Pete Seeger's All-American Communism
David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.
In death as in life, Pete Seeger brought Americans together, then divided them into warring ideological camps. To oversimplify, one can lump the political reactions to Seeger’s death on Monday at 94 into two groups. There are those, generally on the center-left, who praise Seeger heartily, accenting his stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while quietly—if at all—acknowledging his disturbingly durable devotion to Communism. And there are those, mostly on the right, who acknowledge Seeger’s importance and praise his less political songs while arguing, in essence, that his politics sadly tainted the rest of his career.
Both approaches offer serious problems. Seeger’s political record—as a whole, not taken selectively—is exactly the point. As Andrew Cohen wrote in his appreciation, Seeger was often described as “anti-American”:
I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don't think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.
Seeger’s beliefs sometimes led him to grievously wrong conclusions, but it’s not un-American to be wrong, and that same politics is what also led him to stand up to McCarthyism, fight for the environment, and march with labor unions, too. (To which one might waggishly add, can anyone to whom Bruce Springsteen had dedicated a tribute be anything other than All-American?) Nor can one separate his music from his politics, something former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to do.
To understand why the full range of Seeger’s political activities are indivisible from his music, you have to begin with his childhood and entry in the folk scene through his parents' involvement. There’s an instructive comparison here with Nelson Mandela, whose relationship with the Communist Party was a newly contentious topic in the days after his death. Unlike Mandela, whose alliance with Communism seems to have been a brief and opportunistic response to the brutal apartheid regime, Seeger’s was deeply rooted. Unlike the rural folk musicians he emulated, Seeger was no naif. His father was a Harvard-educated musicologist and his stepmother a composer, both early folk aficionados; he himself enrolled at Harvard. Later, Seeger also worked as an intern for the great folk-song collector Alan Lomax. The recordings that early 20th century collectors made are the basis of what we now know as American music, from blues to old-time country....
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