This month marks the centenary of Pete Seeger. Singer and "activist", he kept going almost to the end, wafted down by delirious admirers to Manhattan's financial district a decade back to serenade the Occupy Wall Street protestors. I believe he sang them "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", although "Where Have All The Showers Gone?" might have been more appropriate with that crowd. We shall explore the history of "his" most successful song a little later today. But here's what I wrote about him upon the occasion of his 90th birthday:
This week marks not only the first hundred days of King Barack's reign and the 30th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street, but also the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger. The celebrations of Mr Seeger's tenth decade are extensive. If he seems a remote figure from the pop culture back catalogue, not so fast: He played at the Obama inauguration. Which, when you think about it, is quite something.
One must congratulate the old banjo-picker on making it to four score and ten, which is a lot older than many "dissenting artists" made it to under the regimes he's admired over the years. Two years ago in The New York Sun, you'll recall, Ron Radosh had a notable scoop: Hold the front page! Stop the presses! Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates...
Who? Castro? Chávez? Al-Qaeda?
Whoa, let's not rush to judgment. No, the big story was: Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates . . . Stalin.
A couple of months earlier, there'd been some documentary or other "celebrating" the "spirit" of Pete Seeger, the folkie colossus, with contributions from the usual suspects – Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, one or more Dixie Chicks, two-thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. Mr Radosh had also been interviewed but his remarks about Seeger's lifelong support of Stalinism had not made the final cut. No surprise there. In such circumstances, the rule is to hail someone for his "activism" and "commitment" and "passion" without getting hung up on the specifics of what exactly he's actively and passionately committing to.
Giving him a Kennedy Center Honor a decade or so back, President Clinton hailed ol' Pete as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them," which is one way of putting it. You can't help noticing, though, that it's all the documentaries and honors ceremonies and lifetime-achievement tributes to Mr. Seeger that seem to find certain things "inconvenient." The Washington Post's Style section, with its usual sly élan, hailed him as America's "best-loved Commie" — which I think translates as "Okay, so the genial old coot spent a lifetime shilling for totalitarian murderers, but only uptight Republican squares would be boorish enough to dwell on it."
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 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"?
Sorry, not good enough. Stalin created whole new degrees of nastiness. But, given that Seeger got the two great conflicts of the 20th century wrong (in 1940, he was anti-war and singing "Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D/Both agree on killing me"), it's a start. I can't wait for his anti-Osama album circa 2078.
Mr. Seeger has a song called "Treblinka," because he thinks it's important that we "never forget." But wouldn't it be better if we were hip to it before it snowballed into one of those things we had to remember not to forget? Would it kill the icons of the Left just for once to be on the right side at the time? America has no "best-loved Nazi" or "best-loved Fascist" or even "best-loved Republican," but its best-loved Stalinist stooge is hailed in his dotage as a secular saint who's spent his life "singing for peace."
He sang for "peace" when he opposed the fascistic arms-lobby stooge Roosevelt and imperialist Britain, and he sang for "peace" when he attacked the Cold War paranoiac Truman, and he kept on singing for "peace" no matter how many millions died and millions more had to live in bondage, and, while that may seem agreeably peaceful when you're singing "If I Had a Hammer" in Ann Arbor, it's not if you're on the sharp end of the deal thousands of miles away.
Explaining how Stalin had "put an end to the dreams" of a Communist utopia, Seeger told Ron Radosh that he'd underestimated "how the majority of the human race has faith in violence." But that isn't true, is it? Very few of us are violent. Those who order the killings are few in number, and those who carry them out aren't significantly numerous. But those willing to string along and those too fainthearted to object and those who just want to keep their heads down and wait for things to blow over are numbered in the millions. And so are those many miles away in the plump prosperous Western democracies who don't see why this or that dictator is their problem. One can perhaps understand the great shrug of indifference to distant monsters. It's harder, though, to forgive the contemporary urge to celebrate it as a form of "idealism."
James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, once offered this trenchant analysis of Pete Seeger:
"'If I Had A Hammer'? Well, what's stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they're about a buck-ninety, tops."
Very true. For the cost of a restricted-view seat at a Peter, Paul, and Mary revival, you could buy half a dozen top-of-the-line hammers and have a lot more fun, even if you used them on yourself. Yet in a sense Lileks is missing the point: Yes, they're dopey nursery-school jingles, but that's why they're so insidious. The numbing simplicity allows them to be passed off as uncontentious unexceptionable all-purpose anthems of goodwill. Which is why you hear "This Land Is Your Land" in American grade schools, but not "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The invention of the faux-childlike faux–folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture. Seeger's hymn to the "senselessness" of all war, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" combined passivity with condescension — "When will they ever learn?" — and established the default mode of contemporary artistic "dissent." Mr. Seeger's ongoing veneration is indestructible. But at least we now know the answer to the question "When will he ever learn?"
At least half a century too late.
~Aside from the centenary of Pete Seeger, this month also sees the second anniversary of The Mark Steyn Club, and we will have some special celebrations throughout May in print, audio and video format. But the indispensable element of the Club is its membership - and we're very heartened by all those who signed up on that first day two years ago who've taken the plunge to re-up for another twelve months. It means an awful lot to know you appreciate what we do here. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here - and, if you've enjoyed your first two years, you can always sign up a chum for Gift Membership. We're a convivial bunch in the Club, we like to think.