Pete Seeger and the meaning of patriotism

I wrote this post in February 2008 as Pete Seeger approached 90. With his death, there’ll be plenty of words written today about Seeger’s contribution to America, but — like the comments section in the original post — the ones that matter most are the ones that reveal whether we have yet to grasp what defines a good American.

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 (update to that link) 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.