Pete Seeger, "Folk Music" and the Left

As someone on the left who loves folk music, I understand that I'm supposed to feel mystically uplifted by the dean of activist folkies. But I never could stand Pete.
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May Third, 2009, was Pete Seeger's 90th birthday. WNYC in New York hosted a retrospective of his work, and an hour long program, "The Protest Singer: An Intimate Conversation with Pete Seeger." NPR aired an "appreciation." There was a big concert in his honor at Madison Square Garden. Some great artists, including some of the ones I most admire, like Bruce Springsteen and Emmylou Harris, performed.

As someone on the left who loves folk music, I understand that I'm supposed to feel mystically uplifted by the dean of activist folkies. But for those very reasons -- because I believe in a humanist political order, and because authentic folk music speaks to me -- I never could stand Pete. I don't question his dedication or his energy. It's just that I think them unfortunate. His conception of "folk music" has done tremendous damage, and his politics have done tremendous damage, and these things are connected.

Seeger's been very influential. Most Americans, when they think of "folk music," think of the 50s and 60s "revival" of that form: the songs, and versions of songs, made popular by him, The Weavers, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio. This is a mistake. The songs these people became famous for singing are pretty, denatured coffee-house comforts that have little to do with the life that informed the originals.

The thing to remember about folk music -- both in the common American sense, as meaning the music of the South and of Appalachia that goes back to the ballads of the British Isles, and in the larger sense, as any traditional music of a specific local tradition, such as the Delta Blues -- is that it is complex music by and for people who are not simple. Folk music is an oral tradition, which is why it is often thought of as the low music of hillbillies and sharecroppers. Literate culture looks down on what is not transcribable, and in doing so limns the limitations of snobbery. But griot cultures know and understand marvelous things. Morgan Sexton or Skip James expressed at least as much of the sense of life as Beethoven did.

Griot culture preserves history and meaning and cultural identity in story and song. That's why there are so many murder ballads, because traumatic events have to be worked through, and when people can't read, this is how it's done. But the folk tradition is not a quantitative tradition; it doesn't deal in facts, it deals in meaning. And the most profound meanings can't be addressed head on.

The wall is high
Mr. Fox has a little red eye

- Mr. Fox, traditional

Oh he kissed her and he hugged her and he turned her around
And pushed her in deep water, where he knew that she would drown

- Little Omie Wise, traditional

Ambiguity and suggestion are very powerful, and the whole matter can't be explained. Robert Johnson leads us on for several verses in what seems to be a mere love song, repeatedly telling us what a kind-hearted woman he has. Then he gets down to business:

I got a kind-hearted woman
But she study evil all the time
She bound to kill me
Just to have it over mine

- Robert Johnson, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues

If you think that Mr. Johnson can't be deadly serious about both the kind-hearted part and the evil part, you've missed something important about folk music, the blues, women, and men.

The folk tradition is a deadpan tradition. It doesn't say too much, and it doesn't tell the listener how to think or feel. It describes, and suggests, and lets the listener find the depths in the song. Here's Doc Watson singing Tom Dooley:

Hang your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry
You killed poor Laurie Foster and you know you're bound to die

He sings it quickly, with very little inflection or obvious emotion.

In this world then one more, then where do you reckon I'll be?
'Way down yonder in the holler, boys, hanging from the old oak tree

There is a fatalism here, but it belongs neither to the narrator nor to Tom. It's the fatalism of unsentimental justice.

The Kingston Trio recorded this song in 1958, won a Grammy for it. This version is pretty, with intricately arranged harmonies. The Trio's voices trail off on the chorus Hang down your head Tom Dooley... with anguished artistry. There's a poignant pause between "Tom" and "Dooley." But there's no power, no existential challenge in it. It is only what it sounds like, a cheap and gaudy theft by people who don't even know what they're stealing.

Here's Peter, Paul and Mary singing Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory" (not technically folk music, but I'll get to that in a minute). Woody did understand the folk tradition, and this comes through in his original. Peter, Paul and Mary use it to make a point: their voices quaver with outraged, pious indignation. O the injustice! The effect is the same as hearing Joan Baez sing "A Maid of Constant Sorrow" with operatic control, or Ella Fitzgerald -- I know I'll get in trouble for this -- drain all the dirt and sex and rage and joy out of jazz with her famous technique.

For this bowdlerization of the folk tradition -- deeply disrespectful to the people who created it, I may add -- Pete the tireless popularizer of fake folk music bears much of the blame.

It's worse than that, and here's where the politics comes in. I've tried to describe the power of folk music, because it is important to understand that this power is not amplified when made explicit, when harnessed to an agenda. It is negated. Folk music is about life, and politics is only a small part of life. Not that a political tone must always be a failure in any music of the people. Woody drew on folk traditions for his melodies and style, putting his own lyrics on top. But he could do this effectively for two reasons: Because he deadpanned his biggest points, and because he was part of the life he sang about. He actually was a dust bowl farmer, he really did hobo around on the trains and pick fruit in the California camps and do factory work and get beaten up for standing up for the Union. He had a right.

Who the hell was Pete? He came from a distinguished family of musicians and academics afflicted with self-conscious class-consciousness; his father, Charles Louis Seeger, although from an old Puritan patrician line, joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World in the 1930s, a form of ostentatiously slumming solidarity that predicted much about his son's future. Pete was a professional musician from a young age, Harvard dropout, assistant to folk archivist Alan Lomax, and dedicated political activist. He knew everything about folk music, except what it is.

It's hard to play any music properly without bothering to understand its true context, which usually means being born into a culture, although it doesn't have to. One of the very few coffee-house folkies who understood the material was Bobby Zimmerman, a Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, pretty far from both the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia. With a lot of study, he did something remarkable: He was able to bend the tradition to his personal artistic purposes, while still being true to its essence and power. This is very, very hard to do, and after moving to New York and taking the name of a Welsh poet, young Bobby was able to put politics into his songs precisely because he didn't indulge in the righteousness of Pete, and because he mostly steered clear of overt polemic, letting the stories tell themselves through exquisitely observed detail. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Who Killed Davey Moore?" -- these are political masterpieces in cameo form, torn from contemporary headlines. Dylan could make the point without making the song about himself. Listen to him take elements of the old English ballad "Oxford Town" and successfully apply them to the atrocities of Philadelphia, Mississippi:

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Everybody singing this awful tune
Three men died 'neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

The casual ironic distance of that "somebody" is enormously powerful. Pete would have sung about how we're all in this together, we are all brothers and sisters! We must fight for a new world together! Dylan stands back and gives you room to think about that "somebody."

Dylan sang "Only a Pawn in Their Game," his valedictory to Medgar Evers, at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. At that event he performed live in front of several hundred thousand people, and eventually for untold millions more who watched the documentaries and heard the recordings. He had just turned 22, and he was hailed as the new Woody -- he sure sounded like him! -- and drafted by the aging lefties of Woody's generation as the political troubadour of a generation. And oh how these folksong radicals, many of them communists or fellow travelers, were delighted at this bright young lad, so dedicated, orthodox and predictable!

And how infuriated when it turned out that he wasn't! Dylan was nobody's spokesman, nobody's pet "protest" singer, and he was singing about life, not about politics. At 22, he had the adoration of millions as well as the artistic and erotic companionship of the beautiful Joan Baez, at that time far more famous and respected than he was. He could have translated this into a particular kind of role. He wasn't interested. When he got into the abstractions of Mr. Tambourine Man, and especially when he picked up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the folk establishment turned on him. Pete Seeger himself threatened to cut the power cables with an axe, revealing himself as the blind reactionary he truly is. (I should say that Seeger has for many years insisted that he was only upset because the sound quality was so poor, that he wanted the crowd to hear Dylan. I believe this to be a lie; or, more charitably, an example of the malleability of self-interested memory.)

And what were the politics that Pete wanted Bobby to take up with such earnestness? We can judge by the causes and the masters he gave himself to. The term "communist" is a charged one, and means different things to different people (although the legitimate spectrum of interpretation is not so wide, nor at one end so benign, as that of "socialist"); but it's perfectly clear that Seeger worked hard all his life for communism—to be clear: for Leninism, whether he would have called it that or not—regardless of how long he was actually in the party. I've gathered over the years that he's been motivated by a particularly naïve vision of collectivist romanticism. Nothing wrong with that, so long as it doesn't make one blind to the totalitarian mindset lurking behind the urge to perfect social relations. In Seeger's case, there's no sign that he ever confronted that problem.

He joined the Party in 1939, and after the Hitler-Stalin pact he sang, on his 1941 album "Songs for John Doe," against going to war with Germany. After Operation Barbarossa in June of that year, he had the record pulled and offered FDR his support. Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. His loyalties were pretty clear, and they were with American liberal democracy only insofar as it aligned with other forces. He went on to sing against standing up to the Soviets in the Cold War (whole thing was our fault), in praise of Ho Chi Minh ("He educated all the people, he demonstrated to the world: If a man will stand for his own land, he's got the strength of 10.") He made fun of the rubes who opposed Castro ("I believe in God and Senator Todd and in keeping old Castro down.") Seeger was always there to defend any left-wing totalitarian government or revolution, in word and song. He dutifully opposed the war in Iraq and even in Afghanistan. Some things this great humanitarian political troubador didn't write about? The Yalta Pact and its consequences, the East German rebellion of 1953, the Soviet Gulag, Kim Il Sung's death camps, the Soviet invasions of Hungary in '56 and Czechoslovakia in '68, the insanity of the Cultural Revolution in China, Mao's murderous career (maybe 30 million dead, but eggs and omelets, you know), Leninism in Nicaragua, Che Guevara's sadistic psychopathy... I could go on.

OK, in 1993(!) he allowed that Stalin was a bad guy after all. Seeger admitted to Ron Radosh, former communist turned communist debunker (and a former banjo student of Seeger's) that he, Pete, "should have asked to see the gulags" when he was in the USSR (he also suggested that Radosh surely had better things to do with his life than to go around exposing the extent to which many American communists took orders from the Comintern, and served as active agents in the struggle to overthrow liberal democracy). But even in turning against Stalin, Seeger lets himself and his cause off the hook. In 2007(!) he wrote a song condemning the long-dead dictator that includes this line: "He put an end to the dreams of so many in every land..." and blames Stalin for everything that went wrong with the Russian Revolution. Another evasion, of course, since totalitarianism was in the revolutionary bloodstream long before Stalin. Just ask the SRs.

Seeger equivocated further. Although Stalin gets the blame for totalitarianism, the problem wasn't really Stalin, you see, or communism. It was "the human faith in violence."

Radosh had a rather friendly and warm reaction to his old teacher's epiphany, a mere 70 or so years too late. The right wing polemicist Mark Steyn had this to say about Pete's observation, and Radosh, on second thought, endorsed Steyn's view.

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."

One might even say that this form of "idealism," and the celebration of it, is disgusting.

Seeger has the dubious distinction of having received both the Presidential Medal of the Arts from Bill Clinton, in 1994 in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center, and the Felix Varela medal, Cuba's highest honor, for "his humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism." Accepting an award from Castro is one of those clarifying events for those who may be trying to figure out how to think of Seeger. You just can't do such a thing and expect to still have a shred of credibility as a defender of human rights, as a believer in liberty or democratic values or basic human decency. It's laughable. Except that it's horrible, and a betrayal of all those people writing and singing and creating in fear in Castro's prison of a country. Or being tortured in his dungeons. So much for solidarity.

I started out by saying that the damage Seeger did to music was connected to the damage he did in the political sphere. Both were a kind of condescending sentimental reductionism that masked a fierce identification with power. In publicly associating himself with an agenda of decency (racism is bad) while more subtly advocating some very destructive ideas (the Soviet Union is no threat to us, the government should control the economy), he developed a nonthreatening vernacular that helped to turn "folk music" into a kind of mush—all that "If I had a hammer" and the now-deservedly-lampooned-by-the-right "Kumbaya" stuff. Pete was the one who taught adults to sway to "Puff the Magic Dragon," even if that particular song can't be laid at his door.

Seeger had the courage of the true believer. He was willing to go to prison rather than testify before HUAC—and he made his refusal on the honorable grounds that he had the right to say and write whatever he wanted under the First Amendment, not on the usual right-not-to-incriminate-oneself Fifth Amendment grounds. I admire him for this. But remember the governments he was defending, while letting it be known, around the world, how awful American capitalist imperialism was. As late as the mid-90s, when there really was no excuse for continued naivete about the Sandinista period in Nicaragua, Seeger was endorsing a volume of poetry by former Sandinista interior minister Tomas Borge.

The sad and degrading fact is that Pete never really meant it, all that stuff about fighting for justice. Or, more accurately, never meant what he thought he meant. In reality, he was fighting for his own self-righteous conception of the moral, meaning that he knew what was best for you and me, and he admired those who didn't flinch from enforcing it. I'll speculate that Pete's frequent lectures on standing up for the little guy or the unions or about living in collectives where we all take care of each other reflected a certain unease with his own attraction to naked, dictatorial power—how often the secret bully finds his vocation as a preacher!—and that it accounts for some of his more infantile quirks: Around the sound box of his banjo, Seeger has written "This machine surrounds hatred and forces it to surrender." (Seeger was inspired by Woody, of course, who was less sentimental. His guitar said "This machine kills fascists." The writing on the guitar of the talented English communist singer Billy Bragg pays tribute to Woody's instrument.) Both music and politics are a means to an end for Seeger, and that end is by no means as benign as his amazingly whitewashed public image—check out what the Kennedy Center says about the old fraud—would suggest.

Leftists who go along with the sunny idea of Seeger as a principled do-gooder (Amy Goodman's birthday piece is sadly typical) do enormous damage to their own causes, to their own deeply-held beliefs in human rights, liberal democracy, and a more just society in which ordinary people have as much control as possible over their own lives. As someone on the libertarian, democratic left, I find such tributes to Pete embarrassing, and infuriating.

Seeger released an album last year to show he's still going strong. It's called At 89. It's ridiculous, earnest, puerile nonsense, on every predictable topic from "telling false from true" to PCB pollution. With high seriousness, Seeger manages to channel the voices of both the "last surviving whale" and a noble Indian of the Hudson River Valley encountering Europeans for the first time ("They had many words that we did not know.") If he weren't such an unpleasant person, one could feel sorry that he's come to this. But then one remembers that "come to this" is wrong; this is what he's always done. How sad that Bruce Springsteen, a much better man and a much better artist, feels any debt to this charlatan! Bruce has more real feeling for working people than Pete ever had - he's shown it again and again, from Nebraska to The Ghost of Tom Joad to any number of his ballads about the power and subtlety of life, and of life on the margins, and he knows the folk music importance of not saying too much—listen to "Highway 29" on Tom Joad. Bruce's millions don't detract from his authenticity. Class, of course, is about far more than money.

One more thing. In my childhood home, we had an old Pete Seeger record that got played a lot. It had a track called "How can I keep from singing?" that was about justice and the human spirit. It included these lines:

When tyrants tremble
Sick with fear
And hear their death knells ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

As I kid I found this a bit savage -- we're not about revenge and enjoying the fear of others, are we? But I thought about this line in 2003, when Seeger was talking and singing and agitating against the Iraq war. If there ever was a tyrant, Saddam was one. And a few years after those 2003 protests, his death knell in fact rang (although he made a braver death than many might have guessed beforehand. No trembling, no apparent fear.)

Now, one can argue that the Iraq war wasn't worth it, although I would not. One can argue that it was officially justified with lies, poorly prepared and carried out; that there was insufficient American interest in the sociology of power in Iraq and in the psychological and political condition of the Iraqi people, with all of which I certainly would agree. But one cannot object to tyranny and be opposed to Saddam's removal, and I have no doubt, none at all, that Seeger would have opposed any American attempt to do this by force; which is to say that he would have opposed the very possibility of the end of Saddam and his murderous regime. And he somehow did manage to keep from singing when the old tyrant fell.

Another moment of great clarity. Pete Seeger wants the tyrants dead—but only the right kind of tyrants, and it should never be the United States that kills them. I guess that "death knell" in the song was marking off a death by old age.

One of the most embarrassing songs on At 89 is called "False from True." Seeger sings,

But I promise you, and you, brothers and sisters of ev'ry skin,
I'll sing your story while I've breath within.

Please, no. Not in my name!

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