Pete Seeger: unrepentant, if confused Communist

April 26th, 2006
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It shows the power of music when one of us can say he is a fan of Pete Seeger’s music. I’m a sucker for folk music of many kinds, what now is call “World Music” – that is anything from fat men in lederhosen playing zithers to Andean shepherds on the pan flute. It’s probably the sign of a simple mind, but I also like the tight harmonies, banjos and Dobros of post-war American Folk, even though I liked it more before I understood all its politics.

Truth is, many of the central figures of American Folk since the 1930s, particularly Seeger and his group The Weavers, were hard-line Communists who soft-pedaled Stalinism and undermined the West during the Cold War. Seeger himself is a virtual proto-type of the silver-spoon Bolshevik, who became a self-styled spokesman for the “common man”, while actually fronting for the Comintern. This is described in an excellent article by Howard Husock, who also underscores Seeger’s modification and use of traditional American folk music for political marketing.

The enduring influence of Seeger and his contemporaries on the hard-Left and its hangers-on was reinforced by the release this week of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album “We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions” What’s next? Robbins and Sarandon do Brecht on Broadway, or George Clooney reads the collected works of Enver Hoxha? It may interest readers to know that NHL All-star and political no-star Ken Dryden once hosted a retrospective on Seeger for CBC Radio. If he had a hammer, he’d hammer Ignatieff all over this land.

(The political quagmire represented by American folk music perhaps provides some small justification for my colleague Mr. K.’s decidedly philistinish position: he thinks the satirical bands and songs in the film parody “A Might Wind” are actually better than the real stuff.) 

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail devoted more ink to someone they call a “beloved ex-Communist”. That’s ex with a small “e”. Said Seeger: “You see, if there’s still a world here in 100 years, it’s not going to have been saved by One Big Thing. One Big Things can be co-opted and corrupted and turned to mush…All my life I’ve been aware that there’s a whole class of very rich people who control the country and this has been going on a long, long while…” A nicely nuanced message the 86-year-old has had a few decades to craft. Good thing we’ve almost overcome Seeger’s “Big Thing”.

But nuance came easy for a talented musician and propagandist like Seeger. And side-stepping the verdict of history is pretty elementary for someone who earned his spurs soft-selling totalitarianism.

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