Pete Seeger’s break with Stalinism

January 28, 2014 at 8:28 am (anti-fascism, civil rights, culture, good people, history, Jim D, music, protest, song, stalinism)

The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).

I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:

Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear

I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.

Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing,  hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!

Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…

…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.

So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin 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./(Keepyour 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”.

According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.

Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s

* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is  apocryphal.

25 Comments

  1. Jason Schulman said,

    Seeger left the CPUSA in 1949. He was a member for, at most, seven years. He supported Solidarnosc in the early 1980s. He called himself a “communist with a small ‘c’.” And the “legendary attempt” to cut Dylan’s cables never took place.

    Before you start typing, Jim, you might want to get the facts right.

    • James Robb said,

      Jason, leaving the CPUSA does not necessarily mean breaking with the politics of Stalinism.

      • Jason Schulman said,

        I guess you read only my first sentence. I recommend reading the other ones.

        It’s public knowledge that Seeger was anti-Stalinist from the 1950s onward. One might argue that he could’ve been louder about it before 1982. He did argue with friends who remained in the CPUSA about Stalin.

        I just find it ignorant, at best, to imply that Seeger was a Stalinist for decades and decades.

    • Mike Killingworth said,

      A lot of people joined the Communist Party during World War II (the USSR and USA were allies, after all) who would never have done so at any other time.

      Since there is no agreed definition of “Stalinist” (or “Trotskyist” come to that) may I say that I consider myself to be one on even-numbered days, whilst using it as a term of abuse on odd-numbered ones.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      But if you were going to leave the CPUSA at all doing so in 1949 at the very point when McCarthyism was destroying the lives and careers of people who remained loyal to it strikes me as actually rather dishonourable…..

      And there were people who were expelled by communist parties – most notably the CPUSA former leader Earl Browder – who continued to argue for Stalinism.

      Hell, every Gulag memoir I’ve ever read has communist inmates whose faith in Stalin remained entirely unshaken by their experiences and who expected to be shortly rehabilitated.

      Serious socialists who lived through 1939, 1956 and 1968 took strong positions for and against Stalinism for which they paid a real price.

      Seeger however just seems to have drifted along beloved by all and seemingly only made any real statement on Stalin after the last vestiges of his system had been destroyed in the early 90s and there was hardly anyone left to offend.

      • jschulman said,

        This is all slander against someone whose influence in the United States was all to the good.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        ‘All to the good?’

        All real political lives are balance sheets.

        Seeger was not a banjo-picking saint.

        Over a long, long active life he did an enormous amount of good.

        But in 1939-41 when the Nazis were enslaving Europe he was recording songs attacking Roosevelt for aiding Britain and following the CPUSA line of revolutionary defeatism doing everything in his admittedly limited power to sabotage the struggle against fascism.

        That along with the rest of his long period as a Stalinist fellow traveller can be forgiven but it should never be forgotten.

      • jschulman said,

        Nearly one million people went through the CPUSA. They got duped. Should they have gotten down on their knees and apologized for it?

        Where’s the evidence that Seeger was a Stalinist fellow-traveler for decades?

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Never said decades – just ‘long’

        However he joined the YCL in 1936 and was following the party line slavishly when he wrote ditties denouncing the imperialist war in 1940.

        By his own much, much later account he only ‘started drifting away’ from the CPUSA in 1949.

        So if we are to trust that statement that is at least 13 years of being a party member or fellow traveller.

        Whereas many other CPers and fellow travellers left and denounced the party in waves over 1956 and 1968 I can find no reference to Seeger doing so.

        And for him to not be a fellow traveller after 1949 you need to provide some firmer evidence than his own vague statements that he had ‘drifted away’ at some poorly defined point.

        However for me being his being a communist is not the problem – quite the contrary – it’s his claiming to have been an anti-Stalinist without having evidently done anything anti-Stalinist until it was long past mattering.

        Had he denounced publicly the Soviet actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 or 1968 as so many other CPers and fellow travellers actually did at often considerable personal cost that might have made some small difference at least within the American left.

        But he apparently did no such thing – but did tour the USSR where he was presumably lionised.

        And his lack of political seriousness can be seen in his 2007 statement to Ronald Radosh that he wished that when he was in the USSR in 1965 he’d asked to see the gulags – if he’d been paying any attention at all he would have known that the actual gulag system was closed down under Krushchev so they would hard put to find him one.

  2. Pete Seeger’s break with Stalinism | OzHouse said,

    […] Jan 28 2014 by admin […]

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Fair points, Jason: I was aware that PS had left the CPUSA in the 50s, which is why I wrote that “some said” he’d broken with Stalinism years before. I must admit that I wasn’t aware that he’d supported Solidarnosc in the early 80s, but as far as I’m aware his 2007 comments were the first time he’d publicly and explicitly denounced Stalin and Stalinism.

    If the cable-axing incident at Newport really is a myth, I can only say I’m sorry…sorry to hear it never happened.

    • Matthew Thompson said,

      In the Scorsese film on Dylan “No Direction Home”, Seeger claimed it was the distorted sound that he objected to at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival rather than Dylan playing an electric guitar and said to the sound guys “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.”. In the same film, Pete Seeger’s brother-in-law, John Cohen says that Seeger was also upset because the sound was distressing Seeger’s elderly father Charlie, who wore a hearing aid.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Supporting Solidarnosc in 1982 was hardly that big a deal – every Eurocommunist dominated CP did so.

  4. Tim Brosnan said,

    A short post about Pete’s passing can be found at my music blog, The Eclectic Ear.
    http://timbrosnan.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-dead-at-94/

  5. Gregg Kimball said,

    Wonder if we would ever debate the dates and nature of Ezra Pound’s support for fascism? The great problem with the Left is that they’re never held accountable for the positions they hold, and by extension the lives they take.

    • RosieB said,

      Pound’s trajectory was different from Seeger’s and his Fascism and antisemitism was far more malevolent than Seeger’s communism. However anyone writing honestly about Pound would give him credit for being very supportive to other poets, as well as paying due to his own talents.

    • RosieB said,

      Also, this gives a fair assessment of Seeger:-
      A pretty fair critical assessment of the great man, by Paul Berman:
      http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116371/pete-seeger-1919-2014-magnificent-messy-legacy

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I’ve actually seen a lot of debate about Pound’s support for fascism – not least because without every modernist intellectual he’d ever met rallying to his support to relativise and contextualise it all away he’d quite probably have ended up being hung for treason after 1945.

      Ditto for Celine, Junger, Hamsun, DH Lawrence, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Yeats etc etc – intellectuals really just don’t like to accept that their idols had not just feet of clay but were often wearing actual bloody jackboots over them and so agonise long and loudly about it.

      And there are mass graves over much of the planet full of leftists held accountable (all too often by other leftists) for the positions they’ve taken.

      So fuck off,

      • Gregg Kimball said,

        Appreciated your measured response to my post, up to your last sentence fragment, that is. Scatology, yet another shortcoming of most of the Left.

  6. Peter Burton said,

    A piece i wrote some years ago which is on my poetry blog:

    Political Song in America in the Thirties and Sixties by Peter Burton

    Labour and political songs have existed since the beginning of the 19th century ranging from worker and abolitionist songs to farmers’ laments and spirituals.

    The songs tended to appear in broadsides and song sheets as well as labour publications. By the beginning of the 20th century a tradition had been established of using songs for labour organising goals- the ‘Wobbles’ being the organisation most associated with this means of agitating and organising.

    Their first publication was ‘Songs of the workers: On the road in the jungles and the shops’ in 1909 . It was better known as “The Little Red song book “ and was designed to fit into a shirt or back pocket .Key songs included- “Casey Jones- The Union scab”, T-Bone Slim- “I’m too old to be a scab “, Ralph Chaplin,” Paint er Red” to the tune of “Marching through Georgia” -not forgetting the Marseillase and ‘The Internationale’. The socialist party also printed songbooks as did various labour unions at this time.

    Joe Hill was a key IWW organiser who travelled widely organizing workers and writing and singing political songs. He coined the phrase “pie in the sky”, which appeared in his most famous protest song “The Preacher and the Slave (1911). The song calls for “Workingmen of all countries, unite/ Side by side we for freedom will fight/ When the world and its wealth we have gained/ To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain.” Other notable protest songs written by Hill include “The Tramp”, “There Is Power in a Union”, “Rebel Girl”, and “Casey Jones–Union Scab”.

    Another one of the best-known songs of this period was “Bread and Roses” . It was sung in protest en masse at a textile strike in Lawrence during January-March 1912 and has been subsequently taken up by protest movements ever since.

    In the Thirties the American CP and individual CIO unions published numerous songbooks-The ‘Red songbook’ of 1932 included IWW songs such as the aforementioned “Preacher and the Slave”, “Hold the Fort” and Aunt Molly Jackson’s “Poor Miners’ Farewell”. And the Spanish Civil war generated many folk-style songs supporting the Republican side- (A Las Barricadas remains a popular song for anarchist militants to this day).

    The ‘Brookwood Chautauqua songs’ booklet-from the later 1930’s-published in Katonah,NewYork, with the slogan “A singing army’s a winning army”, began with “Solidarity Forever”, and included “Victory song of the Dressmakers”,
    “The Soup Song” and “March Song of the Workers”.

    ‘Commonwealth labour songs’ appeared in 1938 and included a similar line-up with “The International” and ending with “Old John Lewis “(to the tune of old McDonald had a farm). The goal during the depression was to get catchy folk song style songs that could be easily remembered to spread throughout the country-e.g.’ The CIO’s in Dixie’ to the tune ‘Dixie’ issued by the Birmingham Industrial union council, and “The Workers Marseillaise”- the steel workers battle hymn (to the tune of hold the fort) did just this.

    “Songs for America.-American Ballads, Folk Songs, Marching songs, songs of other lands” appeared in 1939, a rich and varied group of songs that included “The Star Spangled banner , the ‘International,’ Spanish civil war tunes “Kevin Barry” and “The Ballad of the Chicago steel massacre”.

    Unions such as the ILGWU published “Everybody sings’ and in 1942 the New York State Federation of Teachers Unions issued “Sing with the Union”.

    There were individuals too who promoted rural protest songs that reached the North. Memphis born Bob Miller wrote scores of songs and published a portfolio
    “Songs of the Almanac singers” in 42. Poet and journalist Margaret Larkin publicised “The songs and struggles of Ella May Wiggins”, who had been shot in 1929 during the Gastonia textile strike.

    Composers and performers Florence Reese, Ella May Wiggins, Jim Garland, his half sister Aunt Molly Jackson, and sister Sarah Ogan Gunning, Woody Guthrie, Agnes Sis Cunningham, Lee Hays and John Handcox captured a mix of radical political songs, working class trials and hardships during the depression years and on into World War 2.These singers identified with the left unions of the time.-The National Miners union, the National Textile Workers Union and the Southern Tenant farmers union.

    In addition there were also labour orientated schools, such as the Highlander Folk school in Monteagle, Tennesse, Commonwealth college in Mena, Arkansas, The Southern school for workers near Ashland, North Carolina, and the socialist Brookwood Labour school in Katonah, New York. Hancock wrote “Ragged are We” and “There are mean things happening in this Land” while organising for the Socialist- connected STFU.

    By the early forties there were a number of labour records available but it was the ‘Almanac singers’ who were most associated with conscious organising songs .
    It was formed by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell in early 1941-it led to
    “Songs for John Doe- peace songs” and “Talking Union” – once again labour songs that were written to catch on . “The Almanac singers” lasted only two years but laid the basis for the folk revival in the 1960’s .Other labour orientated groups recorded during WW11 included “The Priority Ramblers and the Union boys” and Woody Guthrie. Alan Lomax was heavily responsible for shaping the careers of Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, Josh White, and Peter Seeger – to the point where they were sometimes called “the Lomax Singers”.

    A similarly influential folk music band who sang protest songs were ‘The Weavers’, Pete Seeger being its main member. The weavers were the first American band to court mainstream success while singing protest songs, and they were eventually to pay the price for it. While they specifically avoided recording the more controversial songs in their repertoire, and refrained from performing at controversial venues and events (for which the leftwing press derided them as having sold out their beliefs in exchange for popular success), they nevertheless came under political pressure as a result of their history of singing protest songs and folk songs favouring labour unions, as well as for the leftist political beliefs of the individuals in the group.

    Despite their caution they were placed under FBI surveillance and blacklisted by parts of the entertainment industry during the McCarthy era, from 1950. Right-wing and anti-Communist groups protested at their performances and harassed promoters. As a result of the blacklisting, the Weavers lost radio airplay and the group’s popularity diminished rapidly. Decca Records eventually terminated their recording contract.

    Woody Guthrie’s influence was huge and Dylan was only one of many who was inspired by the Oklahoma Bard in the Sixties. Sis Cunningham had been a member of the Almanac singers in the forties with Guthrie, Seeger and Bess Hawes. Together with her husband Gordon Friesen she launched the magazine “Broadside” in New York on the encouragement of Seeger and Malvinas Reynolds in February 1962 (it was subtitled “A handful of songs about our times).

    Broadside was seminal because it published the songs that the more mainstream ‘Sing Out’! would not. Its first issue contained Reynolds “ “Come clean Blues and Dylan’s “Talkin John Birch Society blues” about a right-wing racist organisation-it was his first published song. Dylan , Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Len Chandler and Peter LaFarge would meet monthly in Sis and Gordon’s’ cramped apartment and record their new songs, which would be transcribed before then appearing in the magazine. This inspired other political songwriters to send their demos and tapes to Broadside from around the country. The magazine included articles, letters and illustrations capturing the rapidly changing political climate of the 60’s and only folded in the 1980’s.

    The civil rights movement in the sixties, as opposed to the labour movement, became the inspiration for organizing songs-with Guy Carawan –the music director of the Highland Folk school in Tennessee being central to this change.. He made field recordings of the civil rights movement and introduced “We shall overcome” in 1960 which rapidly became the Civil rights anthem. It was one of many mass organising tool songs derived from familiar gospel tunes.

    Dylan, Odetta, Josh White, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary performed during a pre-march concert on the day of the historic march on Washington in August 1963. Later in the day, Dylan , the Freedom Singers, Peter Paul and Mary , opera
    Star Marian Anderson, and gospel star Mahalia Jackson sang to the mass crowd.
    Sadly the only black artists directly involved in civil rights actions were Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone. Ray Charles and James Brown represented black consciousness in their music but avoided overt civil rights concerts and events. Berry Gordy, owner of Motown, issued civil rights records , but was slow to urge his acts to get involved.

    Civil rights songs were used from the summer of 1964 to encourage voter registration in the South at Civil rights workshops and Folk festivals such as the Northern District Mississippi Folk festival and Greenwood Festival.

    The civil rights movement, in turn, led to campus organising and the founding of the S.D.S (Students for a Democratic Society) in 1960 and the University of California Berkeley Free speech movement in 64,with Baez singing “The Times they are a changing” and “We shall overcome” at the initial protest.

    As fighting escalated in Vietnam , folk music began to serve as a rallying cry for the mounting peace movement . A ‘sing in for Peace concert’ at Carnegie Hall in mid-65 featured 60 performers including Peter, Paul and Mary , Baez and the Freedom Singers, attracting 5,000 people. Peace songs were used to swell the crowds at anti –war rallies with ‘Broadside’ and ‘Sing out’ publishing both old and new peace songs.
    Peter Burton

    • RosieB said,

      That’s really interesting. Thanks for that.

    • RosieB said,

      I’d like to put this comment up as a post. Is that okay?

      • peter said,

        Yes of course you can Pete

  7. ted edwards said,

    Pete Seegar was without a doubt a legend and revered by all right thinking people and there have been many others since him that stand full square with us in the working class struggling to get a decent standard of living for everyone as is our own Billy Bragg but I cannot help but wonder whether at the end of the day they are just entertainers. Surely its those that set up Food Banks ,which are becoming more and more prevalent in the UK, and those that also setting up loan co operatives on large council estates that are todays real heroes not those entertainers whether musical or comedic who actually at the end of the day make a very good living from us in the working class and as a consequence live life styles we can only dream about.

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