Folk singer Pete Seeger, who died at age 94 last month, provided a soundtrack for every progressive crusade of our time, from labor unions to civil rights, from world peace to environmentalism. He wrote, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had A Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He popularized songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
Seeger’s rock solid commitment to left-wing politics marginalized him. In particular, he was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s and was blacklisted for many years.
Many obituaries have called him a “Stalinist,” but the label is somewhat misleading. The party emphasized domestic issues more than the cult of Joe Stalin.
During the Depression, Communist Party members played a crucial role in organizing unions, and the party was one of the few predominately white groups in that era to actively fight racial segregation.
The Communists became fervent followers of Franklin Roosevelt and transformed their party into a “political association.” During World War II, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union became allies, they attained a certain semi-respectability. They even defended FDR’s wartime “no-strike” policy in the factories and his wholesale imprisonment of Japanese Americans.
The Communists weren’t the first or the last Americans to delude themselves about governments thousands of miles away. In the 1920s, quite a few American conservatives were thrilled with the new fascist regime in
Italy led by Benito Mussolini. There was skepticism in the 1930s about reports of Nazi genocide due to the U.S. government lies during World War I about German soldiers bayoneting little kids.
In 1995, Seeger told The New York Times how his politics had changed: “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other. My father, [musicologist and composer] Charles Seeger, got me into the Communist movement. He backed out around ‘38. I drifted out in the ’50s. I apologize [in my recent book] for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.
“I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail.”
Seeger also had a complicated relationship with Israel. In his blog for the Jewish Daily Forward (founded in 1897 by Yiddish-speaking democratic socialists), J.J. Goldberg reminisces about the folk singer: “In the spring of 1998, Pete Seeger headlined a free concert in Central Park celebrating Israel’s 50th birthday, sponsored by the Cantors’ Assembly. The event prompted a critical press release from the Zionist Organization of America, protesting the Cantors’ Assembly’s giving a platform to a harsh critic of Israel.
“The evidence for the prosecution was an ad to which Pete had added his name in 1982 or ’83, protesting Israeli actions in Lebanon … But there was a flip side to Seeger’s record, and it was a lot longer and deeper. His 1950 recording with The Weavers of the Israeli folk tune ‘Tzena, Tzena’ was the first and still the only Israeli song ever to hit the American pop charts, coming in at No. 2. For years afterward, he made a habit of performing and teaching at least one Israeli song at every one of his singalong concerts. He may have done more than anyone besides Leon Uris to teach Americans to love Israel in its early years.”
He is referring to the Leon Uris who wrote a bestselling novel, Exodus, about the founding of the state of Israel, which was made into a Hollywood hit movie. It was highly romanticized and portrayed Arabs as savages.
Seeger was quite popular in Israel despite his increasingly critical stance toward the country’s treatment of Palestinians.
In his later years, Seeger tried to avoid issues that divided the left and concentrated on his crusade to clean up the Hudson River. That project was quite successful.
In the final analysis, Seeger’s legacy is impressive. But complicated.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.