WASHINGTON, January 29, 2014 — Longtime folk musician and activist Peter “Pete” Seeger, a legendary singer, composer, and banjo picker once dubbed “America’s most successful Commie” by the Washington Post, died in a New York City hospital on January 27. He was 94. The cause of death was not reported.
In his later years, Seeger was widely praised as an authentic American original, a folk artist whose listenable and sing-able songs and ballads appealed to young adults and children looking to live in a kinder, gentler world.
Yet for most if not all his career, Seeger was an avowed Communist, a longtime supporter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and an admirer of Fidel Castro who never repented that allegiance.
Born in 1919 in New York’s now-defunct French Hospital, he was raised in the city, the son of a pair of Juilliard music professors with leftist sympathies. His father also professed to be a pacifist who refused to support America’s entry and participation in the First World War, which led him to be dismissed from his academic job.
Raised in New York City, Mr. Seeger was the son of Juilliard School professors. His mother was a violinist; his father a composer and musicologist. His father was also an outspoken pacifist who lost his university job over his politics during World War I.
The young Pete Seeger to a remarkable degreed was cut from the same cloth as his parents. Almost instinctively, he developed rapidly as a composer, not of classical music but of songs and tunes heavily influenced by authentic American folkways. He also developed into a remarkably expressive folk singer as well as one of the top 12-string guitar performers and banjo pickers of the 20th century.
While he had entered Harvard University on scholarship, he left the school as a dropout to pursue his own political and musical interests which even included teaming up briefly with another legendary folk musician, Woody Guthrie.
Inheriting his parents’ radical politics, early in his unique career, Seeger joined the Communist party just in time to get in synch with Stalin’s secretive international “Popular Front” program. This unusually subtle plan commenced in 1935 and was meant to make use of writers, journalists and performing artists to support and popularize Stalin’s goal of fomenting a worldwide Communist revolution encompassing the West and particularly the United States.
Such activities were also codified and refined by the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, influencing, among other things, Saul Alinsky’s later “Rules for Radicals,” which remains the handbook for today’s American left.
But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Popular Front-style activities were generally subtler, particularly in the realm of music. Seeger’s down-to-earth, working-class folk songs meshed perfectly with this environment, as did the “Appalachian Spring” musical direction taken by composer Aaron Copland, a Seeger contemporary who’d actually begun his compositional career as a spiky and difficult modernist who embraced serialism.
Clearly, the Popular Front campaign fit seamlessly with Seeger’s impressive musical skill set. By the 1940s, he’d become a well-known performer via nationwide radio broadcasts, and his easily assimilated tunes and message reached a wide audience influencing a broad demographic. His popularity only increased when he became part of the folk ensemble known as the Weavers, renowned for their tight harmonies and their string of hit tunes and recordings in the early 1950s.
While Seeger’s and the Weavers’ Communist leanings were not exactly unknown, the propaganda their music frequently conveyed was usually, though not always, administered with a spoonful of sugar that made their message seem somehow less than threatening. Further, they were judicious, carefully refraining from preaching the Marxist gospel in each and every song.
Nonetheless, Seeger and the Weavers were inevitably caught in the dragnet of Senator Joseph McCarthy, leading to their blacklisting and breakup as recording artists.
Always resilient and tending to live modestly, Seeger quickly recovered his balance, performing small gigs and contracting himself to socialist summer camps for children where he performed and taught music and quietly socialist lyrics to many youngsters. Some of the youngsters Seeger educated and indoctrinated would later become prominent in the American New Left in the following decade.
An intimate snapshot of Seeger’s activities in at least one of these summer camps was documented by former leftist radical-turned neoconservative Ronald Radosh. Radosh studied the banjo with Seeger while participating in a camp program, the activities of which he later wrote about in his revealing memoir, provocatively entitled “Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).
Though unobtrusive in the main, Seeger’s political activities did not go unnoticed. His troubles with the government came to a head in 1961 when he was convicted of contempt of Congress. He was sentenced to a brief prison term that was eventually reversed on appeal, making him somewhat of a musical cause célèbre among rising New Left radicals.
Unlike many blacklisted actors, writers, musicians and artists, Seeger—given his newly acquired badge of honor for having evaded the capitalist clutches of Uncle Sam—quickly shook off the negative taint he’d acquired in the McCarthy Era to re-emerge as an authentic musical elder, folk hero, troubadour and bard for the protest generation of the 1960s.
Both he and his music, whether performed by himself or by other rising musicians such as Peter, Paul and Mary, clicked in perfectly with the 1960’s protest zeitgeist as mass movements were built in support of ending “Johnson’s War.” Additional goals of the youthful revolutionaries included ringing a curtain down on both racism and the threatened destruction of the environment by capitalist forces.
Ranging from vigorous, militant songs like “If I Had a Hammer”—composed with Lee Hays for the Weavers back in 1949—to plaintive or quasi-religious ballads and songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”—the latter of which became a monster hit in its 1965 recording by The Byrds—Seeger’s music showed up everywhere in the ‘60s and ‘70s, sung and celebrated by an amazing number of first rate performers including Seeger himself.
Over his long career, Seeger moved in and out of the public eye, spending many of his private moments in a log cabin on the Hudson that he first built during his initial encounter with fame in the 1950s.
With the media and entertainment industries themselves taking a profoundly leftward turn from the 1960s onward, Seeger eventually enjoyed the fruits of his earlier musical and political efforts. His over 100 recordings generally sold well, his songs were (and are) still sung nearly everywhere. And he was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and copped the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Award, effectively bringing him full circle with the government that had once prosecuted him.
Late in life, criticized publicly for his nearly lifelong support of Stalinism by his former banjo student Ronald Radosh, Seeger expressed genuine regret for what he regarded as his unfortunate former position. But to the end, he never repented his support for other leftist dictators like Fidel Castro.
Yet like his exact political opposite, American poet Ezra Pound—who notoriously supported Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy—Seeger’s understandable but troubling attraction to Marxism seems already to have faded considerably in the public view. A pair of American originals, both Pound and Seeger are now more likely to be remembered in future years for the timeliness, quality and influence of their art.