Pete Seeger and the Media

Pete Seeger and the Media

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Saturday, 1st February, 2014

Pete Seeger received some very complimentary obituaries in the American press this week. They only briefly mentioned his blacklisting and definitely did not say anything about their role in the destruction of his career in the early 1950s.

Seeger's parents encouraged him to question authority at an early age. His father, Charles Louis Seeger, was a musicologist who taught at Berkeley University, lost his job when he opposed United States involvement in the First World War. Seeger told his dean that Germany and England were both imperialist powers, and as far as he was concerned, they could fight each other to a stalemate.

Seeger's first concert performance was on 3rd March 1940. It was a benefit for California migrant workers. Other singers on the show included Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Molly Jackson and Huddie Leadbelly. Six moths later joined together with Guthrie, Lee Hayes, Pete Hawes and Millard Lampell to form the Almanac Singers. They specialized in songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. Not the sort of material that was liked by the mainstream press.

On 7th December, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered the war. The Almanacs now concentrated on writing anti-Nazi songs. The most successful of these was The Sinking of Reuben James, the story of the ninety-five people drowned in the first American ship torpedoed in the Second World War. They were now hired by the United States Office of War Information to perform for troops as the government understood the value of songs in building morale. As David King Dunaway pointed out: "When the Almanacs had sung peace songs, critics had called it propaganda; now they sang war songs, the government styled it patriotic art." On 14th February, 1942, the Almanacs played for nearly thirty million radio listeners at the opening of a new series, This Is War.

After the war Seeger went back to singing anti-establishment songs. He established People's Songs Incorporated (PSI). The organization published a weekly newsletter, People's Song Bulletin, with songs, articles, and announcements of future performances. After two months the PSI had over a thousand paid members in twenty states. However, he really upset the media when he supported Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party candidate in the presidential election of 1948. Wallace was dismissed as a dangerous radical for advocating civil rights and an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. The American public were not ready for Wallace and he got only 2.38 per cent of the total vote.

After the election Seeger joined Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman to form The Weavers. They signing a recording deal with Decca and on 4th May, 1950, the group recorded Goodnight Irene, a song written by Seeger's old friend, Huddie Leadbelly. For censorship reasons the chorus was changed from "I'll get you in my dreams" to "I'll see you in my dreams". The record was a massive hit. Seeger later commented: "I remember laughing when I walked down the street and heard my own voice coming out of a record store." They were offered a weekly national TV spot on NBC and were paid $2,250 a week to appear at the Beacon Theater on Broadway. The Weavers went on to have a number of hit songs including Wimoweh, The Roving Kind, On Top of Old Smoky, The Midnight Special, Pay Me My Money Down and Darling Corey. In their shows they sung left-wing songs such If I Had a Hammer, that their record company felt that the general public would not accept.

On 6th June, 1950, Harvey Matusow sent a message to the FBI that they should keep a close watch on Seeger, as he was a member of the American Communist Party. This was untrue as Seeger had left the party soon after the war. In fact, the agency had been monitoring Seeger since 1940. J. Edgar Hoover now leaked this FBI file to Frederick Woltman, of the New York World Telegram. He published an article revealing that the Weavers were the first musicians in American history to be investigated for sedition.

Roy Brewer, a member of the Motion Picture Industry Council, commissioned a booklet entitled Red Channels. Published on 22nd June, 1950, and written by Ted C. Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent and Vincent Hartnett, a right-wing television producer, it listed the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organisations before the Second World War but had not so far been blacklisted. People listed included Pete Seeger, Larry Adler, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Lee J. Cobb, Aaron Copland, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E. Y. Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Zero Mostel, Arthur Miller, Betsy Blair, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Gale Sondergaard, Howard K. Smith, Louis Untermeyer and Josh White.

Three days after the booklet was published the Korean War erupted. The list of entertainers were now seen as America's mortal enemies. NBC immediately cancelled its contract with the Weavers. Although the Weavers had sold over four million records, radio stations now stopped playing their music. They were also banned from appearing on national television. However, despite this attempt to take them out of circulation, in 1951 they still had hits with Kisses Sweeter than Wine and So Long It's Been Good to Know You.

On 6th February, 1952, Harvey Matusow testified in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Seeger was a member of the American Communist Party. Matusow admitted in his autobiography, False Witness (1955) that this was untrue but Seeger said this ended the career of The Weavers: "Matusow's appearance burst like a bombshell... We had started off singing in some very flossy night-clubs... Then we went lower and lower as the blacklist crowded us in. Finally, we were down to places like Daffy's Bar and Grill on the outskirts of Cleveland."

Those newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post that had such nice things to say about Seeger on his death did not come to his defence. In fact they did the opposite and in editorials praised Senator Joseph McCarthy, the leader of what became known as McCarthyism, for his patriotism. McCarthy only lost the support of the mainstream media when he began accusing America's newspapers of employing communists. In July 1954 one of McCarthy's henchmen made headlines with the claim that: "The Sunday section of the New York Times alone has 126 dues-paying Communists. On the editorial and research staffs of Time and Life magazines are 76 hard-core Reds. The New York Bureau of the Associated Press has 25."

Pete Seeger was not called before the HUAC until 1955. Despite the downfall of McCarthy the persecution of left-wing figures such as Seeger continued with little complaint from the mainstream press. Frank Donner, a lawyer who defended several people who were called before the HUCA, wrote in The Un-Americans (1961): "He knows that the Committee demands his physical presence in the hearing room for no reason other than to make him a target of its hostility, to have him photographed, exhibited and branded... He knows that the vandalism, ostracism, insults, crank calls and hate letters that he and his family have already suffered are but the opening stages of a continuing ordeal... he is tormented by the awareness that he is being punished without valid cause, and deprived, by manipulated prejudice, of his fundamental rights as an American."

Seeger's lawyer, Paul Ross, advised him to use the Fifth Amendment defence (the right against self-incrimination). In the year of Seeger's subpoena, the HUAC called 529 witnesses and 464 (88 per cent) remained silent. Seeger later recalled: "The expected move would have been to take the Fifth. That was the easiest thing, and the case would have been dismissed. On the other hand, everywhere I went, I would have to face 'Oh, you're one of those Fifth Amendment Communists...' I didn't want to run down my friends who did use the Fifth Amendment but I didn't choose to use it."

Seeger had been struck by something that I.F. Stone had written in 1953: "Great faiths can only be preserved by men willing to live by them (HUAC's violation of the First Amendment) cannot be tested until someone dares invite prosecution for contempt." Seeger decided that he would accept Stone's challenge, and use the First Amendment defence (freedom of speech) even though he knew it would probably result in him being sent to prison. Seeger told Paul Ross : "I want to get up there and attack these guys for what they are, the worst of America". Ross warned him that each time the HUCA found him in contempt, he was liable to a year in jail.

The first day of the new HUAC hearings took place on 15th August 1955. Most of the witnesses were excused after taking the Fifth Amendment. Seeger's friend, Lee Hays, also evoked the Fifth Amendment on the second day of the hearings and he was allowed to go unheeded. Seeger was expected to follow his example but instead he answered their questions. When asked for details of his occupation, Seeger replied: "I make my living as a banjo picker - sort of damning in some people's opinion." However, when Gordon Scherer, a sponsor of the John Birch Society, asked him if he had performed at concerts organized by the American Communist Party he refused to answer.

Francis Walter, the chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, told Seeger: "I direct you to answer". Seeger replied: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." Seeger later recalled: "I realized that I was fitting into a necessary role... This particular time, there was a job that had to be done, I was there to do it. A soldier goes into training. You find yourself in battle and you know the role you're supposed to fulfill."

The HUAC continued to ask questions of this nature. Pete Seeger pointed out: "I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else. I am saying voluntarily that I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent the implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, make me less of an American."

As a result of Seeger's testimony, on 26th July, 1956, the House of Representatives voted 373 to 9 to cite Seeger, Arthur Miller, and six others for contempt. However, Seeger did not come to trial until March, 1961. Seeger defended himself with the words: "Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties. I believe that my choosing my present course I do no dishonor to them, or to those who may come after me." He was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison. After worldwide protests, the Court of Appeals ruled that Seeger's indictment was faulty and dismissed the case.

Seeger told Ruth Schultz in 1989: "Historically, I believe I was correct in refusing to answer their questions. Down through the centuries, this trick has been tried by various establishments throughout the world. They force people to get involved in the kind of examination that has only one aim and that is to stamp out dissent. One of the things I'm most proud of about my country is the fact that we did lick McCarthyism back in the fifties. Many Americans knew their lives and their souls were being struggled for, and they fought for it. And I felt I should carry on. Through the sixties I still had to occasionally free picket lines and bomb threats. But I simply went ahead, doing my thing, throughout the whole period. I fought for peace in the fifties. And in the sixties, during the Vietnam war, when anarchists and pacifists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, decent-hearted Americans, all recoiled with horror at the bloodbath, we came together."

His friend, Don McLean, explained how this case severely damaged his career: "Pete went underground. He started doing fifty dollar bookings, then twenty-five dollar dates in schoolhouses, auditoriums, and eventually college campuses. He definitely pioneered what we know today as the college circuit. He persevered and went out like Kilroy, sowing seeds at a grass-roots level for many, many years. The blacklist was the best thing that happened to him; it forced him into a situation of struggle, which he thrived on." Seeger's concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups. He later recalled: “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity. The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”

Although freed from prison, the blacklisting of Seeger continued. Seeger's songs written and performed during this period often reflected his left-wing views and included We Shall Overcome, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, Guantanamera, The Bells of Rhymney and Turn, Turn, Turn. Seeger's biographer, David King Dunaway, has argued: "Pete's best political songs evoked not the bitterness of repression but the glory of its solution, the potential beauty of a world remade. His music couldn't overthrow a government, he had come to realize, but the children he sang for might begin the process."

Seeger remained active in the protest movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee adopted his song, We Shall Overcome, during the 1960 student sit-ins a restaurants which had a policy of not serving black people. The students were often physically assaulted, but following the teachings of Martin Luther King they did not hit back. This non-violent strategy was adopted by black students all over the Deep South. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches. The SNCC also sung the song during the 1961 Freedom Rides.

As well as the Civil Rights Movement Seeger was also involved in protests against the Vietnam War. As a result television stations refused to end the blacklisting of Seeger. Artists that had been inspired by the work of Seeger such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Harry Belafonte, protested against this decision. It was not until 1967 that the Smothers Brothers managed to negotiate a guest appearance for Seeger on their TV program, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The Smothers Brothers themselves got the sack from CBS in 1969 because of their activism against the war. It seems in America that freedom of speech is only available to those who support the status quo.

In 2006, Bruce Springsteen helped introduce Seeger to a new generation when he recorded We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album of 13 songs popularized by Seeger. In 2009 Springsteen introduced Seeger at a concert to celebrate his 90th birthday: "He's gonna look a lot like your granddad that wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad can kick your ass. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself."

This article is taken from the Spartacus Blog.

America’s Most Successful Communist

I t was no surprise last year when rock stars, led by Bruce Springsteen, barnstormed battleground states for John Kerry, and no surprise that, save for a handful of country singers, George W. Bush could count on no similar support from pop performers. After all, American music stars are overwhelmingly left-liberal, and often publicly so—from punk rockers Green Day, who recently recorded American Idiot, a “George W. Bush Rock Opera,” to Grammy-winning blues rocker Bonnie Raitt, who once dedicated an album to “the people of North Vietnam.” Asked why President Bush’s iPod featured songs by singers who’d campaigned against him, White House advisor Mark McKinnon dryly observed: “The fact is that any president who would limit themselves to pro-establishment musicians would have a pretty small collection.”

The conventional wisdom holds that it was ever so—that American popular musicians have always been leftists, and that music-as-radical-politics has stretched across the decades, expressing the nation’s social conscience. The late New Left chronicler Jack Newfield, for instance, celebrated a “native tradition of an alternative America” that included not just such openly activist musicians as Woody Guthrie but also apparently non-political singers like Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson.

Yet this “native tradition” is a myth. Until quite recently, popular music’s prevailing spirit was apolitical: “It has a good beat, you can dance to it, I give it a 95,” as fifties teens gushed about new records on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.

One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.

A dopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser. “In the Far East, Japan kept growing bolder. The Kremlin leadership . . . now felt its sole hope lay in a military-political blockade with the Western powers.” Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.

The Popular Front sought to enlist Western artists and intellectuals, some of them not party members but “fellow travelers,” to use art, literature, and music to insinuate the Marxist worldview into the broader culture. The murals of Diego Rivera, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the novels of Howard Fast—all exemplified this approach. It’s an irony that communists should seek to change the culture, of course, since Marxism holds that culture is merely a reflection of underlying economic structures, whose transformation will bring about capitalism’s inevitable collapse.

Still, the party kept sending its legions to the cultural front lines, even after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact abruptly ended the Popular Front coalition-building. The American Communist Party’s bluntest expression of the idea of culture as a revolutionary tool came in writer V. J. Jerome’s talk “Let Us Grasp the Weapon of Culture,” presented to its 15th national convention in New York in 1951. “Cultural activity is an essential phase of the party’s general ideological work,” Jerome observed. Federal officials cited the speech as an “overt act” seeking the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, landing Jerome in prison for three years.

I t took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.

It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.

For Seeger, the sixties breakthrough came after decades’ worth of mixing music and politics. His belief in music’s potential political power ran in the family, reports biographer David King Dunaway. Seeger’s eminent father, Charles Seeger, a musicologist teaching at Berkeley in the early 1900s (the folk-music archive at Harvard is named after him), found the plight of California migrant workers so disturbing that he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, despite being a pure son of the American upper class with Puritan ancestors later, he conscientiously objected to World War I. Anticipating the Popular Front, he yearned for a revolutionary classical music that would help usher in a new political order. Though he ultimately made little headway in marrying politics and music, his son—who shared his view that realizing the American dream meant economic as well as political egalitarianism, and that in turn meant communism—succeeded brilliantly.

Pete Seeger’s life mission first took shape as he toured the rural South with his father in the mid-thirties, listening to performances of traditional music and thrilling to their authenticity as perhaps only a Connecticut boarding-school product could. He listened attentively also to his father’s close friend Alan Lomax, assistant director for the Library of Congress music archive and another man of the Left. Using primitive early recording equipment, Lomax and his father, John Lomax, who preceded him at the Library of Congress, brought to the library’s vaults a priceless treasure of traditional music from the Ameri-can South: the African-tinged singing of the Georgia sea islands, the Elizabethan ballads of Appalachia, the blues of the Mississippi Delta (including the first recordings of the great Muddy Waters, made on the famous Stovall’s Plantation outside Clarksdale), and powerful gospel songs by poor whites and blacks alike.

T he Popular Front Left saw such homespun music of poor rural Southerners—eventually labeled American “folk” music—as perfect for molding into a new Marxist cultural vernacular. “[W]hen the Communist Left and its intellectuals . . . tried to sink roots in American tradition, radicals turned a new ear to traditional folk tunes,” notes Dunaway. They could cast folk music as the politically pure art of America’s noble rural proletariat—plus, because this non-commercial music wasn’t copyrighted, they could adapt it freely.

Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax took on this project with gusto. Lacking a real tradition of social protest in American folk music, the pair set out to create one. The music served as the crucible of Seeger’s own style: “Folk songs, radicalism and patriotism blended in his mind,” Dunaway observes. Through Lomax, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a March 1940 New York benefit concert for California migrant workers. (The Popular Front might not have invented the benefit concert to fund political causes, but it certainly helped boost the institution, which lives on in the form of Farm Aid, Live Aid, Live 8, and the like.) Made to order for the Popular Front, Guthrie was a middle-class Oklahoman with a calculated aw-shucks cowboy manner, who just happened to be a Communist Party sympathizer and had written for communist newspapers. As Lomax later put it: “Go back to that night when Pete first met Woody Guthrie. You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night.”

Guthrie, with little or no popular following down home, was by no means an indigenous representative of some vital American political folk-music tradition. He owed his eventual lionization to Seeger, who formed with him the Almanac Singers, which first brought his work to popular attention. If Guthrie’s songs based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (“Tom Joad” and other “Dust Bowl Ballads”) became some of the most influential American recordings of the twentieth century, journalist Joe Klein, a Guthrie biographer, argues, it was only because Seeger tirelessly promoted them.

Seeger and Lomax also helped popularize—and politicize—the blues music of Huddie Ledbetter (nicknamed “Leadbelly”), another major figure in their made-up “tradition” of American protest music. The African-American Ledbetter had no real politics, and no commercial recognition, before the Lomaxes helped get him out of a Texas prison and move him to New York. But Lomax soon co-wrote a song with him called “The Bourgeois Blues”: “Home of the brave land of the free/I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”

Before Leadbelly’s radicalization, the traditional folk music of American blacks—among whom social protest music would seem most likely to find a home—tended to be personal and religious, not political. Gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, in her classic “That’s Enough,” expressed this apolitical spirit: “The mean things you said don’t make me feel bad/’Cause I can’t miss a friend that I never had/I’ve got Jesus, Jesus, and that’s enough.” In the same spirit, Martin Luther King’s favorite song, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?,” was a deeply personal response to injustice penned by Mississippi Delta gospel musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples.

D uring the early 1940s, Seeger and the Almanacs—later reconstituted as the Weavers—bluntly propagandized in their songs. Writes Dunaway: “They opposed war and promoted unions the way early Christians believed in the Church.” Union organizers in the past had sometimes put political lyrics to gospel music, as when Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill sang of the wonder-working might of the union (rather than of the blood of the lamb). Popular Front supporters, the Almanacs included, made this approach their trademark.

Party stalwarts Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson had already penned one of the classics of the form, a tribute to Joe Hill himself, a Swedish immigrant executed in 1915 in Utah for committing a murder for which many leftists believed the authorities, influenced by the mine owners, had framed him. Hayes and Robinson composed the song during the summer of 1936, at Camp Unity, a left-wing retreat in New York’s Dutchess County, setting their lyrics to a traditional folk melody (“Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”). Joan Baez later sang “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” at Woodstock in 1969:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead!”

“From San Diego up to Maine,

Where workers strike and organize,”

Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

Another Popular Front success from this period was the 1937 reworking, at Tennessee’s communist-founded Highlander Folk School, of the traditional black gospel number “I Will Overcome” into “We Shall Overcome,” soon a labor rallying song.

T hough Seeger didn’t formally join the Communist Party until 1942, the Almanacs’ lyrics marched in lockstep with the party’s views well before then. In keeping with the line adopted after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact (which caused many U.S. party members to quit in disgust), for example, the Almanacs warbled against American entry into World War II, foreshadowing the preference for peace at any price that later characterized the McGovernite Left. “Franklin D., listen to me,/You ain’t a-gonna send me ’cross the sea.” The group continued in this vein into the late 1940s. Campaigning for Progressive Party anti–cold war candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, they regularly performed a send-up of Harry Truman, to the tune of “Oh, Susannah”:

We’ve got to jail the communists

To keep this country free.

And everyone’s a communist

(The lyrics referred to the newly enacted Smith Act, requiring Communist Party members to register with the government.) A more militant Seeger-Guthrie song, “66 Highway Blues,” threatened: “Sometimes I think I’ll blow down a cop/Lord, you treat me so mean. . . . I’m gonna start me a hungry man’s union,/Ain’t a-gonna charge no dues,/Gonna march down that road to the Wall Street Walls,/A-singin’ those 66 Highway Blues.”

The Almanacs/Weavers also dressed the part of authentic jes’ plain folks, sporting farmer’s overalls on stage. Anticipating the fashion affectations of later pop stars, in which studiedly grungy clothing often serves as both costume and political statement, they suffered from what biographer Dunaway calls “a bad case of proletarian chic.”

I ronically, given such heavy-handedness, Seeger and company would gain a far bigger influence over the broader culture through the subtlety of their later work. It

was a changed America—a McCarthy-era country that now regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy, not an ally—that pushed Seeger toward a more refined style. “As the labor movement kicked out the radicals,” Seeger recalled, “I settled for ‘Let’s get America singing’ maybe the basic democratic philosophy in these folk songs will filter out subliminally to the American people.”

After the Weavers had some mild commercial success, including the song “Goodnight, Irene” (reportedly requested by atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to accompany their march to the electric chair), the group’s Communist Party connections drew the attention of those on the Right seeking to expel the Left from American popular culture. After the onset of the Korean War, the blacklisted group abruptly found itself without invitations to record or perform. Seeger—whom critics dubbed “Khrushchev’s songbird”—made ends meet largely by playing children’s concerts at such venues as the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and its upper school, Elisabeth Irwin High, which, as historian Ronald Radosh recounts, was known for hiring former New York City public school teachers unwilling to sign a loyalty oath.

In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee, holding hearings in New York on communist influence in the entertainment industry, subpoenaed Seeger. He refused to answer committee questions, including whether he was a Communist Party member, not on the usual Fifth Amendment grounds but on the grounds that he had a First Amendment right to sing and associate with those interested in hearing him. Seeger thus opened himself to criminal charges of contempt of Congress that would hang over him until 1962, when a federal judge threw out a looming ten-year prison sentence, decreeing that the singer couldn’t be held to have violated committee rules because those rules were unclear.

S hortly after his contempt indictment, Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” adapted from a Ukrainian folk song (quoted by Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov in his novel And Quiet Flows the Don):

Where have all the flowers gone?

Where have all the flowers gone?

Where have all the flowers gone?

The girls have picked them, ev’ry one.

Oh, when will you ever learn?

Oh, when will you ever learn?

And the young girls have gone to take husbands, the husbands have gone to be soldiers, the soldiers have gone to their graves, and around and around in the tragic cycle:

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Where have all the graveyards gone?

Covered with flowers, ev’ry one.

Oh, when will you ever learn?

Oh, when will you ever learn?

Under duress, Seeger had replaced propaganda with a softer idealism. The song portrayed all war as futile, only implying that those who saw the Soviets as a threat worth fighting were—like warmongers historically—misguided, or worse.

Seeger had composed one other such number. Written with Weavers bandmate Lee Hayes and first performed at a 1952 benefit for communists in legal trouble, “If I Had a Hammer” was an extraordinary anthem. It pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle, and extolling freedom and justice while implying that these quintessentially American qualities were the very virtues that American society lacked:

I’d hammer out of love between my brothers and my sisters

And so, too, if he had a bell to ring and a song to sing:

And I have a song to sing

It’s the hammer of justice,

And a song about love between my brothers and my sisters

“Only Commies used words like peace and freedom,” Seeger later recalled. “The message was that we’ve got tools and we are going to succeed. The last verse didn’t say, ‘there’s no hammer, there ain’t no bell but honey I got you.’ ” No flinching for Seeger.

Both songs owed much to Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” his 1940 response to Irving Berlin’s straightforwardly patriotic “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s proclamation that “this land is made for you and me” contained an accusation that an unjust social system was robbing the country’s rightful owners—an accusation that a couple of verses made quite directly:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,

And on the sign there, it said, “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,

By the relief office I seen my people

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

S eeger, for his part, was leaving such rhetoric far behind. So brilliantly understated did he become that he even crafted a protest song out of the Old Testament. His musical version of chapter three of Ecclesiastes—“Turn, Turn, Turn”—amended slightly the words of Scripture, transforming the meaning of the biblical poetry. Ecclesiastes observed, but did not judge, the cycles of life: “To everything there is a season.” To the penultimate phrase, “a time for war, a time for peace,” Seeger added his own: “I swear it’s not too late,” giving the words an activist edge. The song became an anti–Vietnam War anthem and a Number One hit for songwriter Seeger, thanks to the Byrds’ folk-rock version, which topped the Billboard pop chart in December 1965.

Even earlier, of course, the civil rights movement had given further momentum to the politicization of popular music. (The Popular Front had long recognized that the plight of American blacks offered an effective tool in its effort to discredit the American system as a whole.) Seeger ardently supported the civil rights movement, and his “We Shall Overcome” concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1963—two months before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—marked a watershed in it. The “We Shall Overcome” concert would have been notable for its name alone, which made a household word of what had already become a civil rights standard. But there was much more: the show ran through the whole Popular Front songbook, from Guthrie and Leadbelly to a Spanish civil war ballad and the beautiful “Oh Freedom,” a song not originally of the Left but of black Union troops joining with other Americans to bring slavery to an end.

I remember buying the album of the concert and singing along with it endlessly. Among its songs was “Little Boxes,” Berkeley songwriter Malvina Reynolds’s sarcastic dismissal of the aspirations of American suburban homeowners. “Little Boxes,” a sneer of alienation, expressed a new sort of critique of capitalism—one that would have many echoes in later pop music. For Reynolds, it seemed, mass prosperity was no better than the Great Depression.

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the university

Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same,

And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers, and business executives

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.

The counterculture was knocking at the gate.

Seeger debuted another soon-to-be-classic left-wing war-is-never-the-answer number at Carnegie Hall: “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a hymn-like vision of nuclear apocalypse written by a talented young songwriter:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it

I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,

I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,

I saw a white ladder all covered with water,

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,

I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,

And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

The songwriter, Bob Dylan, would shortly overtake Seeger as the leading force politicizing popular music.

T he young Dylan quickly mastered the anthemic songwriting style of “If I Had a Hammer.” The same month that Seeger performed at Carnegie Hall, Peter, Paul, and Mary released a version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with its unmistakable, though implicit, references to the civil rights struggle. It suggested that America was no more just, and probably less so, than other nations:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man? . . .

How many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky?

Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it’s washed to the sea?

Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head,

Pretending he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

If Seeger was the Popular Front’s Lenin, Dylan was its Che Guevara, complete with motorcycle. Dylan clearly absorbed Seeger’s lesson on subtle songwriting. In his recent memoir, Chronicles, he notes that “protest songs are hard to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional.” But Dylan went beyond Seeger by being rock-star glamorous. Heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beats as well as the political Left, Dylan struck a pose of alienation and nonconformity that has served as a model for so many popular musicians since. Picking up where “Little Boxes” left off, he mocked the senseless striving and meaningless materialism of American life, scoring hits like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a surreal pastiche of urban hopelessness boasting a line that would inspire a wave of leftist extremism: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Thirty years after the Popular Front issued its call to transform culture through music, it had now become proper, even natural, for popular music to embrace leftist moral and political causes and for many young Americans to look to musicians for guidance on such matters. As Joan Baez, then emerging as a glamorous folk diva and Dylan duet partner, put it: “There’s never been a good Republican folk singer.” The Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, in his great novel of post-colonial Africa, A Bend in the River, captured the self-indulgence of these attitudes of opposition and protest when expressed by those who enjoyed, as did Baez and Dylan, the prosperity and security of a free society:

I asked Indar, “Who is the singer?”

He said, “Joan Baez. She’s very famous in the States.”

“And a millionaire,” Yvette said.

I was beginning to recognize her irony. . . . You couldn’t listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn’t sing songs about the end of the world unless . . . you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it.

B y no measure has all, or even most, popular music since the 1960s been overtly political. But the Popular Front’s ethos, styles, and heroes have become part of the American cultural mainstream. The annual Woody Guthrie Award ceremony, recognizing singers “who exemplify Woody Guthrie’s social activism and personal commitment to the visions and hopes of people,” takes place at the Waldorf-Astoria, for instance. What Howe and Coser wrote in 1957 remains true: “Between the ‘progressive’ sentiments of Popular Front politics, and a certain kind of urban middle-brow cultural yearning, there was a deep rapport—most of all, a common anxiety and pathos—which the Communists brilliantly exploited. . . . Even after the Popular Front lay shattered . . . the style of American mass culture retained many of its crucial elements.”

Its echoes in music are ubiquitous. We hear them in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a vapid celebration of moral relativism that, like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” tells us that no cause is really worth fighting for:

Nothing to kill or die for

We hear the echoes, too, in the music of the man who organized the Artists for John Kerry tour: Bruce Springsteen, who specializes in depicting the desolation of American life in albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad (a self-conscious reference to Guthrie). The emblematic Springsteen song, “Born in the USA,” laments the meaningless sacrifice of the Vietnam vet, the ultimate used and abused working-class hero:

Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much

Till you spend half your life just covering up.

Born in the USA, I was born in the USA

I was born in the USA, born in the USA.

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man.

Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man says “Son, if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said “Son, don’t you understand?” . . . .

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years burning down the road

Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.

Born in USA, I was born in the USA. . . .

Juxtaposed with the bleak lyrical narrative of tragedy and indifference, the song’s seemingly celebratory chorus becomes a parody of patriotism, implying the foolishness of the benighted blue-collar victim of the system, naive enough to think that it’s really a good thing to be an American—or, God forbid, that America might be worth fighting for.

I t’s tempting to dismiss the politicization of popular music as of limited consequence. But as the Popular Front keenly grasped, culture matters—and music matters perhaps most of all. Allan Bloom, glossing Plato, wrote that “to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or society, one must ‘mark the music.’ ” In America, popular music provides a soundtrack for growing up. And the lyrics of that music too often deliver the message that our leaders are “idiots,” that our politics are corrupt, that bourgeois life is purposeless, that this country is no freer than any other—and probably less so. How can we find ourselves surprised, then, by the cool indifference that typifies many kids raised in times of affluence, freedom, and peace?

For his part, Pete Seeger, who lives near the Hudson in Wappingers Falls, New York, continues to perform, now singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” as a protest against the Iraq war, a radical to the end. “I’m still a communist, in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” he told Mother Jones last autumn. (The lefty magazine crowns Seeger “the grand old lion of the Left.”)

Happily, some have embraced the Popular Front’s legacy in ways that Seeger probably didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t likely approve. In March, a crowd in Taipei, several hundred thousand–strong, sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” as part of a protest against forcible annexation by mainland China—and the prospect of Communist Party rule.

The Clearwater Story

Clearwater was founded by Pete Seeger, legendary musician, singer, songwriter, folklorist, activist, environmentalist, and peace advocate, and one of the most influential people of the twentieth century. In 1966, in despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River, Seeger announced plans to “build a boat to save the river.” At the time, the Hudson was rank with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution fish had disappeared over many miles of its length. Seeger, along with many other concerned individuals, believed a majestic replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries would bring people to the river where they could experience its beauty and be moved to preserve it. Inspired by that vision, the organization began with the launch of the sloop Clearwater in 1969 —a majestic 106-foot long replica vessel.

The sloop Clearwater’s maiden voyage. Photo courtesy of the A Wallace Collection.

The sloop Clearwater is recognized as America’s Environmental Flagship and is among the first vessels in the United States to conduct science-based environmental education aboard a sailing ship, creating the template for environmental education programs around the world. More than half a million people have experienced their first real look at the Hudson River estuary’s ecosystem aboard Clearwater. In 2004, the sloop Clearwater was named to the National Register of Historic Places for its groundbreaking role in the environmental movement.

Today, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. and the iconic sloop Clearwater are carrying forward Pete Seeger’s legacy by partnering with Hudson Valley schools and community leaders to raise the bar of environmental education and encouraging youth to become involved as active stewards of their environment and the Hudson River. Through the organization’s multiple environmental education programs, youth empowerment programs, environmental action campaigns, Green Cities initiatives, and unique approach to public outreach, the sloop Clearwater is recognized as a symbol of grassroots action through hands-on learning, music, and celebration.

Media Encomiums for Pete Seeger Omit Radical Background

In announcing the death of folksinger Pete Seeger (shown) Monday night at the age of 94, the mainstream media applauded his lifetime of singing, as the Washington Post put it, “songs of love, peace, brotherhood, work and protest” and called him a 󈬄th-century troubadour” known for popularizing “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and especially the “anthem of the civil rights movement”: “We Shall Overcome.”

The Post noted only briefly Seeger’s close relationship with Woody Guthrie, from whom he “learned to express political and social criticism through music and song.” The Almanac Singers, founded by Seeger, were given scant mention, the paper referring to members Guthrie and Seeger as “colleagues” rather than the more appropriate appellation “comrades.”

The Post couldn’t wait to get past all that now-irrelevant history to spend the rest of its paean of praise in how the brave new world celebrated Seeger, first by noting the honor bestowed on him in 1994 at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony where then-President Bill Clinton called Seeger “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.” Gushed the Post, “by the dawn of the new millennium, Mr. Seeger had become the widely acknowledged … grand old man of American folk music.”

It was true, said the Post, that after dropping out of Harvard in 1937, Seeger briefly “attended meetings of the Communist Party,” and then went on to form a singing group called The Weavers after the end of the war. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions posed to him by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), but the paper noted that his conviction was overthrown thanks to a “technical flaw” and “the government never retried him.”

But all that is forgiven, according to the Post, and “until the end of his life he remained a beloved figure.” So beloved was Seeger that he and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land is Your Land” at a concert at the Lincoln Memorial during President Obama’s second inaugural celebration.

Lost down the memory hole is the background of The Almanac singers, The Weavers, as well as any mention of Zilphia Horton or the Highlander School, or the publishing company People’s Songs, which Seeger founded to promote his music.

The Pete Seeger Appreciation Page was equally effusive, calling Seeger “America’s best-loved folksinger,” an “untiring environmentalist,” and a “beacon of hope for millions of people all over the world.” Its author reminded the Seeger faithful that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and, even though he never graduated from Harvard, in that same year Seeger was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal for his “contribution to the arts.” In 1999, he traveled to Cuba, that land of “love, peace and brotherhood,” to receive Cuba’s highest honor for “his humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”

The reporting by the Associated Press of Seeger’s death was scarcely any better at telling the rest of his story, noting that Seeger was an “iconic figure in folk music,” and that he performed with “the great Woody Guthrie” and “marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s.” The AP lamented that Seeger was “kept off commercial television for more than a decade” following his confrontation with the HUAC and noted that Seeger was incensed at the committee’s questions into his Communist Party affiliations:

I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions … make me any less of an American.

To balance this lopsided reporting of the passing of the man, it is helpful to start at the beginning. At age 13 Seeger became a subscriber to the communist monthly publication The New Masses. He continued his indoctrination at Harvard before dropping out in his sophomore year. Following a brief stint as an assistant at the Library of Congress, he met Woody Guthrie in 1940 where Guthrie was performing at a benefit concert for some migrant workers. Shortly thereafter the two formed The Almanac Singers, made up of radicals, each of whom was involved with leftist political groups including the Communist Party.

In 1942, Seeger formally joined the Communist Party, serving as a staunch defender of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, calling himself one of the party’s “artists in uniform” and holding the idea that “songs are weapons” in its fight.

In 1945, Seeger founded and became national director of People’s Songs, Inc., which was deliberately created to “promote and distribute songs of labor.” This leftist outfit caught the attention of the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee which reported:

People’s Songs is a vital Communist front … one which has spawned a horde of lesser fronts in the fields of music, stage entertainment, choral singing, folk dancing, recording, radio transcription and similar fields.

It especially is important to Communist proselytizing and propaganda work because of its emphasis on its appeal to youth, and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.

In 1950, Seeger resigned from the Communist Party, but not over its ideology. Said Seeger, “I realized I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not. I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization.”

In 1955, he was asked to testify before the HUAC, which event both the Post and the AP glossed over. According to Francis X. Gannon in his monumental Biographical Dictionary of the Left, on August 18, 1955, Seeger was repeatedly asked about his involvement with the Communist Party and other communist front groups. After declining to answer, Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress and was later convicted on 10 counts of contempt in a New York federal court. His conviction was overturned, and the HUAC never sought another indictment.

In his research, Gannon uncovered the following groups and organizations with which Seeger was affiliated, along with parenthetical designations from the HUAC:

Seeger, has been affiliated — as an entertainer, member, sponsor, instructor, or contributor — with the American Peace Mobilization (“subversive and Communist”) American Youth Congress (“subversive and Communist”) the Communist Party American Youth for Democracy (“subversive and Communist”) the Council on African Affairs (“subversive and Communist”) the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief (“subversive and Communist”) the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship (“subversive and Communist” — “specializing in pro-Soviet propaganda”) the Civil Rights Congress (“subversive and Communist”) the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born [Americans] “subversive and Communist” — “one of the oldest auxiliaries of the Communist Party in the United States” — under the “complete domination” of the Communist Party) the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy (“Communist”) the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (“a Communist front used to appeal to special occupational groups”) the Nature Friends of America (“subversive and Communist”) the Jefferson School of Social Science (“adjunct of the Communist Party”) the Metropolitan Music School (“controlled by Communists”) Veterans Against Discrimination of Civil Rights Congress (“subversive and Communist”) New Masses (“Communist periodical”) Daily World (“Communist publication”) the Labor Youth League (“Communist organization”) California Labor School (“a subversive and Communist organization”) the National Lawyers Guild (“the foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party, its front organizations, and controlled unions”) Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (“subversive and Communist”) the Committee for the First Amendment (“Communist front”) the American Peace Crusade (“Communist front”) the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (“Communist front” — “subversive”) and, the National Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (“to lead and direct the Communist Party’s ‘Operation Abolition’ campaign”).

As is now obvious, Seeger’s affiliations with these groups were neither transient nor light, but represent the man’s hard core commitment to forces working to destroy the United States. What’s disappointing, of course, is that this information is readily available on the Internet — all information available to writers and grievers at the Post and the AP.

Those mainstream media representatives also knew, or should have known, that the very first performance of “If I Had a Hammer” was by Seeger on June 3, 1949, at St. Nicholas Arena in New York City at a testimonial dinner for the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States.

They should have known that “We Shall Overcome,” the so-called anthem of the civil rights movement, was taught to Seeger by Zilphia Horton, the music director of the Highlander Folk School (founded by her husband Myles Horton) and exposed in 1957 by the Georgia Commission on Education in its pamphlet entitled: “Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee.”

They should have known that Seeger was a National Advisory Board member of the Disarm Education Fund which seeks “to ban all private ownership of handguns.”

They should have known that in 2000 Seeger reiterated: “I am still a communist” and in 2004, in an interview with Mother Jones magazine expanded on that: “I’m still a communist in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”

They should have known, but they didn’t. Or else they do know but such information doesn’t fit the party line: Seeger is, or was, just a friendly folksinger with catchy tunes that occasionally were a little edgy. Nothing to worry about. Too bad he’s gone.

For 81 of his 94 years Seeger had bought into the totalitarianism that threatens our country today, and was promoted and lionized by the liberal media and the establishment elite behind them for his efforts. In retrospect, his work has successfully softened and then neutralized the hard edge of totalitarianism by trivializing it with song, turning liberty’s loss into the music of celebration.

The melody dates back to before the Civil War, from a song called "No More Auction Block For Me." Originally, the lyrics were "I'll overcome someday," which links the song to a turn-of-the-20th-century hymn that was written by the Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia.

It was 1946, however, before the song evolved into some semblance of the tune we've come to know as the unofficial anthem of the American Civil Rights movement. It was sung by a group of striking workers in Charleston, South Carolina, who were embroiled in a months-long strike for a fair wage at the tobacco processing factory where they worked. They brought their version of the song to a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn. The school's Culture Director Zilphia Horton was accustomed to asking workshop attendees to teach songs to the group, and these workers introduced a song they'd recently been singing, titled "I'll Be Alright." Horton was so enamored with the sentiment behind one of the song's verses, which repeated the line "I'll overcome," she worked with the union leaders who'd introduced it to her to rewrite the song so that it might encapsulate a more collective community spirit. The song they emerged with was titled "We Will Overcome." However, their version was a much slower song, drawn out and emphasizing every single word, with a sort of lilting melody that was verging on a meditation.

A year later, Pete Seeger was visiting the Highlander school, where he met and befriended Horton. She taught him "We Will Overcome" - which had become one of her favorite songs - and he adapted it for use in his shows. He also changed the "will" to "shall" and added some verses of his own. Nobody can agree on who updated the melody to the marching rhythm of triplets we know today. But, at any rate, it was Guy Carawan who introduced it to civil rights activists in the Carolinas during a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting in 1960. Carawan's performance is largely considered the "moment" when "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the movement, as it was almost instinctively met with those in attendance holding their crossed hands and swaying along to the triplet melody.

The adaptation of the song to its current lyric is often attributed to Pete Seeger, but Seeger shares the copyright with Horton, Carawan, and Frank Hamilton. The song's contributions to both the labor and civil rights movements have been palpable, and it continues to be used around the world to this day, whenever people are gathering in the name of freedom and justice.

The song was recorded by Joan Baez in 1963 and became a major anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Pete Seeger's greatest legacy? Saving New York's Hudson river

Pete Seeger's greatest legacy after a long life filled with music and activism may have been saving the Hudson river, according to those who worked with him to save the waterway.

“The Hudson was saved by a lot of people,” said Robert Kennedy Jr, who has sued industry for polluting the river as an environmental lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance. He said he had known Seeger for 30 years.

“But for a lot of us, Pete was the first guy. He started the train, and we all jumped on the moving train.”

Seeger's environmental activism didn't stop with the river. Last September, he put in a surprise appearance with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at a Farm Aid benefit. He added an extra verse to his anthem “This land was made for you and me” by singing: “This land was made to be frack-free.”

The folk singer also campaigned for the shutdown of the ageing Indian Point nuclear reactor.

But it was the Hudson river – close to where Seeger lived in a log cabin he built himself in the 1940s – that was the main focus of his activism.

The river was a raging sewer when Seeger set out to save it in the 1960s, a liquid dump for industries that grew along its banks, full of PCBs from the electrical industry, sewage discharges, pesticides, and other contaminants. The main traffic was cement and oil barges. The public largely stayed away.

Local lore has it the chemical stew was so potent and so toxic it was seen as a cure for bore worms and other parasites feeding off wooden hulls. Sailors from the Caribbean would reportedly come up to cleanse their boats.

Seeger, with his late wife, Toshi, built his own 19th-century wooden sloop, the Clearwater, and as he sailed the river, he began asking commercial fishermen to work with him to bring the river back.

The boat would later turn into an environmental organisation, which remains active today.

His genius was in recognising that the salvation of the river could come from grassroots activism, Kennedy said.

“He didn't go to Albany and lobby. He didn't go to Washington, and he didn't go to court. He used his guitar and his voice and his joyful manner to summon people,” he said.

The strategy turned on reminding people of the Hudson's history as a major water way, and an important fishery.

Seeger walked the banks of the river, talking to locals and trying to persuade them that it would one day be possible to swim in the Hudson again.

He wrote a song about the river called Sailing Up My Dirty Stream: “Some day, though maybe not this year / My Hudson river will once again run clear.”

And remarkably, the effort to save the Hudson worked. Under public pressure, PCBs were banned in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency designated a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson as a clean-up site. In 2001, the EPA embarked on another monumental project to dredge the river for sediment contaminated by PCBs. That project is ongoing.

“Pete saw the Hudson as an emblem of some of the failures of our democracy because it was taken over by large corporations who were using it as a conveyor for disposal,” Kennedy said. “But he always pointed out that the constitution of New York state said the Hudson was owned by the people of New York state,” he went on. “He used to say the Hudson river belongs to all of us.”

Pete Seeger's Totalitarian Trifecta

Until Pete Seeger’s death at 94 last night, he was perhaps the last man alive to say that he supported Hitler, Stalin, and Ho Chi Minh. That’s quite the totalitarian trifecta.

As PJM’s own Ron Radosh — who in his younger days took banjo lessons from Seeger! — wrote in the New York Sun in 2007:

[In] August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a 180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR’s America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.

In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Another song, to the tune of “Cripple Creek” and the sound of Mr. Seeger’s galloping banjo, said, “Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain’t a-gonna send us across the sea,” and “Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me.”

The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.

For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?

According to the film, one of Mr. Seeger’s greatest accomplishments was his tour with third-party Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948. Viewers are told only that Wallace was a peace candidate opposed to the America-created Cold War, and that he was falsely accused of being a communist. Nowhere do we learn that Wallace’s campaign was in fact a Communist Party-run affair, and that had he been elected, Wallace announced he was going to appoint men to his Cabinet who we now know were bona fide Soviet agents. Instead, we are asked to assume that every position taken by the old pro-Soviet left wing has been proved correct.

Given his lengthy career from shilling for the Hitler and Stalin non-aggression pact to dropping by Occupy Wall Street one night in 2011, Seeger was arguably “America’s Most Successful Communist,” as Howard Husock dubbed him in 2005 at City Journal:

It was no surprise last year when rock stars, led by Bruce Springsteen, barnstormed battleground states for John Kerry, and no surprise that, save for a handful of country singers, George W. Bush could count on no similar support from pop performers. After all, American music stars are overwhelmingly left-liberal, and often publicly so—from punk rockers Green Day, who recently recorded American Idiot, a “George W. Bush Rock Opera,” to Grammy-winning blues rocker Bonnie Raitt, who once dedicated an album to “the people of North Vietnam.” Asked why President Bush’s iPod featured songs by singers who’d campaigned against him, White House advisor Mark McKinnon dryly observed: “The fact is that any president who would limit themselves to pro-establishment musicians would have a pretty small collection.”

The conventional wisdom holds that it was ever so—that American popular musicians have always been leftists, and that music-as-radical-politics has stretched across the decades, expressing the nation’s social conscience. The late New Left chronicler Jack Newfield, for instance, celebrated a “native tradition of an alternative America” that included not just such openly activist musicians as Woody Guthrie but also apparently non-political singers like Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson.

Yet this “native tradition” is a myth. Until quite recently, popular music’s prevailing spirit was apolitical: “It has a good beat, you can dance to it, I give it a 95,” as fifties teens gushed about new records on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.

One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, “folk music legend,” and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.

“Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever,” Husock writes. Read the whole thing.

In a pitch-perfect definition of Blair’s Law, Seeger’s career culminated with his singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration:

Seeger preached non- violence and considered himself a man of peace yet he aped the party line for a murderous totalitarian ideology. In the end that makes him a hypocrite. Seeger and his comrades on the Old Left and many in the New Left too, were what Lenin called useful idiots. Western dupes, who could be counted on to provide uncritical support for the Soviet Union thereby providing the rope that would eventually hang them.

Stalin is dead and gone and the smoking embers of the Soviet Union lie on the ash heap of history, but Seeger’s useful idiocy and hypocrisy remains.

At Barack Obama’s inauguration Seeger, along with Springsteen led a rendition of “This Land is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The tune is often referred to as a moving song of unity. However, that wasn’t how Guthrie intended it. In fact, it was a protest song written as a communist response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. Lost in the wash of history is that many, who perform it deliberately leave out part of Guthrie’s original lyrics.

As I went rumbling that dusty highway
I saw a sign that said “private property”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
This side was made for you and me

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office, I see my people
And some were stumbling and some were wondering
If this land was made for you and me

However, Seeger reinserted that Marxist ode to taking private property back into the inaugural performance and his birthday concert.

HBO a for-pay cable channel struck a $2.5 million dollar deal with Obama’s inaugural committee to air the concert. HBO broadcasted free of charge that weekend, but you had to have cable or satellite to see the show. If you want to view clips of Seeger and Springsteen singing This Land is Your Land on YouTube, you can’t because HBO… asserted its property rights and demanded the clips be removed.

Seeger’s useful idiocy and hypocrisy know no bounds.

…perhaps Morning Joe & the MSM would have remembered & celebrated her the day she died as they did Pete Seeger today.

Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.

For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.

Pete Seeger defended communism during the cold war and aided our enemies at a time when Americans were fighting.

During that same time Communism slaughtered 100 million people living under it and enslaved hundreds of millions more.

On the show they mentioned Seeger as a “Communist with a small ‘c’ ” Perhaps Democrat National Committee member Bill Connor should have described himself as a “KKK member with a small ‘k’ ” or Riefenstahl as a “Nazi with a small ‘n’ “?

I will acknowledge his skill as a singer & a songwriter and influence on American Music those are historical facts but I would no more celebrate his life than I would Riefenstahl.

In justifying his lifetime in support of Communism, Seeger once told the New York Times:

“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.”

At least until the NKVD knocked upon their door.

Update: At Power Line, Scott Johnson decodes Mr. Obama’s encomium to Seeger: “‘Worker’s and civil rights world peace and environmental [conservation]’ — they’re shibboleths and euphemisms requiring translation. If nothing else, Seeger’s career provides a useful key to the translation.”

More: Seeger “long spoke out against private wealth and the capitalist system, but his talents earned him millions all the same. He gave some of his fortune away but ‘a recent estimate of his net worth pegged it at $4.2 million,’ according to,” Christian Toto adds at Big Hollywood.

Welcome Hot Air and Commentary readers elsewhere at PJM, Rick Moran takes a much more nuanced look at Seeger than my start of the day slab of raw red meat: “Is It Possible to Love the Artist, but Hate His Politics?”

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) was the dean of 20th century folk singers. For over sixty years, up until his passing in January of 2014, he performed powerful songs and lent his energies to causes he believed in. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Seeger’s influence and legacy has only grown as the issues he sang about, from labor struggles to environmentalism, have become increasingly urgent. His songs define these cultural and political flashpoints to this day, unique in their ability to offer a stance that is defined by power, clarity, and compassion.

Music was a major force in Pete’s life from an early age. His father was the musicologist Charles Seeger, and his mother Constance was a classical violinist. At one point during his youth Seeger and his brothers traveled extensively with their parents, entertaining communities throughout the countryside. When he was sixteen, he accompanied his father to Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s folk festival in Asheville, North Carolina. It is there that he first encountered the banjo and fell in love with it.

He went to Harvard hoping to become a journalist, but did not find what he was looking for there. In 1938, he settled in New York City and eventually met Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, and others. The quality of music coming from this group immediately captured his attention. He assisted Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress&rsquo Archive of Folk Song and was exposed to a wonderful array of traditional American music. Many in this group of musicians eventually formed the Almanac Singers in 1940. In addition to Pete, the group included Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax, Sis Cunningham, Mill Lampell, Arthur Stern, and others. They lived in a communal home, &ldquoThe Almanac House,&rdquo in New York. The group performed for gatherings, picket lines, and any place where they could lend their voices in support of the social causes they believed in. Later, after World War II, many of the same people became involved in the musical organizations People&rsquos Songs and People&rsquos Artists.

In 1943, Seeger recorded in New York during a production of Earl Robinson&rsquos Lonesome Train. While recording, he stopped by Moses Asch&rsquos little studio and recorded several Spanish Civil War songs for his first acetate discs on Moses Asch&rsquos record label. This was the beginning of a very long and prolific relationship between the two men. Asch continued to record Pete during the 1950s and beyond, with Pete eventually recording over fifty records for Folkways Records. With Asch and Folkways, Pete was free to record the type of material that he felt was important to record. In 1955, he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, and was sentenced to jail. After a long fight, he was acquitted on appeal in 1962.

During the 50s and 60s, Folkways published dozens of Pete&rsquos records. While the blacklisters were worried about Seeger singing before Middle America on the television, radio, or in nightclubs, his children&rsquos records were entertaining a new generation of youngsters in schools and summer camps, where he was also known to make appearances. His great children&rsquos albums from this period remain best sellers today, including his own story Abiyoyo. His series American Favorite Ballads taught a whole generation of young Americans the great American folk songs that Seeger himself had learned.

Many of the young people who heard Seeger in the 1950s became the leaders of the &ldquofolk song revival&rdquo which began later that decade. Musicians like the Kingston Trio&rsquos Dave Guard were inspired to take up music.

Following the &rsquo62 acquittal, now able to move freely and without the cloud of prison hanging over his head, Seeger began to increase his involvement in social activism, especially the African American civil rights movement. He marched in the South with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. He gathered at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and participated in re-working the hymn &ldquoI Will Overcome&rdquo into the iconic anthem &ldquoWe Shall Overcome.&rdquo He was also a strong voice against the Vietnam War, penning great anti-war songs like &ldquoWaist Deep in the Big Muddy&rdquo and &ldquoIf You Love Your Uncle Sam (Bring &rsquoEm Home).&rdquo

The fight to protect the environment also captured of his attention. Seeger heard the phrase &ldquothink globally, act locally&rdquo and it got him thinking about his own area around Beacon, New York (Pete Seeger: The Power of Song). His home was on a hill over the Hudson River, which by the mid-1960s had become a festering, polluted mess. Seeger and friends built the sloop Clearwater and sailed up and down the river, performing and raising awareness of the problem. Ultimately, the river became cleaner and cleaner and the polluters were stopped—demonstrating what Seeger&rsquos strong-minded perseverance could accomplish.

Pete Seeger was involved in almost every important facet of American culture in the years since. He was on the board of the Newport Folk Festival and served as a board member of Sing Out!, Smithsonian Folkways, and many other organizations. He and his wife Toshi ran the Clearwater Festival in New York state each year until her passing in 2013. Just days before his passing, he participated in the yearly celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Beacon, New York. Up until the very end, he was committed to working for what he felt was right.

In defense of Pete Seeger, American communist

When the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94, remembrances of him, unsurprisingly, focused less on his music than on his social activism. All the better — Seeger, the epitome of tireless commitment to the cause, would have liked it that way.

Some comments were laudatory, praising every aspect of his advocacy. But most of them struck the balanced tone of The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, who tweeted, “I love and will miss Pete Seeger but let’s not gloss over that fact that he was an actual Stalinist.”

Such attempts at balance miss the mark. It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party he did a lot of good because he was a communist.

This point is not to apologize for the moral and social catastrophe that was state socialism in the 20th century, but rather to draw a distinction between the role of communists when in power and when in opposition. A young worker in the Bronx passing out copies of The Daily Worker in 1938 shouldn’t be conflated with the nomenklatura that oversaw labor camps an ocean away.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, time after time American communists like Seeger were on the right side of history — and through their leadership, they encouraged others to join them there.

Communists ran brutal police states in the Eastern bloc, but in Asia and Africa they found themselves at the helm of anti-colonial struggles, and in the United States radicals represented the earliest and more fervent supporters of civil rights and other fights for social emancipation. In the 1930s, Communist Party members led a militant anti-racist movement among Alabama sharecroppers that called for voting rights, equal wages for women and land for landless farmers. Prominent and unabashedly Stalinist figures such as Mike Gold, Richard Wright and Granville Hicks pushed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to be more inclusive and led the mass unionization drives of the era. These individuals, bound together by membership in an organization most ordinary Americans came to fear and despise, played an outsize and largely positive role in American politics and culture. Seeger was one of the last surviving links to this great legacy.

American communism was different during those years. It wasn’t gray, bureaucratic and rigid, as it was in the U.S.S.R., but creative and dynamic. Irving Howe thought it was a put-on, a “brilliant masquerade” that fought for the right causes but in a deceptive, opportunistic way. But there was an undeniable charm to the Communist Party — an organization that hosted youth dances and socials, as well as militant rallies — that first attracted Seeger. One need only reread the old transcripts from his 1955 run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee to see the difference between the stodginess of the interrogators and the crackling wit of the young firebrand.

Stateside communists were the underdogs, fighting the establishment for justice — the victims of censorship and police repression, not its perpetrators.

Seeger, like other party members, came to regret the illusions he held about the Soviet Union. He apologized in his autobiography “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” for thinking that “Stalin was simply a ‘hard-driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader.” But he never abandoned his commitment to organized radical politics. Along with Angela Davis and other prominent former Communist Party members, he helped form the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a democratic socialist group, in 1991.

Remarking on Seeger, Bruce Springsteen once said that “he’d be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament to the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends.”

In stark contrast to the role played by state socialists abroad, that’s a good way to describe the legacy of the Communist Party at home, a legacy Seeger never recanted.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Symphony Space

Pete invited me to perform with him several times. One special concert took place at Symphony Space in Manhattan, a benefit for the Clearwater Foundation. The show featured Suzanne Vega, Tom Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, David Amram, Loudon Wainwright III, and others, honoring our mutual friend, George Wein.

As soon as we were satisfied with the edited track we mapped out a verse-by-verse plan for overdubs. With seven verses to work with, we knew we wanted the arrangement to help tell the story, and we needed to put together a rhythm section that would be able to pick up the vibe and roll with the ebb and flow of a take that was recorded primarily on a sailing ship. We booked one overdub session with engineer Steve Addabbo. For the drummer we picked Steve Holley, who I had worked with many times and is one of the most versatile drummers around. From his early work with Elton John, then as a member of Paul McCartney's Wings, and currently on tour with Ian Hunter, the man could basically do anything. I remembered Pete's question about the beat and was glad that Steve seemed to pick out an appropriate pattern without too much trouble.

For upright bass Matthew chose Tim Luntzel, who we had seen playing all over New York. We brought in violinist Deni Bonet to fiddle in all the right places, and a choir made up of friends such as Terre Roche (of The Roches), Janice Pendarvis (singer with Sting and many others), Candy John Carr (from Donovan's "Open Road" band) and his wife Jane Cole, and Seeger superfan and sometimes live engineer Jeremy Rainer. Later in the day, the Outer Child Choir, led by Emilie Cardinaux, arrived and sang on the verse referencing "younger folks." Those kids were brilliant. The spirit and vibe of the session mirrored our day on the sloop &mdash people singing and playing around Pete, a beneficent Pied Piper, drawing people together to sing and make a difference the way he had for 60 years.

We retreated to Matthew's studio in Brooklyn, where we added some final touches: Matt's pulsing harmonica, a multi-tracked choral vocal pad, and an acoustic guitar double. At that point, we were ready to mix. With the oil spill still an unresolved and continuing disaster, we wanted to rush the song out. In my mind, that is what Pete wanted and what the idea of a topical folk song is all about &mdash a response, as well as an emotional release reflecting the news of the day, the way "Give Peace a Chance" and Pete's own "Bring 'Em Home" and other songs that appeared at the peak of a disastrous war. But, while Matthew and I were working on the track, Pete's record label, Appleseed, had been making other plans. Appleseed had brought Bruce Springsteen in to add a vocal on an album version of "God's Counting. " that Pete recorded with Lorre Wyatt. Then, due to a series of frustrating and nonsensical record label machinations, our single release was to be delayed so as not to conflict with other releases &mdash for nearly two years.

During that time, however, Pete invited me to perform with him several times, and we communicated often by phone and letter. I treasure those letters he wrote &mdash often assuring us not to worry, that our recording would be released in due time. One special concert took place at Symphony Space in Manhattan, a benefit for the Clearwater Foundation. The show featured Suzanne Vega, Tom Chapin, Arlo Guthrie, David Amram, Loudon Wainwright III, and others, honoring our mutual friend, George Wein. After the concert, we were greeted at the door by a huge group of protesters from the Occupy Wall Street Movement. As the concert ended, we all marched down the center aisle of the theatre, out the front door, and joined the group, led by Pete singing "We Shall Overcome," and many other songs, as he walked with two canes the 20 or so blocks down to Columbus Circle, while CNN and other media surrounded us. It was an inspiring evening that led Matthew and me to contribute a track "Hey, Can I Sleep on Your Futon?" for Occupy This Album, that was released soon after on Razor & Tie Records.

As November of 2012 neared, we were finally given clearance to release "God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You." Talking with Pete, we chose Election Day, November 6, 2012, to release the single on iTunes and YouTube. It truly was a "release" for us, and a thrill to finally share the track with the world although, by that time, the oil spill was no longer a topic in the news cycle. Regardless, the message resonated with Election Day, and hearing Pete's wise voice on a new recording was comforting to his fans. Nearly 100,000 have watched it on YouTube.

We stayed in touch and saw Pete perform a few more times, including at his beloved Clearwater Festival. Sadly, in the summer of 2013, Toshi passed away. Pete's health was also soon in decline and a little more than six months after her passing, he was gone. But what is really remarkable is that immortality does really exist. The lifetime of songs that Pete wrote and sang, and the very inspiration he gave to so many to sing out, really does live on in open hearts and minds. What makes the songs immortal is not just the message but the thoughtful crafting of his words and music. What makes the man immortal is that, let's face it, he was a saint.

Watch the video: Pete Seeger In His Own Words: Environment, Civil Rights, Songs, Communism, Science, 1960s 1998 (May 2022).

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