Forty-six years ago, Feb. 24, 1968, folk singer Pete Seeger appeared on CBS television’s “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” where he performed “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song with the refrain: “and the big fool says to push on.” Pete Seeger was singing about the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson, but the tune sums up Seeger himself better than the tide of hagiography following his recent death at 94.
Peter Seeger was born in 1919 to a musicologist father and concert violinist mother. Beyond the family musical influence, Seeger grew up in an age of evangelical communism. During the 1930s it did seem as though Western capitalism and democracy were failing, and that the future belonged to “scientific” socialism, as practiced in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Josef Stalin. Many Americans flocked to the Communist Party USA, a creation of the USSR, and its various front groups.
The eager acolytes included many in the arts, but they didn’t play by their own rules. The official line was that singers, actors, and writers were “artists in uniform” and their work had to advance the Communist cause, otherwise what they did was merely bourgeois decadence. Seeger was an artist in uniform.
In August 1939, Stalin and Adolf Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact that divided up Europe and launched World War II with the joint invasion of Poland. The invasion prompted many Americans to abandon both Communist causes and the notion that Stalin was always right.
Pete Seeger was up past his waist in all that, but like the “big fool” in his song, he decided to press on. With the Almanac Singers he recorded “Songs of John Doe,” backing the Communist Party’s official positions, and he opposed American involvement in the war against Hitler.
In 1942, Seeger formally joined the Communist Party and in 1945 became director of People’s Songs, Stalinist evangelism wrapped in populist pieties. At that time, as Bobby Gentry might say, everything was an “Ode to Uncle Joe.” Seeger was not the most talented American Stalinist, trailing Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, and others, but he never flagged in zeal.
After World War II, Stalin occupied half of Europe and set up puppet Communist regimes. That prompted many Americans on the Left — liberals and trade unionists in particular — to abandon their support for the USSR. Pete Seeger was up to his waist in that, but like the big fool in his song he pushed on. Stalin’s colonization of Eastern Europe drew not the slightest protest from the alleged champion of peace, democracy, and human rights.
Seeger supposedly left the Communist Party in 1950 for a milder brand of socialism and pro-labor activism. Stalin died in 1953 and in 1956 Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes. Though the USSR invaded Hungary that year to crush a revolt, Seeger did not champion the rebels. Seeger’s brand of “peace” turned out to be anything the USSR wanted. Throughout the Cold War, he reserved his criticism for the United States and its allies.
During the Vietnam conflict, Seeger became known as an “anti-war” troubadour, but that misses the mark. Seeger was not against war itself, just against U.S. military efforts to halt Soviet colonialism. Once a pro-Soviet regime was in place, Seeger pushed ahead on other fronts. This did not hurt him because the American ruling class has a soft spot for old Stalinists.
President Clinton awarded Seeger the National Medal of the Arts, and the Library of Congress hailed him as a “Living Legend.” And Communist dictators still loved the banjo Bolshevik.
In 1999 the Castro regime gave Seeger its highest cultural honor for his work against racism. As Cuban author Humberto Fontova put it, Seeger proudly visited the Stalinist dictator who brought the world close to nuclear war and “jailed and tortured the most black political prisoners in history.”
In 2007 Seeger attempted to make amends by composing “Big Joe Blues,” supposedly an acknowledgement that Joe Stalin, not Joe McCarthy, had been the major problem back in the day. But Seeger never released the song.
Barack Obama invited Seeger to play at his inauguration, where he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen, a big fan. Springsteen recorded the 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and introduced Seeger at Madison Square Garden, on his 90th birthday as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”
Others take a different view. P.J. O’Rourke writes that Pete Seeger is “a good folk singer, if you can stand folk singing. And he’s such an excellent banjo player that you almost don’t wish you had a pair of wire cutters. His abilities as a composer range from the fairly sublime (“Turn, Turn, Turn”) to the fairly awful (“If I Had a Hammer”) by way of the fairly ridiculous (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”).”
Those not on board with Seeger’s music can always remember the activism. In recent years, Seeger duly joined other leftist celebrities such as Oliver Stone in a campaign to “Free the Cuban Five,” operatives of the repressive Castro regime that gave Seeger a prize. Even in his emeritus years, Pete Seeger was above his waist in all that. One might even say he was full of it. But the big fool still pushed on.
Lloyd Billingsley is author of Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s (Forum/Prima).