I never paid too much attention to Pete Seeger.
I was aware of him, of course. Anyone who was young in the 60s and 70s and remotely interested in folk music or the various protest movements of the day knew of him. But his music was not to my taste; I much preferred my folk music straight up, rawer. This was no doubt because when I was maybe 19 I came across an album in the local library, field recordings from the Scottish Hebrides. This was as strong as Laphroaig single malt Scotch, which I only tasted much later: powerful, astringent stuff, with the taste of salt water and iodine. Still later, I sat with my great aunts in southern Alabama and listened as they sang Pentecostal hymns while they knitted, their voices skirling like bagpipes.
Compared to this ragged music the folk songs of Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and the rest sounded sanitized, cleaned up for middle class consumption. I didn’t loathe it or anything, I just preferred the older sounds, or the newer music that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were making.
I of course respected Mr Seeger, though. He was always at the front of every movement for peace and justice, the venerable old guy with the banjo.
When he died last week at 94, many conservative bloggers noted his significance, but also mentioned his sympathy with Marxism, and not least his membership in the Communist Party. To many of them, he never distanced himself enough from the tyranny of the Soviet Union.
This hardly seems fair; Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League when he was all of 17, in the middle of the Great Depression. A lot of idealists were attracted to Marxism in those days; not only did it promise a world where none were too rich or too poor, where workers ruled, but communists were courageously on the forefront of the labor movement and -nearly alone in those days- in the struggle for racial justice. The Left was slow to believe the tales of oppression that were being spread about the Soviet Union, sure that this was disinformation. When the facts of the Soviet police state under Stalin became undeniable, all but the most zealous defected, including Pete Seeger.
And it is not true that Mr Seeger never owned up to any of this; he wrote, eventually, an anti-Stalin song and on several occasions admitted his naivete. But he also once said “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” In other words, it was the corruption of a good thing, the dream of justice turned to oppression, very much like when putative disciples of Christ, who taught us to love our enemies, wind up torturing heretics or waging “holy wars”. In another interview ten years ago Mr Seeger said “I told people at age seven I became a communist when I read about American Indians. And anthropologists, that’s the term they use for the way our ancestors lived anywhere in the world. The men hunted, the women gathered berries and dug for roots and carried babies on their back. And somebody killed something to eat, the meat was shared. That’s communism. I admit, it seems romantic to want to go back to that, but I really do believe that if there is a world here, if there’s a human race here in 100 years, we will have learned how to share again.”
Pete Seeger’s “communism” was a sentimental and romantic yearning for simple justice and sharing. Naive, perhaps, but benevolent.
Those who equate communism with Naziism because both lead to tyranny and murder would do well to pause here. The one begins with principles that are evil, with racism, nationalism and social darwinism. A bloody end is the logical conclusion of such a beginning. That the other, beginning with desires for justice and equity, ends in horror is a particular tragedy, and ought to give one pause when viewing any scheme to redo society. I know I share with the conservatives a skepticism about creating the New Man, or any sort of utopianism. Where I part company with them is in believing that while every human endeavor is going to be tainted and corrupted, we can in fact effect change for the better, and are obliged to struggle to do so.
I was listening to NPR’s “Living on Earth” on Saturday, their weekly environmental program. I don’t often make it through a whole show; while I am generally sympathetic to the gist of what they are doing, the thing is usually pretty wonkish.
This day, however, in honor of the death of Pete Seeger, they replayed an interview from 1998. I don’t think I had ever heard him speak other than briefly. I was struck by the evident goodness and decency of the man, and by his youthful demeanor (he was nearly 80). Not only was he as idealistic as a young man, he would spontaneously break into song in mid-sentence. I wondered at this; I am over thirty years younger than he, and while I am pretty hopeful by nature, I have also been disappointed and betrayed by people I have admired, as well as by movements, churches, and old friends. I have my guard up. And unless I am playing with the baby I rarely break into song.
But not Mr Seeger; there was a freshness and openness about him that was appealing and attractive.
And then there is his life.
He did not write his proletarian anthems from his estate, like Bruce Springsteen (who gets credit because said estate is in New Jersey rather than California). No, he lived in a log house overlooking the Hudson that he and his wife built, around thirty miles from where he was born, a house heated with wood fire. At 79 he was still chopping wood. He was active in his community and neighborhood, which included his daughter and her family. And he was married to the same woman for sixty years; she died only last summer.
Pete Seeger’s personal life had an integrity to it that is rare among the GOP’s guardians of morality. If he was a radical, he was one with local roots and a traditional life.
I am pretty sure that he found mercy.
You can listen to his 1998 NPR interview here: