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Tilting at windmills with a banjo

Tilting at windmills with a banjo

Pete Seeger is now in his 90th year. His songs have always been better than his politics.

It was strangely moving: a frail lanky figure complete with banjo, lurching up on stage proceeded to gasp his valiant way through several of the best-known songs in the American folk pantheon. Pete Seeger at ninety, demonstrating that he can still enthral an audience. The casual onlooker would have difficulty believing that this unthreatening personage came however, ready-stamped with his own unique Government Health Warning.

“The most boycotted, picketed, blacklisted performer in American history”, he had endured a lifetime of threats, assaults, been labelled “traitor”, “Khrushchev’s Songbird” and suffered trial and conviction at the insidious hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Others viewed him differently, observing his enormous contribution to the collection and preservation of traditional music and how almost single-handedly he had rescued the five-string banjo from oblivion. A devout Humanitarian, abstemious, monogamous, unimpeachably principled, he is the trust of his patriots.

Born of well-heeled, musical New England stock in 1919, Seeger’s life compass was pretty much set for him at an early age. His father, in company with folklorists John and Alan Lomax belonged to that 1930s Popular Front “intellectual” coterie who, combining Radicalism and Patriotism, embraced the Folk genre as America’s “true” music and a vehicle for awareness-raising and social change. “Communism in Twentieth Century Americanism” ran its slogan, boldly – if bafflingly.

Seizing the baton, Seeger commenced his own musical and political odyssey presently, in 1940, forming the Almanac Singers, an amorphous, motley, Leftist crew whose proclaimed aim was, nevertheless to “change the World”. Performing such numbers as “Talking Union”, they supported labour rallies and, the Hitler/Stalin Peace Pact being current, opposed the War with their “Songs for John Doe”.

When, however, Germany attacked Russia the following year, the horrified group found the bulk of its repertoire rendered instantly obsolete. A massive rethink – and rewrite – ensued. Where once it had been confrontation, strike and “Franklin D. listen to me, You ain’t gonna send me across the sea”, employee and employer alike were now urged to unite behind the Military to “Deliver the Goods” and then skip merrily “Round and round Hitler’s Grave”. Remaining a “card-carrying Communist”, Seeger was nonetheless sufficiently chastened by this experience to never again identify quite so closely with the Party’s front-line tactics, instead lending his voice to more general issues.

The post-war years were difficult ones for an American Left struggling to radicalise an increasingly affluent, and hostile, Working Class. The Almanacs disbanded and in the prevailing “anti-Red” climate, Seeger encountered not only the FBI’s close scrutiny but also frequent exclusion from union events and marginalisation within the Communist Party itself. Fleeting commercial success with a new group, the Weavers, failed to salvage his finances and he found himself obliged to scour the continent playing small venues and universities, unwittingly in the process, founding what would eventually become known as the ‘College Circuit’.

Inevitably subpoenaed by McCarthy’s HUAC, he eschewed the usual “Fifth Amendment” route; that no citizen under the Constitution need incriminate themselves, opting instead for a head-on First Amendment plea; that the Committee itself was unconstitutional. For his pains he received a 10-year sentence which although never implemented and eventually overturned, nevertheless seriously blighted his life for several years.

The 1960s saw Seeger affiliating with the current “good causes”, plucking his banjo at Civil Rights rallies (an unfortunate instrument given Negro memories of stereotypic minstrel shows) and supporting the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was however becoming perceived as “Middle Aged”, “Old Left” rather than “Hippie”, “Student Power” and his “acoustic” music upstaged by the strident, electrified offerings of the rising Dylanite generation.

Remarkably too, he continued to adhere to the broad “Soviet World View”. Having remained silent over the momentous events of 1956 – the denouncement of Stalin and Russia’s brutal intervention in Hungary – he now displayed similar reticence over its intrusions into Czechoslovakia and the obvious tribulations of working-class life in Castro’s Cuba. But knavish, duplicitous, surely not? Myopic, naïve, more probably. increasingly disillusioned, he embraced Environmentalism, focusing particularly, and continuingly, on the campaign to clean up his “Dirty Stream”, the Hudson River.

Seeger has persistently overstated the power and value of song in political struggle, citing no less an authority that Plato: “Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.” Pursuing the rather Hegelian notion that the idea precedes and informs the action, he maintains that the “right song at the right time can change history” and whilst, for sure, songs have a certain rallying function, no way can his assertion that they triggered the Civil Rights Movement and shortened the Vietnam War be upheld. Fellow-Almanacers Bess and Butch Hawes were much closer to the truth in pointing out that “songs; ideas can only appear when events provide the material”. Perhaps they’d been taking a peek at Marx.

Unable to fully comprehend the nature of the capitalist system he professes to despise, its impersonal, all pervading imperative for profit and the root cause of the multitudinous socio-economic and environmental problems afflicting humanity; lumbered also with a Leftist/Bolshevist mindset he has never managed to transcend, Seeger has sought solution through a whole range of single-issue campaigns and support for assorted pseudo-socialist, state capitalist regimes. A successful lawsuit, for instance, by residents against General Electrics for polluting the Hudson, laudable in itself, was hailed as a great victory for “localism” and “community” rather than an opportunity to ponder the competitive, cost-cutting forces that had brought about the pollution in the first place. And all the while, the authentic socialist model of a democratic, classless world society of common ownership and free access has awaited his perusal. Painful as it is to criticise a clearly well-intentioned if Quixotic figure, Seeger’s political life does serve as vindication of our founding principle of campaigning solely for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

So what is left? Well, laying aside more than a few political stomach-turners, there is a rather wonderful body of song. We can, for example, teach subversive little numbers, “Cindy”, “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”, to our offspring and (in our cups) declaim “the warnings, dangers, love we’d ring out incessantly all over the bloody place – if only we possessed the requisite hammers”. Perhaps also, in more sombre (and sober) mood, we’ll quietly croon the hauntingly-beautiful “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, even if, of necessity we think of Pete himself and his ilk at the mournful refrain:

    “When will they ever learn,

     When will they ever learn?”