arts / Christianity / Communism

Pete Seeger: He was a friend of mine

Adulation, denigration:
They’re two sides of the very same coin.
Both a con to keep you under,
Both a trick to do you down.
History’s made by human people,
praise the good and love the small.
One man can accomplish nothing,
many make the tyrants fall.

Seeger cartoon

I wrote the words at the top of this page at the conclusion of my song, Djugashvili, about Josef Stalin, and I think they could be applied equally well to Pete Seeger (and to another secular saint, Nelson Mandela, come to that).

The remarkable thing about Seeger was that while he was dismissed by later folk hardliners as a self-created “Big Buddy”, he never actually pretended to be other than what he was: a complex, difficult, sometimes even waspish individual, never afraid to espouse an unpopular cause, but with a warm-hearted acceptance of difference.

When I became a Christian, he drew my attention to Christian communist texts, and invited me to criticise his own work.
Here, for instance, is a note he enclosed with one of his many songbooks.

Seeger note

Here’s an obituary I wrote for the Guardian morgue – the cache of obituaries to have on file in case of death – but rejected by them in 1997, because, they said, it was too personal:

OpenQuotesIn a very real sense all in modern popular music are Peter Seeger’s children, as the fanzine writer, Jon Pankake, once pointed out, and not merely those who got themselves a five-string banjo, lengthened the neck as Pete advised, and worked hard to get the audience to sing along with some folk song picked up from Africa, Indonesia or Middle America. Eclectically cosmopolitan in his tastes long before the phrase “world music” had been coined, committed to radical causes long before the young activists of the universities joined the Civil Rights campaigns of Martin Luther King, turned on to the blues when it was still stuck in the ghetto, hitting the charts when most folk balladeers were trying to be John Jacob Niles or Peter Peers, he ploughed and planted a furrow that has nurtured more branches of pop than any other single musician, songwriter, or singer.

Without Peter Seeger, there might never have been a Bob Dylan to be turned on to the untidy ballads of Woody Guthrie, published by the People’s Songs organisation he ran for just three short years in the late Forties (though their magazine, Sing Out!, survives to this day). Without his espousal of the 12-string guitar as played by Huddie Ledbetter, and its use to accompany songs like his setting of verses from Ecclesiastes (Turn, Turn, Turn), it’s unlikely that Roger McGuinn   and the Byrds would have had neither the lyric or the Rickenbacker electric 12-string to fire their beginnings of folk rock.

Yet, despite his “nice guy” image, and the warmth with which he could surround audiences throughout the world, he was quite a hard man to get close to, one who could be spiky and uncompromising on a personal level.

David King Dunaway tells the story, in his biography, How Can I Keep From Singing, of how Pete once smashed up his own banjo in rage when people kept urging him to loosen up and drink at an after-concert party when he didn’t want to.

I recall that when his manager, Harold Leventhal, and his UK publisher, David Platz, borrowed my flat in Bloomsbury for a party in his honour, laying on a bunch of professional caterers to handle the food, Pete arrived, took one look at the spotless linen and silver candelabra, and walked straight out again. He wouldn’t come back until the napery had been hidden away.

Yet this was the man whose folk group, the Weavers, used to don black tie and dinner jackets to sing to the Café Society crowd at places like Ciro’s in Hollywood and plush joints in Reno, Nevada. Only a few months earlier, of course, they’d been rained with rotten tomatoes when singing for the American Labor Party from the back of a truck.

When I devoted an entire issue of my Folk Music magazine to “Seeger, negative and positive”, he promptly offered me an article savagely attacking his lack of artistic merit, one it turned out he had written himself. I turned him down, but it was later published in Sing Out!.

He was less than fair to himself, for at the height of his powers he had a rich, baritone voice (extending to a fantastic falsetto in songs like Solomon Linda’s Wimoweh), and an instinct for the dynamics of a song which made him one of the best singing story-tellers there’s ever been. Even in the closing years of his life, when his voice was shot, his rapport with his audiences could carry him through – that, and his enthusiastic instrumental playing.

As well as the banjo and 12-string guitar, he also popularised the halil, or Palestinian flute, and for a time used to accompany his performances of black worksongs by chopping through a log with an axe. Thanks to this powerful piece of music theatre (and a dangerous one, too, if you were sitting in the front row and dodging the flying splinters), to this day guitars call their instruments an axe, though I don’t expect they know why.

He also played a significant part in popularising Caribbean steel pan music, shooting an early instructional film on how to make and play them.

He was a great encourager of others, both through his quickly written instructional manuals (which he was always lamenting he didn’t have time to revise, even when they were selling in their thousands), and by postcards sent from wherever he happened to be, commenting on that new song you’d sent him, or sending a cutting about something he knew you were interested in.

And, of course, he was an incorrigible radical, who didn’t abandon his radicalism when he left the US Communist Party, nor when the McCarthyite blacklist made the million-selling Weavers non-persons in the fickle world of show business. Like Paul Robeson, his passport problems sparked off an international campaign for his freedom to travel, a battle he won without ever compromising his principles.

During the last years of his life , starting in 1968, he devoted much of his energy to ecology, and in particular to the cleaning up of the Hudson, which ran near his home in Beacon, New York. He fostered the building of a 106-foot sloop, the Clearwater, and crewed it with people like Rambling Jack Elliot, the New York cowboy (and precursor of Dylan in adopting Woody Guthrie’s hobo image), and the Geordie shantyman from England, Louis Killen.

At a time when student radicals were being shot down in Kent State, and the FBI was systematically targeting the Black Panthers, Seeger’s change of emphasis dismayed some of his radical friends.

But, once again, he was ahead of his time, and the Clearwater campaign (“The price of liberty is eternal publicity,” he quipped, looking up at the helicopters hovering over the launch of the sloop) led where many others have followed.

CloseQuotesYes, even Swampy and the ecowarriors, they too are Pete Seeger’s children.

He suffered terribly, both professionally and personally,  by his refusal to turn his back on his friends on the left during the McCarthyite years, and was hauled before the misnamed Un-American Activities Committee to answer for this. There’s a story that he got out his banjo and started to sing to them (it would have been typical of the man that this might well have happened), but the Congressional record does not bear this out.

He did say to them:

“I have sung for almost every religious group in the country, from Jewish and Catholic, and Presbyterian and Holy Rollers and Revival Churches, and I do this voluntarily. I have sung for many, many different groups-and it is hard for perhaps one person to believe, I was looking back over the twenty years or so that I have sung around these forty-eight states, that I have sung in so many different places.

“I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them.”

He was found in contempt of and sentenced to prison, thouh this was not carried out.

Our most notable falling out was when he allowed himself to become associated with the racist (but supposedly ecological) programme of the Israeli Arava Institute.

I wrote to him, asking that he reconsider, in the following terms:

Dear Pete Seeger:

I have been your friend and admirer for nearly half a century. Like hundreds of thousands throughout the world, I have been inspired by your example as a singing campaigner for peace, justice, and freedom. We cheered when you challenged the Un-American Activities Committee, taking your banjo and music into the courtroom. When they took away your passport, we campaigned for your right to travel, and when at last you were able to visit London, I was proud to welcome you into my home.

I know you support the work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in the occupied territories, and that you donate some of your song royalties to them.

This is why, when you decided to participate in the so-called “Virtual Rally for a Better Middle East” on November 14, organised by the Zionist Arava Institute, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. While it seemed to me to be a serious error, I hoped that you would use this platform to stand up for the Bedouin people, who are being driven from their ancestral lands in the Negev desert and East Jerusalem.

The Arava Institute, and its partner organisation, the Jewish National Fund, are complicit in  this ethnic cleansing. They are planting fast-growing pine trees on the ruins of demolished Bedouin villages, destroying the ecology of the region.

Having tuned into your webcast, I have to say my hopes that you would speak out for these persecuted people were terribly disappointed.

You sang us two songs, one about the way population is doubling all the time, the other in memory of the peaceful non-violent resistance of Dr Martin Luther King jnr. And you also spoke of the necessity for dialogue. (You did not mention  that Dr King was killed because of the dialogue he had entered into with the Black Muslim leader, Malcolm X.)

I wonder, when the mob at Peekskill were throwing rocks at you and spitting racist abuse at Paul Robeson, did you speak of dialogue with them? You sang of holding the line. When Dr King was murdered, did you enter into dialogue with his killers? Would you have dialogue with the Ku Klux Klan? Did you use the webcast to dialogue with those who are carving up Palestine into a series of tiny Bantustans, separated by roads were forbidden to the indigenous population of that colonised land?

No, you did not.

I have some experience of dialogue in this region. When I met my first Israeli soldier, who was guarding an apartment block where the inhabitants were confined to their homes 24/7 and even their children were forbidden to go out to play, I greeted him with “shalom” (peace), and asked him how he was. “I wish I wasn’t here,” he said.

My hearing was damaged by an Israeli stun grenade so that it is difficult now for me to sing in tune. Why? Because I was trying to get relief for 20 inhabitants of another apartment block, confined to one room without any water or toilet facilities.

I have met with the Combatants for Peace, the organisation of former Israeli soldiers and their antagonists in  the Palestinian resistance, who are engaging in true dialogue, not uttering platitudes about how the murderers and their victims ought to shake hands and be nice to each other.

I love and admire you, Pete, but sometimes it is necessary to lay the hard word on those we love. Call it tough love.

When you sang about laying down the gun, whom were you addressing, the misnamed Israeli “Defence” Force, or the families attempting to defend the brothers and sisters of the 500 or so children who were killed by them during the assault on Gaza?

Long ago, you taught us the words of the song by the Kentucky miner’s wife, Florence Reece, set to an old Scottish folk tune: Which side are you on?

Which side are you on today, Pete? That’s what I and thousands of others throughout the world, who urged you to boycott this phoney “peace” initiative, want to know. More importantly, it’s how history will judge us all, in the end.

I appended fifty or so pages of evidence, and he sent me back a note:

Seeger response to open letter

It was reported in the Israeli press on March 1, 2011, that:

“Seeger withdrew his support of a project associated with the Jewish National Fund’s American branch, after Israeli and Palestinian activists told him of the JNF’s role in driving the Bedouins out of their Negev areas.

“After a meeting with Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions co-ordinator Jeff Halper, Seeger reportedly said his participation in the JNF project had been misunderstood and announced his support for BDS” (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign).

We also corresponded after the New Statesman published words of his song, Big Joe Blues.

The words as published in the New Statesman, go as follows:

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.

I wrote to the magazine as follows:

“I am saddened by Seeger’s song. Not because the horrors it documents are not true, but because by personalising them in the shape of Stalin, he actually absolves from guilt the apparatchiki who sent people to the gulags. It should be remembered that Khrushchev, whose speech to the 20th CPSU Congress began the process of the demonisation of Stalin (a denunciation, we should always remember, which was circulated by the United States Information Service who rightly saw it as a valuable weapon in the Cold War), that same Khrushchev presided over the famine in the Ukraine. When Stalin died, Khrushchev crowed: The mice have got rid of the cat. What do we think he meant by that?

“The way in which Stalin attempted to protect artists like Bulgakov, Mandelstam and Pasternak from the Politburo bureaucrats is well documented.

“After the fall of Nazism, attempts to blame the Holocaust solely upon Hitler were rightly recognised as attempts to evade responsibility for their part in it; those who try to suggest the gulags were the sole responsibility of Stalin are playing the same role.

“When Stalin’s death was announced, many of his ‘victims’ in the gulags wept. They did not blame him for their incarceration. Do we, and my old friend Pete, presume to be wiser than they?”

I sent him a copy of my letter, together with Djugashvili, my own song about Stalin (from which the words at the top of this page come) and he promptly responded:


woody-and-seeger_4Woody Guthrie and Pete

Pete and the Weavers sing

Though Pete’s opposition to violence has been well documented, a few years back he appeared in a video where he declared: “Sometimes you’ve got to stop singing, and pick up a stone.”

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