May 18, 2013
Richard Flacks on Pete Seeger
Posted on Aug 7, 2009
Pete Seeger turned 90 on May 3, providing the occasion for a huge Madison Square Garden celebratory concert, featuring a wide array of popular musicians singing his songs and honoring his influence. In the two years prior to this event, Seeger had gotten more mainstream attention than he’d received in his previous 70 years of performing. Bruce Springsteen recorded several CDs called “The Seeger Sessions” and simultaneously went on an international tour featuring material drawn from Seeger’s folksong repertory. There was a documentary film bio, released on public TV and theatrically, called “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.” There’s an ongoing campaign to get him nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A long adulatory essay on Seeger appeared in The New Yorker and an extended version with the same main title—“The Protest Singer”—is now out as one of three recently published biographies. In addition to the book by Alec Wilkinson, there is a biographical narrative by historian Allan M. Winkler, “To Everything There Is a Season,” and a major updating of David King Dunaway’s “official” biography, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” originally published in 1981.
“To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song
By Allan M. Winkler
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 176 pages
How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger
By David King Dunaway
Villard, 544 pages
The attention Pete Seeger is now getting is certainly deserved, given his influence on American music and the nature of his life story. Yet, one feature of that story is that he is one of the least well-known famous persons in America. I use protest music a lot in my teaching about social movements; over the years, I’ve found that fewer than 5 percent of my students at UC Santa Barbara can identify Seeger (and this is probably a higher proportion than one would find in a sample of the wider public). Of course, the attention he’s gotten in recent years has undoubtedly enabled many more to identify him, but he remains paradoxically shadowy, given his importance.
Yet this paradox goes to the heart of what his life has been about.
One obvious reason for Seeger’s marginalization has been his lifelong commitment to the left. His father, the noted composer and musicologist Charles Seeger, was an important leader of the cultural front fostered by the Communist Party during the 1930s. Charles Seeger helped form a composers’ collective (whose membership included Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland and other young radical musicians) seeking to create a new music for revolutionary workers, and eventually working to preserve and reinvigorate folk and vernacular music as an alternative to commodified mass culture. His son Pete grew up immersed in the left, joined the Young Communist League during his brief time at Harvard, and was a Communist Party member (according to his biographers) during most of the 1940s. Although he stopped being a formal member of the party in the late ’40s, he was one of the star cultural figures of the communist-oriented left for many years after that. Teenagers like me and my wife (who both had been “Red diaper” babies) were proud that Pete Seeger was “ours”; there he was at benefits, and hootenannies, summer camps and rallies that defined much of our cultural lives during the ’50s when kids of our background felt pretty isolated from the political and cultural mainstream. Seeger’s allegiances made him the prototype of the blacklisted entertainer, and it was the blacklist which excluded him from TV and blanked him out of the awareness of mainstream America.
But that exclusion was not a tragedy for Pete’s life project. On the contrary, it compelled him to fulfill that project rather than succumb to temptations to modify it that might have come from more conventional commercial success.
Alec Wilkinson’s portrait of Seeger defines him as the epitome of the rugged individualist. We see him in very old age, living in a house he has built on the banks of New York state’s Hudson River. He, his wife Toshi and their small children moved there in the ’40s, and their lives for a time were indeed rugged—without electricity and running water for a while, chopping wood, growing food in a clearing in the forest. Of course, they added modern amenities, but they remained close to the land. Near the end of the book, we see Seeger and members of his clan collecting sap and making maple syrup. Wilkinson appreciates the seeming contradiction that this man, long reviled as a communist, has tried to live the American ideal of the self-made, self-sufficient man.
But Seeger was, in fact, a Communist, and continues to describe himself as a “communist with a small c.” His biographers suggest that when he was a party member, he was sometimes at odds with party discipline. In the ’30s, many CPers from comfortable backgrounds felt the need to demonstrate their revolutionary bona fides by slavish conformity to party lines and party demands. Seeger is described, by Dunaway, as restless with such demands, avoiding boring meetings, alienated by abstract theorizing. Indeed, his dedication to the promotion of folk music was not particularly appreciated by party cultural commissars. But alongside these deviations, he has had to live down the fact that the Almanac Singers, which he helped to found, began in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Pact by recording a group of anti-war songs condemning the start of conscription and FDR’s military buildup. As soon as the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler, the American Communist Party became a leading advocate of war against the Nazis; the Almanacs put out an album supporting the war effort, and their producer pulled the earlier “pacifist” album from the market. It’s a tale often used to demonstrate that the CPUSA was Stalin’s tool, and how its members were unable to think and act in principled ways. There are some who still can’t forgive Seeger for this episode.
But Pete Seeger was raised by his father to live a principled life. You can get a flavor of Charles Seeger’s moral perspective by looking at his list of “The Purposes of Music” printed as an appendix to Wilkinson’s book. “Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends. … ” These principles emphasize that music as group activity is more important than individual accomplishment, that “musical culture” of a nation depends on the people’s participation in it rather than on the virtuosity of a few, that “vernacular” music is the foundation from which all other kinds of music derive, that music should “aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.” We can read in these lines the foundation for Pete Seeger’s 70 years as an artist and political being. They are a primary source for the life project he began to formulate and implement when he was in his early 20s.
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