[The following article, written by Tom Smucker, ran in The Village Voice on
October 16, 1976.]
I had a friend, about 10 years ago in Chicago, who owned a banjo, but liked classical music. So he tried to play the banjo with “classical” instruments like violas and cellos, but it never worked out right. Most of the records he bought and concerts he went to were classical, and I thought his interest in folk music had disappeared. But whenever Pete Seeger came to the Opera House, he would buy two top-priced tickets for each show. Which cost a lot of money.
I wondered why my friend would spend so much money on a type of music he wasn’t into anymore. But even though I knew his father was an old labor organizer in the steel mills, it wasn’t until I was older, and met more children and charter members of the Old Left, that I understood. Folk music, as presented by Pete Seeger, was the musical culture of the Old Left.
Southern Baptists liked to sing quaint old campmeeting rousers with a sort of rigid ragtime piano style. Mainline white suburban Protestants liked to sing old English hymns with an organ played so loud it drowned out everybody but the choir. And Old Lefties, mainly from New York, liked songs from Appalachia with banos in which the word “Jesus” was often changed to “the union.”
No one likes to bullshit more than me about left-wing sects, and how their politics and cultures differ. And it is interesting to try and figure out why folk music, of all musical styles, got associated with the Communist party, of all political groups.
Initially, as I understand it, CP music was usually performed by choral groups. At one time, in fact, there were so few native-born American members that none of the groups sang in English. So why did a movement (hopefully) of the urban proletariat choose songs of the rural “folk” as its musical mode of propaganda? I mean, it’s not automatically obvious, right? Why folk music rather than Irving Berlin parodies, let’s say?
Was it as misguided attempt at assimilation by the largely East European membership? A more subtle cultural perception that has yet to be explored? Or just that a lot of the creative folk music revival figures like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger’s father Charles found a sympathetic ear in the orbit around the CP at the time?
For whatever reason, it happened. So that if one bothers to trace it, the career of a performer like Pete Seeger follows some kind of party “line.” At an early point, Seeger and the other Almanac singers even changed their repertoire from anti-war to pro-war songs when Germany invaded Russia during World War II and voided the Hitler-Stalin pact. But in general, particularly after the 1950’s, these folksingers reflected a vaguer political and cultural consensus of those once, but not necessarily still, associated with the CP, who still identified themselves as radicals.
So much so that my banjo-playing pal, when he had apparently lost interest in “folk music” itself, still felt loyal to the representative of the culture of his childhood, Pete Seeger. Or from the opposite point of view, the people who own television stations kept him off the air for 17 years. Or as a friend of mine, who calls herself a “dirty Trot,” put it: “Ugh, that Stalinist! I used to crawl under the seat when my parents took me to his concerts.”
But enough, before everyone who can’t tell Trotsky from Stalin, or CP from SWP or UPI, quits reading this. Because, although it’s interesting that Pete Seeger represents the culture of a distinct minority group (’30s-’40s Communist), what’s more interesting to me is that you never had to be up on Old Lefty politics to be a Seeger fan.
I’m a good example. When I went to my first Pete Seeger concert, a long time ago, I couldn’t figure out how a paper called The Militant could be sold by someone who said he had just been on a peace march. I liked Pete Seeger. I didn’t understand the milieu.
There’s a definite (although flexible) political perspective at work in the man’s music. And I find it interesting to watch how he uses that perspective. But he projects his politics through music broad enough to reach people outside of his immediate political framework. Something “political” music rarely does.
So that understand the ins and outs of left-wing politics isn’t necessary for relating to his music. You can enjoy John Denver without knowing about Erhard and est. You can enjoy Pete Seeger without knowing about Browder and CPUSA.
Which doesn’t make him Elton John. He has made it into the pop heap at least twice (during the middle-’60s civil rights folk revival, and in the early ’50’s, when he was with the Weavers and they hit the top 10). But old ballads and protest songs accompanied by a five-string banjo have not remained a mainstream taste.
Still, if it wasn’t for Seeger, and later Earl Scruggs, there would be no taste for banjos at all.
“Unlike the others, who accompany themselves on guitars, Seeger strums the almost extinct long-necked banjo” noted Variety in 1947, when he debuted at the Village Vanguard. And concluded, “the lad…should make out okay.” But why did he?
For one thing, although those who commie-bait him wouldn’t suspect it, the man’s politics are fairly supple. In the course of a long conversation he volunteered that “art is ambiguous,” that “the truth is like a rabbit in a bramble patch,” and that “you have to compromise, although there’s a difference between compromising and selling out.” These are sentiments that might be forced out of a rigid left-winger. But they aren’t the kind of thing such people come up with on their own. Believe me, I know.
This suppleness has led to an interesting twist in his career over the last few years. Rather than continue with nationwide or worldwide tours much anymore, he’s been spending more time around where he lives in Beacon, New York. Or promoting ecology and a clean Hudson River on the sloop Clearwater. A boat which is not his boat, he was quick to point out. He’s just one of many owners.
When we caught up with him a few weeks ago, he showed us the volunteer people’s park he’s involved with in Beacon, with a soon-to-be-debuted nonpolluting outhouse that turns shit and garbage into humus.
And when we saw him perform, it was at a benefit for the New Haven equivalent of the Clearwater. Which was attended by about 400 people, standing in the rain.
His localism has kept him politically alert in a time when large political generalizations are in a state of bad repair because it has anchored him to a specific situation. And it has also preserved the vitality of his music.
Watching Seeger at one of his regular concerts (or “benefits for my manager,” as he calls them) can make for an enjoyable and somewhat nostalgic time. But it is hard to muster enthusiasm for many of the old songs when memories of their earlier energy are in your mind for comparison.
But watching Seeger at a benefit is watching a master at work. His self-admitted talent for “picking the right song at the right time for the right audience” comes to the fore. In a situation where many entertainers have nothing appropriate to sing (think of Leon Russell doing “Jumping Jack Flash” to aid Bangladesh), Seeger always has a song that fits. While in the context of A Cause, old worn songs like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” or even “We Shall Overcome” gain a vibrancy they would not longer have if it was just a show.”
When I told Seeger that one of his old fans said that Seeger had as much enthusiasm 25 years ago, he said “tain’t true.” But did credit what enthusiasm he had to the fact that he sang mainly now to young people at benefits. And if the energy level of the mainly young Clean Up New Haven Harbor partisans is an example then I think he’s right.
When asked where his sympathies were in the falling out between Russia and China he mentioned last year’s Puerto Rican independence rally at Madison Square Garden. “Did you notice the cries of Unidad, Unidad, that went up when people got sectarian?” he asked. “Those are my sentiments.”
So that in recent years he has taken to singing “May There Always Be Sunshine,” a Russian child’s song identified with Seeger over the years, and then whistling the tune of “Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention,” a People’s Army ditty from China.
Such a combo is something no gung-ho left-wing factionalist would ever allow. So the “Unidad” message is there. But in such a modestly stated way that someone with no interest in left-wing schisms could appreciate it. By going no further than a sort of UN brotherhood idea.
This modesty comes across as a genuine personal trait of Seeger’s when you talk to him or watch him perform. And it allows a sort of wistfulness or sorrowfulness to come out in his singing voice. This protects him from the greatest danger of singers-with-a-sense-of-values: appearing arrogant and rigid. It also gives him the appeal of tentativeness and vulnerability, both important in someone working in a spontaneous and informal art form.
But it opens him up to the most common charge thrown at him: that he’s all sweetness and light, and suffocatingly optimistic.
In fact, Seeger said that he’d gotten pessimistic, and thought there was a less than 50-50 chance that “mankind would last 200 years.” But he did appear optimistic as an individual.
There’s a fantastic picture of Seeger and his wife Toshi from a 1961 newspaper with the headline “Next Tune: Jailhouse Blues. Song Halted, Seeger Given 1-Year Term.” In it they are entering the courthouse to hear his sentencing for contempt of Congress for refusing to “answer questions about possible Red affiliations.” And they are all smiles! They look genuinely happy!
When I asked him about this he pointed out that his situation at the time wasn’t as bad as that of some others on the blacklist–because his bookings were mainly on college campuses, where students resisted pressure to “stop Reds from performing.” But he did add that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
And when I asked him about his reaction to fellow folksingers who agreed to testify before the Red-hunting congressmen, he made his only bitter or angry comment of the evening: “It’s pitiful to watch a coward run.”
If the weed-out-the-Commies movement of the 1950s left Pete Seeger with one bitter comment, it also added something to his image as a performer. It altered the adversary patriot of the ’30s and ’40s left-wing folksinger in to the embattled individual who survives. The nonconformist protester.
So that by the early ’60s there were models still intact who represented alternative cultural forms that did not deliberately exclude the mass audience. Even if they had lost or been denied that mass audience for a decade.
Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, once just communist cult figures, became role model legends, as transmitted by their still active link, Pete Seeger. And the rest is history, or at least a different article. On, say, Arlo Guthrie, or Phil Ochs.
There’s something laughable in hindsight about East Coast radicals listening to largely southern folk songs while imagining while imagining that trade unions would lead the way to a folk music revival. A milieu that knew Woody Guthrie’s Okie songs although few Okies knew them.
But with further hindsight, I wonder just how offbase they were.
I’m a firm believer that political movements have many other layers besides their politics. I think there is usually a “spiritual,” and a cultural, and a psychological layer. And a movement can hit the mark on one level while missing it on another. I wasn’t there, and I wouldn’t know for sure, but the Popular Front era of far-left politics in the 1930s and 1940s seems like such an era to me. Long after it lost its political liveliness, whatever that may have been, it remained a living source of culture. For a sort of left-wing native-American common-man affirmation. Studs Terkel’s books of “just” interviews come out of this culture, I believe. As does Pete Seeger’s music.
In the middle of ’60s, when the rock explosion absorbed and then overwhelmed the assumptions of urban folk music, it (folk music) felt to me like a superficially democratic but secretly elitist music. For those who wanted to idealize the common man, but preferred their common men to be about a thousand miles away in Appalachia, rather than next door on the Top 40.
But as the rock wave recedes, leaving only Elton John in its center (and I like Elton John, it’s just that he doesn’t mean as much as other figures used to), those musical forms that speak with a smaller, but more interesting voices become visible again. Like jazz. Or folk music.
Whether by institution, or accident, Pete Seeger and Company, in their journey through the last 40 years, have left a tradition of a sort of alternative popular song. Folk music, whatever it may be, contains within it now the possibility of expressing all sorts of peculiar estrangements from the mass. While still containing an impulse towards mass appeal.
While in country-wester music the day seems fast approaching when there will be country-western stars who are as familiar with Woody Guthrie as they are with Jimmie Rodgers.
I asked Pete Seeger what he thought about the current movies about Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and his two old associates’ imminent enshrinement as mass culture heroes. He said he liked the movies but didn’t think the music was that good. I asked what he thought about the fact that neither movie mentioned that both men came to be associated with the Communist party. And Pete Seeger said that he liked the fact that both movies ended before either man met up with the CP. Because that left room for another movie in which Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly meet each other, and the radicals.
Now that’s a movie I’d like to see: Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and the Communists. That could be interesting.
When I asked him, Pete Seeger said he had no idea who he’d want to play himself.