Pete Seeger: Secular Saint & Sinner


Weston, VT:  Before a summer storm 9/5/11
Weston, VT: Before a summer storm 9/5/11

          ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.’  So begins George Orwell’s ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ (1949).

           Pete Seeger, who has died at 94, has received many obituaries offering him up for secular canonisation – but some not.  I won’t digest them here, but I do want to riff on a couple of points.

 Seeger the Populariser

           Many people didn’t much like Seeger’s voice or banjo picking.

           Rather, it was his genius – marked always by patience, generosity and credit where it was due – for adapting, synthesising and presenting that kept me, for one, listening to him and reading him for 55 years – on music, politics, the environment and the ethics of living.  Rolling Stone and the New York Times especially got this.

          Into great old age, it was his tirelessness advocacy and deep understanding of his audience that made Seeger a consumate political figure – for such he was.

           My favorite Seeger musical performance, by far, is his version of ‘Banks of Marble’, a song Woody Guthrie (whose lasting fame Seeger did much to assure) would have been proud to write.  (It is, ironically, best appreciated in an article on Leonard Cohen’s approach to the same song.) Written by his neighbor across the Hudson, Les Rice, an apple farmer, it is as powerful a social justice anthem as any I know.  And Seeger nails it.

 Ive travelled round this country
From shore to shining shore.
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer,
Ploughing sod and loam;
I heard the auction hammer
A-knocking down his home.

 But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for.

Seeger & Communism

           In Boston parlance, Pete Seeger was ‘a stand-up guy’.  Not only did he speak out and sing out, he stood out for the progressive causes and the kinds of music I support.

           But one thing he stood up for was utterly wrong.

           Even his laudatory obits mentioned his allegiance to Stalin’s version of Communism (which the Communist Party USA supported) enduring well past the time its nature was clear.

           In my mind, it was one thing to be a Comintern Communist before the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact that led, nine days later, to the Nazi attack on Poland and seventeen days to the Soviets taking what remained.  It was a very different thing to be one ten years later.

 Before HUAC

           Nonetheless, I find much to admire in Seeger’s involuntary appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955.  The questions it asked, which Seeger declined to answer, related to his appearances on behalf of the Communist Party USA in 1947-49.

           Dahlia Lithwick (one of the best journalists around) wrote in Slate of Seeger’s testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955.  She reprints (as others have) this exchange between Seeger and HUAC Chairman Francis Walter (D-PA):

 MR. SEEGER: I will tell you what my answer is.

 (Witness consulted with counsel [Paul L. Ross].)

I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours … that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

 CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?         

 MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

 CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.

           On this exchange, I’ve said elsewhere, ‘The reason [Pete Seeger] means so much to us, to me, is because he set the bar so high for himself, for us, for me.  In this exchange, he said all that had to be said.’

           I was wrong.  For in Seeger’s full testimony, which Lithwick reprints, there is much more which speaks to us today.

           But the transcript also reveals a witness well prepared for his audiences – that in the hearing room and the much larger one who’d read his words.  For all the substantive merits of Seeger’s positions, we’re reading a performance by an artist/politician who knew the importance of sticking to his lines.

 Seeger’s Hammer

           Toward the close of his HUAC testimony comes this:

MR. SEEGER: I shall [be] glad to answer about the song [‘If I had a Hammer’], sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.


 CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

 MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

           I admire Seeger’s answers.  They’re right; they’re what I believe should be the law.  But with the Patriot Act and its aiding terrorist groups felonies, a Seeger of today would be facing a seven plus year term in the Super Max, as I wrote here.

           After a couple of readings, Seeger’s testimony feels a bit like the speaking of Truth to power by soon-to-be martyrs in the religious books of my childhood.  There is even an echo of Christ before Pilate.  I never found those speeches convincing, so Seeger’s testimony leaves me with gnawing reservations.

No Fifth Amendment Refuge

           Early on, Seeger had told the Committee:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

 Later comes this:

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer that question [about whether he’d played at a US Communist Party event in 1948].

 MR. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer, sir.

 MR. [GORDON H.] SCHERER [(R-OH)]: Let me understand. You are not relying on the Fifth Amendment, are you?

 MR. SEEGER: No, sir, although I do not want to in any way discredit or depreciate or depredate the witnesses that have used the Fifth Amendment, and I simply feel it is improper for this committee to ask such questions.

 Very brave, very honorable, that.  And, he makes an emphatic assertion about the innocence of his actions.

           Seeger must have known to the audience that mattered – the public – asserting one’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself under oath was an admission of guilt.  He took a huge gamble by refusing to answer outside the Fifth Amendment’s shield.  Because he didn’t answer in 1955, says Lithwick:

Seeger was later indicted by a federal jury on 10 counts of contempt of Congress.  He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 10 concurrent one-year prison terms, which he never served.  In 1962, the convictions were overturned. [Links added.]

           Had he lost this gamble on innocence, he might have joined the blacklisted whose careers were ended.  Instead, he won.  The payoff was a magnificent career of service.

The Times, They Had Changed

           But, I remain troubled.

           Not long ago, I read Karl Schlögel’s Moscow 1937 (2012) about the first year of Stalin’s Great Terror.  I wrote about it here.  In preparation for a long piece on Moscow 1937, I reread sections of Roy A. Medvedev’s Let History Judge (1971), on its publication a shocking treatment of the Stalin era by a Soviet historian.  I have been too shaken to write the piece I’d planned.

           In 1947-49, Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union.  Evidence of his evil was everywhere about Seeger:  from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) to the stories of displaced persons coming from camps across the American, British and French zones of occupied Europe to the refugees arriving in New York….

 Saints & Guilt

           That long commitment to Stalinism taints Pete Seeger’s legacy, just as anti-Muslim bias poisons Mohandas Gandhi’s.  Still, Orwell’s final sentence on Gandhi in 1949 applies equally to Seeger:

…one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!