Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, America’s Most Famous Communist Folk Singer, 94, Now Playing to Standing Room Only Audiences… in Hell!


Communist Pete Seeger with communists Martin Luther King Jr, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at communist Highlander Center in 1957. [Thanks to Ex-Army Libertarian Nationalist!]

Pete Seeger: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Upload by Percivaldurham

Pete Seeger: Turn, Turn, Turn, If I Had a Hammer, and We Shall Overcome


By Nicholas Stix

He was “the voice of America’s conscience,” as one of the brain-dead, pc morning shows put it. On CBS This Morning, co-hosted by old Charlie Rose showed a clip of a 1983 interview of Seeger by an impossibly young looking… Charlie Rose!

Lefties have often used “conscience” as a code word for communist. It’s funny when you think about it: Communists have no concept of “conscience,” which for them is an individualistic, bourgeois concept.

At least one of the laudatios said that Seeger taught Martin Luther King Jr. “We Shall Overcome.” Was that a compliment, or a criticism?

The hagiographies emphasized Seeger’s work in the “civil rights movement” and in his later years, the environmental movement. Those weren’t two movements, they were one: The communist movement.

Pete Seeger was, without a doubt, a great singer. (As was Harry Belafonte—here and here, another Communist, who is, regretfully, still among the living.)

None of the MSM encomia will tell you about Seeger’s Communism, let alone its relationship to “folk music.”

“Folk” is a literal translation of the German word, “das Volk.” It means, “the people,” in an ethnic or political sense, not to be confused with “people,” which is “die Menschen.” Peoples are “die Völker.” (In German, all nouns are capitalized.)

Das Volk got a pretty bad reputation after the war, due to the works of an itinerant, Austrian politician, and the movement he led. However, the other translated meaning of “Das Volk,” which was something like “folks,” or ordinary folks, or working folks,” had already been institutionalized in America between the world wars by … Communists!

During Great Depression I, America’s most famous folk singer was Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a Communist, and was Pete Seeger’s mentor.

Pete Seeger on The Johnny Cash Show, Complete and Uncut


Youtube text: Uploaded on Feb 3, 2009 by abargle.
Folk music and civil-rights icon Pete Seeger brought his brand of straight-talking this-banjo-kills-fascists* political activism to "The Johnny Cash Show" on March 4, 1970. It's clear from this clip that Cash is the student and Seeger is the master as he and Cash rip through the Grand-Ole-Opry-friendly classic American singalong folk tune "Worried Man Blues."

* This has been edited by Mikerickson01 into a much better description: Pete Seeger's banjo surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

January 28, 2014 08:53 A.M. CST; updated on January 28, 2014 09:41 A.M. CST
Life from the left: Folk icon Pete Seeger tells DMN writer Jeffrey Weiss about his years as a communist (07-17-05)
Dallas Morning News

Folk singer, activist Pete Seeger dies at age 94

Editor's note: This Q&A was originally published in The Dallas Morning News on July 17, 2005.

For people with a particular taste in music, Pete Seeger is still a cultural icon. For too many others, mentioning his name gets a blank look and a question: "Is he related to Bob?"

Well, no. Pete (he insists on being called Pete) was one of the creators of modern folk music. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Songs that he wrote, helped write or helped make famous include "If I Had a Hammer," "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

Music is not Pete's only legacy, though. As he puts it, he was a lefty. Actually, he was a member of the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and early 1940s, and he sang at Communist rallies and events.

Fifty years ago this summer, on Aug. 25, 1955, he became a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that was a creature of the Red Scare. HUAC called dozens of entertainers, politicians and businesspeople and grilled them about any contacts with communism.

Pete is 86. He's still a lefty, viewing with alarm the war in Iraq, dehumanizing technology and the power of oligarchies. He still lives on a mountaintop near Beacon, N.Y., that he and his wife, Toshi, bought 60 years ago. His singing voice is almost gone, but he's still performing.

And he's still happy to find an audience, whether it's a school full of kids or one inquisitive reporter who dropped in on Pete in Beacon, the day before his annual Strawberry Shortcake Festival.

Question: How did you learn that you had been called to testify?

Answer: I was standing out there in the parking lot of this little house and barn. A man parked and got out and said, "Are you Pete Seeger?" Handed me an envelope. Well, I opened the envelope and called out, "Toshi, they finally got around to me." I was just a little-known folkie.

How did you decide how you would respond?

Answer: I went down and got a wonderful lawyer, a man who had been in [New York City Mayor Fiorello] LaGuardia's administration. He said: You've got various choices. The Fifth Amendment, if you use that to not testify, means, in effect, "You have no right to ask me this question." But if you base your appeal on the First Amendment, it's more like saying, "No question like this should be asked of any American, especially under threat of reprisal if you give the wrong answer."

Question: Why not simply answer the committee's questions?

Answer: This is what [my] lawyer told me. He said, if you answer about your own past politics you're going to have to answer the question, "Did you know so-and-so, who was a Communist?" and so on. And in effect I said, "I'll tell you anything you want to know about myself, but I'm not going to testify about anybody else."

Question: And that's because?

Answer: I think they hadn't done anything wrong.

Question: How did you become a communist?

Answer: I joined the Young Communist league in 1937 in college -- because Hitler was helping Franco take over Spain. And [Maxim] Litvinov stood up in the League of Nations - he was the Soviet representative in the League of Nations - and said all aggressors should be quarantined, that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia and Hitler and Franco and so on. Well, they just laughed.

Question: But didn't Stalin turn out to be one of the worst despots of the 20th century?

Well, when it comes to big ones. But there's bad ones all over. And, you know, for 50 years, the United States has helped control the politics of Latin America. And they have the School of the Americas, they call it, in Fort Benning, Ga. Training military - Latin American military men - how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.

Question: But the U.S.S.R. really was an enemy of the U.S.A., yes?

Answer: Not necessarily. The communists claimed, I won't say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution. It wasn't Soviet soldiers helping Mao Zedong take over China. They could applaud them and perhaps even help them. But they didn't likewise in Vietnam or Cuba.

Question: Eventually, a federal appeals court agreed that you had the right to refuse to answer the HUAC questions. Did you expect that to happen?

After the attack on the Paul Robeson concert in '49, a man who really knew history said, "Don't you realize, Pete, in a few years, people like us will either be in hiding or in Canada, or we'll be behind barbed wire." I said, "Well, I don't know. I'm going to keep on building this house." I was building a cabin to live in. And I was right. America was not Germany.  

Question: You refused to answer questions about Communist Party events that you had played at. What if the investigators today wanted to question someone they thought had performed at an al-Qaeda fund raiser?

That's an interesting thing. It's almost laughable. Anything is possible, though. I'd say, "If you are accusing me of that, I demand a trial with my right to question witnesses."

You've been accused of being un-American. As recently as last year, an article in Mother Jones asserted that you'd never written or sung songs critical of oppression in the Soviet Union or Cuba.

I could imply it, though. When I went to the Soviet Union in '72 - it was my last real tour there - I concentrated on singing songs of the civil-rights movement. And really going into detail with the songs to show that in the United States, whatever mistakes we've made, we were able to use peaceful ways to end a very unjust situation.

Question: You really were a communist for several years and used your music to get others to join in that support. Should you apologize for that?

Answer: Apology is easy. How do you correct a mistake? I think be wary of any regime that doesn't discuss thoroughly the rights and wrongs of the path you're following.

Question: As was true in the 1950s, these are fearful times. Are we living in more or less dangerous times than 50 years ago?

Answer: In some ways the danger is more now - the danger of misinformation being spread across the country in seconds. There's so much money behind the present administration, they can literally do anything they want. They can break up any one organization or any one person. What are they going to do about millions, though? Millions of good organizations. Millions of good little things.

N.S.: Who’d a thunk it? That The Atlantic, of all places, would have a sober account of the likes of Pete Seeger.


Pete Seeger and Woody

Guthrie: More Politicians

Than Musicians

By Noah Berlatsky
Sep 24 2012, 12:41 P.M. ET
The Atlantic

Seeger's latest ventures reveal the dirty secret of Popular Front folk: Their tunes weren't that great.

Most of the musical performances on Appleseed's two-CD release Pete Remembers Woody are merely mediocre. A few, though, take wing and ascend to an impressively heady awfulness. Perhaps the worst is "Woody's Trilogy," in which the band The Work O' The Weavers desecrates three folk favorites in less than a minute and a half. The singers are not merely soulless, but sound partially lobotomized by their own perfect diction. The male lead declaims, "I've been doing some hard travellin'," with a calculated stop-time schtick—it's like a rough-road anthem sung from the back of a Prius on the way to the Starbucks. For fans of Rosetta Tharpe, the take on "This Train" is even more painful, while the vocalist on "There's a Better World a Comin'" is so feeble that you suddenly understand why the other participants think they can sing. Then it's all wrapped up with a chorus where the three tunes are performed simultaneously in a rousing big finish that could have come right out of A Mighty Wind. The vacant good cheer couldn't be much more cloying.

He's a man of great conscience, integrity, and spirit whose songs are, nonetheless, filled far too often with joyless platitudes.

On one hand, it seems unfair to judge Pete Remembers Woody by this dreadful effort. The heart of the album, after all, isn't the tossed-in songs by indifferent contemporary folk-revival revivalists, but rather the spoken word reminiscences of Woody Guthrie by his old friend, the 93-year-old Pete Seeger. But there's something sadly fitting in the way that The Work O' The Weavers cluelessly and bloodlessly gut that series of inoffensive tunes. After all, one of the not-so-secret truths of the old Popular Front folkies was that however pure their politics, their music wasn't all that great.

Woody himself was OK, but would anybody in their right mind rather listen to him than to his influences like the Carter Family or Jimmy Rodgers? Or his contemporaries like Bill Monroe and Rosetta Tharpe? Or acolytes like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell? Guthrie may have been a decent performer, but he was never incandescent. In fact, his best moments on record may be his determinedly low-key children's tunes, like "Take Me Drivin' In the Car." His legacy is due not to the power or depth of his music, but rather to his lyrical facility—and perhaps most of all, to the sensational and unusual match between his more-or-less working-class background and his definitively Marxist politics. For middle-class leftists like Seeger or Alan Lomax, an Okie hillbilly Communist singer seemed like the holy grail of working class authenticity: a validation of their politics, their music, and of the connection between the two.

On the Pete Remembers Woody set, those politics are front and center, as Seeger provides what is essentially a two hour hagiography for his friend and mentor. One of the more stirring anecdotes involves an anti-Hitler before-dinner concert that Guthrie gave with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in Baltimore in 1942. After they were done, the hosts gave Guthrie a seat at the head table, and offered to feed Terry and McGhee—both black—in the kitchen. Guthrie, bless him, got thoroughly pissed off and started overturning tables while shouting over and over, "This fight against fascism gotta start right here!"

"Isn't that wonderful," Seeger asks after relating the anecdote. And it is pretty wonderful, there's no doubt. To take a stand like that against evil on the spur of the moment is both difficult and impressive. I know I couldn't have done it. But at the same time, isn't there something off-putting about the glibness of Guthrie's reaction, at least as Seeger tells it? Guthrie is confronted with injustice, and he starts chanting rallying cries. "This fight against fascism gotta start right here!" OK, but who in real life talks in catch-phrases like that? Is he a singer or a copywriter?

The answer, of course, is both, for better and for worse. My parents were folk-revival fans, and I've been listening to Pete and Woody as long as I've been listening to anything, but for whatever reason it took these discs to really drive home how much their lyrics tend to sound like campaign slogans. In one anecdote, Seeger recalls Woody writing a topical song:

Mr. Tom Mooney is free

Mr. Tom Mooney is free

Done got a pardon from that old jailhouse Warden

Governor Culbert, L. Olsen's decree.

The aging Seeger sings it a capella with impressive verve, but that can't quite cover up the fact that the lyrics are banal agitprop—and, worse, demonstrate the extent to which the new socialist agitprop was virtually indistinguishable from advertising jingles. Guthrie might as well be selling Cas Walker's constipation relief. Similarly, on Seeger's other new album (with Lorre Wyatt) A More Perfect Union, Bruce Springsteen gets hauled out to declaim, "Trickle up, not trickle down" while Wyatt fulminates about how "Drill, baby, drill becomes spill, baby, spill." Sure it's parody, but even so, having Sarah Palin write your lyrics seems like a bad idea.

Political art doesn't have to be lousy art. James Baldwin's essays are some of my favorite prose writing ever, and I'll happily swear by Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." But while politics and art can go together, the bland bonhomie of Popular Front folk music is tied closely to its didacticism. One anecdote Seeger relates in this regard is perhaps especially telling. The story is set during World War II, when he and Guthrie were going around singing union and peace songs—and then Hitler invaded Russia.

Immediately, the folkies realized that they were going to have to stop singing peace songs. Seeger presents their comic horror at having to support the once rabidly anti-Bolshevik, now pro-Stalin Churchill. Seeger recalls Guthrie saying, "Churchill has flip-flopped, we've got to flip flop!" Certainly, they are half in jest when they equate themselves with the British leader—but only half. In some sense, Guthrie and Seeger really did see themselves less as artists talking politics, and more as politicians playing banjos. Pro-Stalin politicians playing banjos, alas.

Seeger repudiated Stalin once the atrocities became public, of course, and he deserves props for recognizing and owning his error. He's a man of great conscience, integrity, and spirit whose songs are, nonetheless, filled far too often with joyless platitudes. Maybe that's something else to blame Communism for, I don't know. But I do know that, as much as I admire him personally, and as much as I wish there were more dedicated men and women like him now riding around singing union songs, I don't much want to listen to these CDs again.


Anonymous said...

"Leute" is the German noun most used to refer to people as persons (not as nations, e.g, the German people, the American people, etc.. For that, the Germans would use "Volk."

Baloo said...

Great post. I don't know how you do it so fast! I've quoted it and linked to it here:
Pete Seeger Dies, Goes To Hell

Nicholas said...

Thanks for the kind words and post, Baloo, but your link doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know the true reason why Pete didn't go to prison after not testifying at HUAC. There's different explanations in any article about him.

I've wondered if Pete Seeger had not made an arrangement with a US government or law enforcement agency that kept him out of jail.

He certainly had credibility that would not be questioned among those on the left.

I always thought it was a little strange that while the Rosenbergs were executed, many other people had their livelihoods taken from them, but Pete gets off scot free.

Anonymous said...

Pete Seeger was very involved with an experiment called “Camp Woodland” founded in 1939 by Norman Studer, a student of progressive philosopher and education reformer John Dewey. The camp was designed to celebrate folk music and early American folk values as the foundation for transformation to a truly “democratic” society. Studer, through the promotion of cultural diversity, mentored children from the city in a country environment to familiarize them with old-time Catskill Mountain folks. The multi-cultural population was referred to as a “fertile incubating ground for Seeger”. Each year the camp sponsored end-of-summer folk festivals enabling campers to participate and learn/carry on the folk tradition of mixing work, community, and music. It was this experiment, which ended in 1962, that inspired the mega folk festival, Woodstock in 1969.
Studer also founded a school in NYC that was closed after two tragic incidents.
On a field trip, one of his students was killed by a horse. Over a period of what may have been more than two years, Studer's grandson was horribly abused in the classroom in front of other students. Neither his grandfather or mother did anything to stop the violence because it was perpetrated by a black male teacher and they being good lefties wouldn't fire a Negro. The school closed because the parents no longer trusted Norman Studer with their own children.