Pete Seeger and the contradictions of American heroism

Pete Seeger, as you are probably aware, died recently at 94. If you haven’t already, you should see the movie about his life, “The Power of song.” It’s good to be reminded of a time–mid-20th century, the most active years of Seeger’s life—when there w as real hope in music, in that music called “folk music”. When “political music” wasn’t an oxymoron.

In his latter years Seeger seemed to be subsumed–“coopted” is how we used to say it–by the crush of national love. It’s what happens when we decide you are a national treasure. But there was a time when this national treasure was considered dangerous enough to be blacklisted, stoned, reviled as a commie traitor.


Something about Pete Seeger has always struck me as quintessentially American. A man, a life, a phenomenon that only our country, this New World (as we used to be called; maybe less so now) could have produced. Like others—Henry Thoreau, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Appleseed, Walt Whitman, Studs Terkel (no doubt I’m forgetting many others)–he seemed made in America of American stuff.


These American heroes tend to be radical optimists. Pete Seeger’s strange thought was that with a 5-string banjo, that sort-of indigenous American instrument, and with what voice he had (it wasn’t great and waxed tremulous as he aged), he could bring the world together with song—his own songs, those of others, those of the folk of this country and other countries, man of them now embedded in our culture. “We Shall Overcome.” “If I Had a Hammer.” “Where have all the flowers gone?” “Abiyoyo.” “Wimoweh.” “Little Boxes.” Guantanamera.” “Good Night Irene.” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”


There were better banjo pickers and better voices, but nobody ever put it all together like Pete Seeger.


Pete Seeger modeled for us how it was OK to be a communist, that dirty word for so long. That in fact at the 1930s it was the brave, the honorable thing to do. (The story is told of Henry Thoreau—another troublesome American hero– in jail for not paying a tax he thought unjust. Along comes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Henry what are you doing in there?” Thoreau: “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”)


Pete (if I may be so bold) seems essentially American not despite his progressive, “leftie” values and stands, but on the contrary because of them. There is a connection between that Americanism and what many called his anti-Americanism. Something about his love of his country that made him such a thorn in the side of the status quo that in the 1950s the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) did all it could to silence him.


It’s nice that we honor Pete Seeger and are treating him as a national treasure. (It’s good to see in the movie former governor Pataki, a Republican, taking Pete Seeger as his personal savior.) What would be even nicer is to believe that our doing so means we’ve matured as a society and now acknowledge that he was right all along, and his many enemies wrong on the issues he cared about, on race, on workers, on war, on corporations, on what America and life should be all about.


But if there was much about American life in the earlier decades of his life that tried hard to eliminate his influence, there is much about the currrent state of American life that even as we honor this radical American is committed to wiping out everything he stood for.



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