This Machine Loves Communists: Happy 140th Birthday, Pete!


In honor of yet another Pete Seeger birthday, a roundup of previous Reason pot-shots at the cuddly old commie's politics, awful back catalog of NLF ballads, and his difficult 2007 decision to denounce Josef Stalin.

First up, Nick Gillespie on Seeger's performance at the Obama inauguration:

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)…

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

Brian Doherty, in a blog post wonderfully titled "If I Had a Hammer (And Sickle), excerpts a column from David Boaz on "the old, but still interesting, topic of why the modern press gives commies better press than they give Nazis, hooked to the New Yorker's recent Pete Seeger profile."

Jesse Walker on the folkery-fakery and irritating earnestness of Steve Earle's recent records, in the fine tradition of Seeger:

The song is called "Steve's Hammer (For Pete)," and it's not hard to figure out who Pete is: The folk singer Pete Seeger was slinging the same bludgeon when he wrote "If I Had a Hammer" in 1949. The left-libertarian critic Dwight Macdonald once said that Seeger favored "all the right Causes from getting out of Vietnam to getting into ecology. But they're folkery-fakery for all that." Earle, 53, is a gifted songwriter, and he made some of the finest country and rock records of the '80s and '90s. But he's come down with Seeger's folkery-fakery disease.

Back in 2007, I wrote about Seeger's slightly delayed disavowal of Josef Stalin:

Banjo-pickin' lefty Pete Seeger has written a song condemning Stalin-sixty-plus years after his death. According to historian Ron Radosh, Seeger sent him a letter acknowledging his pro-Soviet credulity, agreeing that on his guided tours of the country he "should have asked to see the gulags." Seeger attached the lyrics to a new song about Stalin, "The Big Joe Blues"…

Last week, the New York Times defended Seeger against Radosh's charge that the singer was only now repenting. Under the unironic headline "This Just In: Pete Seeger Denounced Stalin Over a Decade Ago," Times journo Daniel Wakin says that "Mr. Seeger, 87, made such statements years ago, at least as early as his 1993 book, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" In the book, he said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he had apologized "for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader."

At least as early as 1993? Merely a "cruel misleader?" Not exactly a full-throated condemnation, Dan.

Speaking of Radosh, who learned banjo from Seeger, he reminds his blog readers of this 1995 piece from columnist Steve Chapman, "America Honors its Troubadour of Totalitarianism":

He was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, but his agenda was not quite the same as that of Eugene McCarthy or Jesse Jackson. In 1970, he wrote a song celebrating the North Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh that included these memorable lines: "He educated all the people, he demonstrated to the world: If a man will stand for his own land, he's got the strength of 10."…

For his entire career, Seeger's art has been a weapon in the service of a cause that has produced more suffering, destroyed more lives and piled up more corpses than any other form of government in human history.

Somehow, a few nice tunes don't seem to make up for all that.

Happy birthday, comrade!