Pete Seeger has died. He was 94.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I grew up on Pete Seeger’s music; after rediscovering him as an adult, so did my kids.
We never stop growing up, or shouldn’t. But I wonder if Pete Seeger did. There was always a simpleness to him (different from simplicity, which can be very difficult to achieve), which would certainly appeal to children. When he sang American folk songs, they were tuneful, funny, superficial. If he sang “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”, for example, it was about some nameless, faceless woman driving six white horses around a mountain (when she gets around to it).
It’s not about what it was really about.
“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” (also sometimes called simply “Coming ‘Round the Mountain”) is a traditional African-American folk song often categorized as children’s music. It is a derivation of a “spiritual” song known as “When the Chariot Comes”.
The song refers to the Second Coming of Christ and subsequent Rapture. The she refers to the chariot the returning Christ is imagined as driving.
O, who will drive the chariot When she comes? O, who will drive the chariot When she comes? O, who will drive the chariot, O, who will drive the chariot, O, who will drive the chariot When she comes?
King Jesus, he’ll be driver when she comes, When she comes . . . .
She’ll be loaded with bright Angels When she comes . . . .
She will neither rock nor totter, When she comes . . . .
She will run so level and steady, When she comes . . . .
She will take us to the portals, When she comes . . . .
To be fair to Pete, who knows anything about that (save Neil Young on his recent disc of reinterpretations of such songs)? That song, like so many traditional songs, has been neutered by “the folk process” (as fellow Weaver Lee Hays termed the laundering of original intent from traditional material).
Speaking of Lee Hays, the troubled but brilliant (absolutely brilliant) Weaver, see how he completely nails Seeger in this transcript of a clip from the documentary about the Weavers, Wasn’t That a Time?
[PETE:] All I know about woody’s “relativity song” is there’s nothing he didn’t write about, including relativity. And he got a big kick out of this one.
? I can’t go east or west I can’t go north or south
I can’t go up or down but I can still go round and round
I can still go round and round
I can still go round and round
You can tell old albert einstein
I can still go round and round
[LEE: T]here’s something left out of here. If we looked in the Woody literature, I swear to God he had, “I can still go in and out,” which was the thing that tickled him most, right?
[LEE:] You left that out.
[PETE:] I don’t ever remember it.
[LEE:] That was the whole point of the song. Woody’s relativity song…it’s really a song about how to make relatives. But I can still go in and out. He thought that was great.
The moment passes quickly, but if you’re paying attention (and if you know there had been friction between Hays and Seeger over the years), you see how either deaf or in denial Pete was to the ribaldry in Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. Instead of a song about boinking, it’s a song about… nothing. Like the worst part of folk music, so perfectly sent up Christopher Guest in A Mighty Wind, “rambling”, going “round and round” is a laudable activity. What does it even mean?
As his musical style was simple, so were his politics:
Just when you thought Occupy Wall Street hadn’t a single new idea in its pretty little empty head, the geniuses dust off the old banjo Bolshevik. From The New York Times, “Pete Seeger Leads Protesters, On Foot And In Song“:
Mr. Seeger, whose activist credentials go back at least as far as a benefit concert that he and Woody Guthrie did for California migrant workers in 1940 and who wrote or helped write populist ballads like like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer,” …set off south, walking at a brisk pace and accompanied by a crowd of about 600, some of them carrying placards declaring support for the self-declared 99 percent that have been occupying Zuccotti Park for five weeks…
“He’s a symbol of the peace movement,” said one of the marchers, Larry Manzino, a retired research scientist from Piscataway, N.J. “He’s a guy who never caved, a guy who had integrity, a guy who stood up and said no when he had to.”
“A guy who had integrity” is leftie code for “didn’t repudiate Stalin until half-a-century after the old monster had died”, as Seeger belatedly did in 2009. “Activist credentials” is the preferred New York Times euphemism for being reliably wrong on every single issue for the last 70 years, starting with his opposition to the Second World War. (Not to mention he ripped off Solomon Linda, the black South African author of “Wimoweh”, who died penniless. Because, unlike poor Mr Linda, Mr Seeger was shrewd enough to have a – what’s the word? – “corporation” to protect his business interests.)
But good for OWS at finally finding the perfect soundtrack for its fresh youthful idealism. I believe Pete serenaded the Zuccotti Park crowd with his searing protest song, “Where Have All The Showers Gone?”
Didn’t know that about Seeger? Mark Steyn elaborates:
One must congratulate the old banjo-picker on making it to four score and ten, which is a lot older than many “dissenting artists” made it to under the regimes he’s admired over the years. Two years ago in The New York Sun, you’ll recall, Ron Radosh had a notable scoop: Hold the front page! Stop the presses! Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates…
Who? Castro? Chavez? Al-Qaeda?
Whoa, let’s not rush to judgment. No, the big story was: Grizzled Leftie Icon Repudiates … Stalin.
Anyway, in the Sun, Mr Radosh, a former banjo pupil of the great man, did dwell on it, and a few weeks later got a letter in response. “I think you’re right,” wrote Pete. “I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” And he enclosed a new song he’d composed:
I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe
He ruled with an iron hand
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land
He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race
Instead he set it back
Right in the same nasty place
I got the Big Joe Blues (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast)
I got the Big Joe Blues (Do this job, no questions asked)
I got the Big Joe Blues…
It’s heartening to see that age (he’s now 88) hasn’t withered Seeger’s unerring instinct for bum rhymes (“fast/asked”). Still, Ron Radosh was thrilled that, just 54 years after the old brute’s death, a mere three-quarters of a century after the purges and show trials and whatnot, the old protest singer had finally got around to protesting Stalin, albeit somewhat evasively: He put the human race “right in the same nasty place”? Sorry, not good enough. Stalin created whole new degrees of nastiness. But, given that the guy got the two great conflicts of the 20th century wrong (in 1940, he was anti-war and singing “Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D/Both agree on killing me”), it’s a start. I can’t wait for his anti-Osama album circa 2078.
America has no “best-loved Nazi” or “best-loved Fascist” or even “best-loved Republican”, but its best-loved Stalinist stooge is hailed in his dotage as a secular saint who’s spent his life “singing for peace”. He sang for “peace” when he opposed the fascistic armaments stooge Roosevelt and imperialist Britain, and he sang for “peace” when he attacked the Cold War paranoiac Truman, and he kept on singing for “peace” no matter how many millions died and millions more had to live in bondage, and, while that may seem agreeably peaceful when you’re singing “If I Had A Hammer” in Ann Arbor, it’s not if you’re on the sharp end of the deal thousands of miles away.
Explaining how Stalin had “put an end to the dreams” of a Communist utopia, Seeger told Ron Radosh that he’d underestimated “how the majority of the human race has faith in violence”. But that isn’t true, is it? Very few of us are violent. Those who order the killings are few in number, and those who carry them out aren’t significantly numerous. But those willing to string along and those too fainthearted to object and those who just want to keep their heads down and wait for things to blow over are numbered in the millions. And so are those many miles away in the plump prosperous western democracies who don’t see why this or that dictator is their problem. One can perhaps understand the great shrug of indifference to distant monsters. It’s harder, though, to forgive the contemporary urge to celebrate it as a form of “idealism”.
James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, once offered this trenchant analysis of Pete Seeger:
‘If I Had A Hammer’? Well, what’s stopping you? Go to the hardware store; they’re about a buck-ninety, tops.
[T]hey’re dopey nursery-school jingles, but that’s why they’re so insidious. The numbing simplicity allows them to be passed off as uncontentious unexceptionable all-purpose anthems of goodwill. Which is why you hear “This Land Is Your Land” in American grade schools, but not “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture. Seeger’s hymn to the “senselessness” of all war, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, combined passivity with condescension – “When will they ever learn?” – and established the default mode of contemporary artistic “dissent”. Mr Seeger’s ongoing veneration is apparently indestructible. But at least we now know the answer to the question “When will he ever learn?”
At least half-a-century too late.
Pete Seeger was willing to sacrifice for his beliefs (blacklists, lost sales, etc.), something worth admiring. But the beliefs themselves were not always so meritorious. Steyn cites his antiwar anthems and his support for the Occupy Movement. Add overpopulation (We’ll All Be a-Doubling), waste and recycling (Garbage! Garbage! Garbage!), and a few other liberal shibboleths, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty crackpot canon.
I still have a love for him, from so many years of association. And his music is a peek into the leftist mindset from even sixty, seventy years ago. The Weavers used to sing lots of Israeli folksongs, for example, celebrating “the new state”. Who knew the Left once embraced the Zionist entity, however briefly, however distantly?
But there was so much to repudiate from those times. Maybe he shouldn’t have been blacklisted for singing about the scandalous hammer shortage afflicting the nation, but anyone with a brain or a heart (either one!) should have seen Stalin was a dangerous criminal from the moment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. An apology from 2009 is seventy years late by my count. Big Joe Blues is an obscenity: after decades, Pete, it wasn’t about Big Joe anymore, it was about you. You backed a monstrous man and a monstrous ideology, but rejected only one. It’s going to take a lot of hammers to knock that out of my head.