Does Anyone Really Enjoy Pete Seeger?
So the Los Angeles Times headlined its big story about yesterday pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial with this misleading title: "Big stars rock the Lincoln Memorial." Sure, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Beyonce, etc. were all there and are indeed all big rock stars. But so was folk mummy Pete Seeger, who is the musical equivalent of spinach. He's the Jeff Lynne of folk; always somehow in the room but clearly nobody's favorite. (And let's not even get into his questionable reaction to Dylan going electric).
In any case, Seeger, says the Times, engaged "the crowd in a sing-along of Woody Guthrie's iconic folk song 'This Land Is Your Land.'" There's another bad song on its face (does anyone really like it, or do you simply suffer it, like going to church?)—and in its history, too. As Reason's Jesse Walker pointed out a while back:
"Guthrie's unifying message" has already been corrupted quite a bit over the years, given that "This Land Is Your Land" was a Marxist protest song originally written as an answer to "God Bless America." If it's Guthrie's message that moves you, then reflect on two verses that most singers leave out:
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
Hardly anyone sings the last verse anymore. Some performers do include the one before it, but they usually substitute the phrase "no trespassing" for "private property."
And if you need more reasons to dislike Seeger (besides his discography of course), there's his suspiciously timed turnabout regarding U.S. entry into World War II. As part of the Stalinist singing group, the Almanac Singers, Seeger recorded an album lobbying against U.S. involvement in the war while the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had a peace treaty. Once Hitler invaded Russia, the band pulled their album from the market and issued a pro-war one. More here:
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.
Update: Below is footage of yesterday's "This Land" performance, which does indeed include the "private property" stanza. And, I think, further underscores my evaluation of Seeger as a musical tool.