI — he just resigned and stopped paying dues, and raising money for party causes. Instead he went to the campuses, did concerts, and taught banjo picking. Folkways kept his records in print, and added new ones usually every year. He experimented — I spent five or six hours about 1960 watching and listening to Seeger and Ravi Shankar playing together — Seeger trying to figure how to blend banjo with Sitar.

    If you focus on Stalin, and Stalin’s emense crimes you miss the fact that Seeger is a musician, a ballad singer, an observer of his world who makes art out of his observations.

  • Eric S. Harris

    Interesting reason for leaving an organization.

    “His reasons for leaving the Communist Party in 1949 had a great deal to do with his art. The anti-cosmopolitian line that emerged in the USSR in 1946 eventually arrived in CPUSA circles, and Seeger was subject to intense criticism of his art within the party by those responsible for imposing the line, (keeping the discipline), and his response was just to quit, and carry on with his musical career.” I’d never heard that before, but then Pete Seeger isn’t all that important to me.

    If politically-oriented bossiness about non-political matters from an organization caused him to reject an organization which advocates political measures which lead inevitably to totalitarianism, I guess that’s a good thing. Sort of.

    If they’d waited to impose Soviet-style political correctness on their members’ art until after the revolution, would it be safe to assume he’d be a Communist yet?

    Of course, in a totalitarian state, there is no such thing as a “non-political matter”. (Guess who just listened to “1984” on tape?)

    OLDTHINKERS UNBELLYFEEL INGSOC. (That would be me.)

    I recommend everyone read or listen to “1984” every decade or so. This was the first time I’d done so since the Berlin Wall went down. And while it’s still horrifying (I dreaded the “Room 101″ scenes) and unsettling (does the name “Gitmo” come to mind for you, too?) it’s not as depressing.

    After all, we’re down to just China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea and possibly Albania. (Did I miss any? I lost my scorecard, and won’t even guess about Cambodia.)

    As the Chinese Communist Party tries to have it both ways — a semi-free economy in a single-party Communist state — eventually it will go the way of East Germany, I expect. Vietnam is doing that on a smaller scale and with a faster timeline.

    Other predictions. The Communist Party in Cuba won’t survive a second passing of the scepter, and might fold soon after Fidel dies, even with his appointed heir still on the throne.

    Speaking of the laggards in the fall of Communism, and to return to the topic at hand, has Mr. Seeger had any unkind words for other Stalinists besides Stalin himself, or their most noteworthy activities? -Eric

  • Norske

    Some people sure like to cherry pick their facts these days. Pete Seeger is one of the few American heroes who has done more for this country with his banjo than most of us can hope to accomplish in a lifetime.

    That quote from Harry is one of my favorite quotes of all time. I’ve had the pleasure to watch Pete, usually with Arlo, on numerous occasions in the past, too many to count actually. I travelled 3000 miles to meet him and was not disappointed. I have few heroes and he is at the top of the list.

    I also happen to be a Viet Nam vet who absolutely did not mind Pete, Jane, or anyone else travelling to North Viet Nam.

    The level of accepted ignorance, no, go out of your way living in a cave ignorance in this country is truly amazing.