Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie: More Politicians Than Musicians

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Seeger's latest ventures reveal the dirty secret of Popular Front folk: Their tunes weren't that great.

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Most of the musical performances on Appleseed's two-CD release Pete Remembers Woody are merely mediocre. A few, though, take wing and ascend to an impressively heady awfulness. Perhaps the worst is "Woody's Trilogy," in which the band The Work O' The Weavers desecrates three folk favorites in less than a minute and a half. The singers are not merely soulless, but sound partially lobotomized by their own perfect diction. The male lead declaims, "I've been doing some hard travellin'," with a calculated stop-time schtick—it's like a rough-road anthem sung from the back of a Prius on the way to the Starbucks. For fans of Rosetta Tharpe, the take on "This Train" is even more painful, while the vocalist on "There's a Better World a Comin'" is so feeble that you suddenly understand why the other participants think they can sing. Then it's all wrapped up with a chorus where the three tunes are performed simultaneously in a rousing big finish that could have come right out of A Mighty Wind. The vacant good cheer couldn't be much more cloying.

He's a man of great conscience, integrity, and spirit whose songs are, nonetheless, filled far too often with joyless platitudes.

On one hand, it seems unfair to judge Pete Remembers Woody by this dreadful effort. The heart of the album, after all, isn't the tossed-in songs by indifferent contemporary folk-revival revivalists, but rather the spoken word reminiscences of Woody Guthrie by his old friend, the 93-year-old Pete Seeger. But there's something sadly fitting in the way that The Work O' The Weavers cluelessly and bloodlessly gut that series of inoffensive tunes. After all, one of the not-so-secret truths of the old Popular Front folkies was that however pure their politics, their music wasn't all that great.

Woody himself was OK, but would anybody in their right mind rather listen to him than to his influences like the Carter Family or Jimmy Rodgers? Or his contemporaries like Bill Monroe and Rosetta Tharpe? Or acolytes like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell? Guthrie may have been a decent performer, but he was never incandescent. In fact, his best moments on record may be his determinedly low-key children's tunes, like "Take Me Drivin' In the Car." His legacy is due not to the power or depth of his music, but rather to his lyrical facility—and perhaps most of all, to the sensational and unusual match between his more-or-less working-class background and his definitively Marxist politics. For middle-class leftists like Seeger or Alan Lomax, an Okie hillbilly Communist singer seemed like the holy grail of working class authenticity: a validation of their politics, their music, and of the connection between the two.

On the Pete Remembers Woody set, those politics are front and center, as Seeger provides what is essentially a two hour hagiography for his friend and mentor. One of the more stirring anecdotes involves an anti-Hitler before-dinner concert that Guthrie gave with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in Baltimore in 1942. After they were done, the hosts gave Guthrie a seat at the head table, and offered to feed Terry and McGhee—both black—in the kitchen. Guthrie, bless him, got thoroughly pissed off and started overturning tables while shouting over and over, "This fight against fascism gotta start right here!"

"Isn't that wonderful," Seeger asks after relating the anecdote. And it is pretty wonderful, there's no doubt. To take a stand like that against evil on the spur of the moment is both difficult and impressive. I know I couldn't have done it. But at the same time, isn't there something off-putting about the glibness of Guthrie's reaction, at least as Seeger tells it? Guthrie is confronted with injustice, and he starts chanting rallying cries. "This fight against fascism gotta start right here!" OK, but who in real life talks in catch-phrases like that? Is he a singer or a copywriter?

The answer, of course, is both, for better and for worse. My parents were folk-revival fans, and I've been listening to Pete and Woody as long as I've been listening to anything, but for whatever reason it took these discs to really drive home how much their lyrics tend to sound like campaign slogans. In one anecdote, Seeger recalls Woody writing a topical song:

Mr. Tom Mooney is free
Mr. Tom Mooney is free
Done got a pardon from that old jailhouse Warden
Governor Culbert, L. Olsen's decree.

The aging Seeger sings it a capella with impressive verve, but that can't quite cover up the fact that the lyrics are banal agitprop—and, worse, demonstrate the extent to which the new socialist agitprop was virtually indistinguishable from advertising jingles. Guthrie might as well be selling Cas Walker's constipation relief. Similarly, on Seeger's other new album (with Lorre Wyatt) A More Perfect Union, Bruce Springsteen gets hauled out to declaim, "Trickle up, not trickle down" while Wyatt fulminates about how "Drill, baby, drill becomes spill, baby, spill." Sure it's parody, but even so, having Sarah Palin write your lyrics seems like a bad idea.

Political art doesn't have to be lousy art. James Baldwin's essays are some of my favorite prose writing ever, and I'll happily swear by Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." But while politics and art can go together, the bland bonhomie of Popular Front folk music is tied closely to its didacticism. One anecdote Seeger relates in this regard is perhaps especially telling. The story is set during World War II, when he and Guthrie were going around singing union and peace songs—and then Hitler invaded Russia.

Immediately, the folkies realized that they were going to have to stop singing peace songs. Seeger presents their comic horror at having to support the once rabidly anti-Bolshevik, now pro-Stalin Churchill. Seeger recalls Guthrie saying, "Churchill has flip-flopped, we've got to flip flop!" Certainly, they are half in jest when they equate themselves with the British leader—but only half. In some sense, Guthrie and Seeger really did see themselves less as artists talking politics, and more as politicians playing banjos. Pro-Stalin politicians playing banjos, alas.

Seeger repudiated Stalin once the atrocities became public, of course, and he deserves props for recognizing and owning his error. He's a man of great conscience, integrity, and spirit whose songs are, nonetheless, filled far too often with joyless platitudes. Maybe that's something else to blame Communism for, I don't know. But I do know that, as much as I admire him personally, and as much as I wish there were more dedicated men and women like him now riding around singing union songs, I don't much want to listen to these CDs again.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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