Pete Seeger

I own only two instruments, one is a banjo and the other a concertina. The reason I own them is because when I was very young, in the mid-1950s, I was sent to a summer camp for the children of comrades in the movement. And because of the blacklist, there were limited opportunities for people with a communist history, so two musicians came up to this southern Ontario campsite to entertain the children, one of whom I no longer remember the name, but the other was Pete Seeger. Not many definitive moments in a child’s life that are remembered more than half a century later, but that concert was one. And so, very badly, I play the banjo, and it was from Pete Seeger’s instructional manual I learned.

I had one other Pete Seeger moment. I was staying with my aunt in Fishkill, NY, sometime during the 1960s, and she mentioned that Pete Seeger was in their local phone book, living in a place called Dutch’s Junction. So I phoned over to invite him to tea and goodness gracious, he answered the phone himself and it was Pete Seeger who has the most distinctive voice in all of folk music on the other end. He thanked me for the offer but didn’t come round but an indelible memory.

Growing up, every single one of my parents’ friends was in the movement. All were Stalinists, my parents included, which is hard to reconcile about people I loved as much as I did. And they taught me a lot, gave me my interest in politics but, as I see it, fortunately taught me enough to break with every political tradition they held dear.

Life is complex. Pete Seeger has died at 94 and I mourn his passing into the great beyond.

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55 Responses to Pete Seeger

  1. Alfonso

    Old Stalinist Pete apparently wanted the State to provide him with a hammer, a brief insight as to why the USSR failed ….enough said.

  2. james

    You can mourn Seeger, the rest of us will not.

    Just another Stalinist.

  3. Ant

    If only he’d stuck to singing the folksie stuff, I’d offer my condolences to whoever.

    But I can’t, unfortunately. All I’ve got is a “good riddance” to yet another entertaining Useful Idiot.

    There’s a fair chance if we all listened to him people like me would be in a Gulag somewhere in the Simpson Desert scratching out grass roots from the dirt to eat.

  4. Fisky

    He supported the Nazi-Soviet pact. Fittingly, Obama has praised his life’s work.

  5. .

    Good riddance to someone who wished misery on billions.

  6. Jannie

    If I had been unemployed in Seeger’s generation I would have probably have been a communist, though I would have figured out Communism was Murder by 1953. Still Seeger was ok as far as communists go, there are a lot of innately good people who think good intentions must translate to good results, despite contrary evidence.

  7. Pedro

    Great story and a reminder that people are complex and all have their good and bad sides. Unfortunately, hating is a bit too easy.

  8. Jim Rose

    Many great artists had terrible politics.

  9. Grumbles

    Not evil, just wrong.

    Don’t hate the progressive. They lack perspective and cannot account for all the variables, they are emotionally driven and overwhelmed by empathy, but lack logic. Only the architects truly know what happens behind the curtain.

  10. Des Deskperson

    I like to think that one of the main differences between libertarians and totalitarians is that we don’t judge an artist’s product by his or her politics. A great artist – and I don’t know if Seeger was one – can have risable or even dangerous politics – which we are entitled to criticise – and still be a great artist. Only Stalinists and Overland poetry editors judge art by the politics of the artist.

    I recently found out that one of my favourite musicians – Miguel ‘Sizzler’ Collins performed at Mugabe’s recent birthday and was given a confiscated ex-white farm as a reward. I don’t like that, but I still like his music.

  11. thefrollickingmole

    Im not one for mixing politics and entertainment, but he was an apologist and propagandist for a truly shitty part of humanity.

    To be fair he may have been silly enough to believe “Jim crow” laws and other injustices sprung (somehow) from capitalism, but that makes him a fool.

    That he continued to believe social injustices sprang entirely from an economic system shows the shallowness of his thinking.

    Talent doesnt excuse being a propaganda mouthpiece for evil. (phew I avoided Godwins Law…or did I just invoke it by saying I missed it??)

  12. Alfonso

    Pete idolised a mass murderer….fuck his music.

  13. gabrianga

    And here was me thinking he lived in the “great beyond”?

  14. Bozo

    Commiserations from another poor banjo player.

    And this from Mark Steyn:

    “Anyway, in the Sun, Mr Radosh, a former banjo pupil of the great man, did dwell on it, and a few weeks later got a letter in response. “I think you’re right,” wrote Pete. “I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” And he enclosed a new song he’d composed:

    I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe 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’s heartening to see that age (he’s now 88) hasn’t withered Seeger’s unerring instinct for bum rhymes (“fast/asked”). Still, Ron Radosh was thrilled that, just 54 years after the old brute’s death, a mere three-quarters of a century after the purges and show trials and whatnot, the old protest singer had finally got around to protesting Stalin, albeit somewhat evasively: He put the human race “right in the same nasty place”?

    I doubt this will feature in the obits.

  15. Jannie

    Its hard when artists can write such beautiful lyrics and harmonies, and then out themselves as low information rent seekers. My biggest disappointment is Bruce Springsteen. I just loved his petrol power Rock, anthems to freedom, working on cars and girls and grease. Turns out he’s Obama’s rent boy and Wayne Swan’s hero.

  16. JohnA

    Alfonso #1170654, posted on January 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Pete idolised a mass murderer….fuck his music.

    Nope. I might disagree with his politics, and disagree with his political lyrics as and when required, but if he was a good muso, that isn’t altered by his politics.

    I also happen to enjoy the great music of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was not any sort of Christian. He nevertheless wrote some excellent hymn music. I can still enjoy his musical talent, even though I am unhappy about his lifestyle.

  17. Elephant Stone

    “I like to think that one of the main differences between libertarians and totalitarians is that we don’t judge an artist’s product by his or her politics.”

    Probably because we know that if we did we’d have to bin pretty much our entire music collections!

    I think I read in Taleb’s book “Antifragile” something along the lines that artists often produce good work precisely because they are wrong.

  18. Tardell G

    I liked his song “Nightmoves” with The Silver Bullet Band.

  19. Riverina Matt

    Seeger was a communist – and as such had both the high ideals and totalitarian sympathies of that breed.

    Who could doubt that, come the revolution in the USA, Seeger would have been out there singing in support of crushing the class enemy, threatening vengeance on right deviationists, hoarders and wreckers, and praising the new strong man “the father of the American people …”

    That the President of the United States praises a man such as this says a lot about the USA – both good and bad.

  20. steve

    If I had a hammer…….

  21. Ant

    The guy was a propagandist for tyranny. Possibly one suffering gross ignorance and stupidity, but a propagandist nonetheless whose influence steered his country closer to misery than liberty.

    If Josef Goebbels had been a talented folk singers, should we sing his praises because he could string together some catchy tunes?

  22. Turtle of WA

    “I like to think that one of the main differences between libertarians and totalitarians is that we don’t judge an artist’s product by his or her politics.”

    This may be partly true, but John Butler can suck a c@#$. He is a gifted guitarist and I might be able to enjoy his playing were it not for the trite, carping, superficial ideological eco-fascism that he preaches in his lyrics. He was a participant in the hippies helping to stop the gas hub in WA. Likewise Peter Garret, U2, Rage Against the Machine and more. You can’t sing along to the mantra of your enemy. There are some artists who can rise above the petty politics of the day and make music that is timeless. Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper from The Church once made the point that pop songs tend to trivialise, rather than help people understand, important causes. Songs do however, over time, have a creeping cultural Marxist effect on the culture, as the quality declines and the subject matter becomes more base.

  23. .

    LOL Tardell. You’ve obviously read the HuffPo today.

  24. Ellen of Tasmania

    Life is complex.

    Indeed. I understand the mourning and sympathise. Let he who is without (musical) sin …..

  25. .

    I agree Turtle.

    Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence is far better than the preachy crap Bono came up with…even though I think New Years Day is pretty good.

    I can’t listen to an (old) live album anymore because he craps on about how not having sanctions was keeping Desmond Tutu locked up…

  26. Rabz

    Probably because we know that if we did we’d have to bin pretty much our entire music collections!

    Too true.

  27. Rabz

    Turtle, what annoys me about the politicising of pop music is that it instantly renders it dated and irrelevant. Midnight Oil (who I always hated with an undying passion) are a classic case in point.

    Classic pop dwells on timeless themes such as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy consumes huge quantities of intoxicants, boy gets his act together.

  28. Turtle of WA

    Spot on Rabz. I don’t mind if the artist is a lefty, as long as he doesn’t preach it in his songs. Classical themes like intoxication, love and nature (aesthetic, non-ideological nature) will always be the best. Some of the best lyrics resist meaning altogether, and just sound good, create an atmosphere or provoke the imagination. Writing political songs is to me like writing novelty songs, or joke songs. You may like Kevin Bloody Wilsons songs, but you’d hardly call him a great musician or songwriter.

  29. Turtle of WA

    It happened back in Beethoven’s day: the Eroica, or Third Symphony, was devoted to Napoleon. At least he had the decency to retract his support later on.

  30. Robert Blair

    Well, Pete Seeger was the doofus who got so upset with Dylan using an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 that he tried to cut the power leads with an axe.

    You can learn a lot from people by the way they react to Dylan (the real Dylan that is, not the leftie fantasy peddled in Rolling Stone every month).

    Some other reactions to Dylan:

    John Lennon and Paul McCartney got totally stoned for the first time.

    Andy Warhol wanted to take nude pictures of him. Dylan let him take some non-nude ones, even so they’re pretty creepy.

    Lou Reed was depressed when Dylan dissed his songs, but cheered some years later when Dylan said “Doing What We Want To” is a pretty good song.

    Jack White learnt arc-welding when Dylan repaired his farm gate for him (so claims Jack White).

  31. You may like Kevin Bloody Wilsons songs, but you’d hardly call him a great musician or songwriter.

    What, Rootin’ in the back of the ute is not a lyrical masterpiece??

  32. Turtle of WA

    Ok, fair enough. With the exception of Rootin’ in the back of the ute, and perhaps the one about Neville.

  33. Elephant Stone

    Let me add another to that list Robert:

    Brian Jones burst into tears when Dylan called him a talentless joke who couldn’t be taken seriously.

  34. Rabz

    Let me add another to that list Robert:

    And another – Elton John went into a suicidal funk when Dylan once mistook him for Liberace.

  35. Turtle of WA

    As for the Stone Roses… bloody good band, apart from that trendy punk anti-monarchist nonsense they desecrated Scarborough Fair with.

  36. tomix

    “If I had a hamster…..”

  37. Elephant Stone

    The Stone Roses. Great, great band!

  38. Elephant Stone

    Dylan was apprehended by police and taken in for questioning recently while wandering around the streets alone waiting for a Springsteen concert to start. Guess he kinda looked like a vagrant bum?

  39. Craig Mc

    If Steve Martin thinks Seeger was a great banjo player, then he was.

    Going by the wikipedia bio, he drifted away from Stalinism after 1949. Too late for many, but better late than never. A pity he never realised that all communism becomes Stalinism.

    I can forgive Ghandi’s anti-semitism and MLK’s communism because both were right about specific big truths that were far more important. I doubt banjo-playing compares.

  40. Elephant Stone

    Good point about political and activist music dating Rabz. My guess is that outside of a small subset, people of all political stripes prefer their music to be non-activist. Bands that get on their hobby horses too often tend to be a turn off, even for fans.

  41. MT Isa Miner

    The Beer Whisperer

    #1170805, posted on January 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    You may like Kevin Bloody Wilsons songs, but you’d hardly call him a great musician or songwriter.

    What, Rootin’ in the back of the ute is not a lyrical masterpiece??

    We are so misunderstood, Whisperer, so badly misunderstood.

  42. Robert Blair

    Rabz & Elephant Stone:

    Let me add another to that list Robert:

    Thanks for those items guys – I will add them to my list :)

  43. Rabz

    Robert – I just made that one up!

  44. Kingsley

    Not the main point of the post I guess Steve but opened my eyes to how much and hard you personally had to swim against the intellectual tide to get to where you are. Most people probably do parrot their parents and peers political views, you managed to swim all the way over from one side to the other. Nice work!

  45. nerblnob

    Perhaps Seeger’s greatest crime was bringing the banjo to the middle classes. But it was a great book to learn from. “If I had a haemorrhoid hammer in the morning …”

    Otherwise I take little notice of the opinions of singers and celebs.

  46. Robert Blair

    Rabz:

    Durn!

    I checked the Brian Jones one because it sounded suss. The Elton John – Liberace one just sounded right! I think you owe me a “reaction to Dylan” anecdote now …

  47. stackja

    America’s Most Successful Communist
    The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.
    One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.

    One of the most foul stories of songwriting theft must be the story of Mbube (the song known more widely as The Lion Sleeps Tonight or Wimoweh), with even the venerable Pete Seeger involved in the deceit; though he comes out of it a lot better than others.

    No laws were broken in this deplorable story of plagiarism, but the rules of ethics and common decency certainly were.

    Seeger later pleaded ignorance about the intricacies of music publishing, and, to his credit, deeply regretted not insisting firmly enough that Linda be given the songwriting credit.

  48. Oh come on

    And Seeger hated the aspirational poor who didn’t want to live in hovels, mocking as ‘ticky tacky’ the comfortable homes their parents could never have provided for them.

  49. mizaris

    I liked his song “Nightmoves” with The Silver Bullet Band.

    um…I think that was Bob Seger.

  50. thefrollickingmole

    I remember having to sing that “Little boxes”, and “If I had a hammer” at primary school music lessons brought to you by…. the ABC… We used to sit outside under the trees and sing from the radio.

    Really, the ABC just “happened” to think those 2 songs were perfect for (about ) 7 year olds to sing???

  51. mizaris

    omg…I remember that too. And blowin in the wind.

  52. Habib

    Folk music is almost as great a crime against humanity as Adelaide hip hop. Seeger was a fatuous old fart, who like many of his ilk, accumulated a lot of evil capital off poor, ignorant natives who signed their copyright over for a pittance. Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Los Lobos anyone?

  53. stackja

    Pete Seeger’s Totalitarian Trifecta
    Until Pete Seeger’s death at 94 , he was perhaps the last man alive to say that he supported Hitler, Stalin, and Ho Chi Minh. That’s quite the totalitarian trifecta.

    America’s Most Successful Communist
    One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.

  54. rickw

    “Really, the ABC just “happened” to think those 2 songs were perfect for (about ) 7 year olds to sing???”

    I just realised that much of my Primary School years were spent in some sort of Pete Seeger immersion courtesy of the ABC and my teachers.

    An accident? Definitely NOT.

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