In death as in life, Pete Seeger brought Americans together, then divided them into warring ideological camps. To oversimplify, one can lump the political reactions to Seeger’s death on Monday at 94 into two groups. There are those, generally on the center-left, who praise Seeger heartily, accenting his stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while quietly—if at all—acknowledging his disturbingly durable devotion to Communism. And there are those, mostly on the right, who acknowledge Seeger’s importance and praise his less political songs while arguing, in essence, that his politics sadly tainted the rest of his career.
Both approaches offer serious problems. Seeger’s political record—as a whole, not taken selectively—is exactly the point. As Andrew Cohen wrote in his appreciation, Seeger was often described as “anti-American”:
I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don't think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.
Seeger’s beliefs sometimes led him to grievously wrong conclusions, but it’s not un-American to be wrong, and that same politics is what also led him to stand up to McCarthyism, fight for the environment, and march with labor unions, too. (To which one might waggishly add, can anyone to whom Bruce Springsteen had dedicated a tribute be anything other than All-American?) Nor can one separate his music from his politics, something former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to do.
To understand why the full range of Seeger’s political activities are indivisible from his music, you have to begin with his childhood and entry in the folk scene through his parents' involvement. There’s an instructive comparison here with Nelson Mandela, whose relationship with the Communist Party was a newly contentious topic in the days after his death. Unlike Mandela, whose alliance with Communism seems to have been a brief and opportunistic response to the brutal apartheid regime, Seeger’s was deeply rooted. Unlike the rural folk musicians he emulated, Seeger was no naif. His father was a Harvard-educated musicologist and his stepmother a composer, both early folk aficionados; he himself enrolled at Harvard. Later, Seeger also worked as an intern for the great folk-song collector Alan Lomax. The recordings that early 20th century collectors made are the basis of what we now know as American music, from blues to old-time country.
It's easy to mock folkies as bearded hippies today, but the early folk movement was overtly and radically political, reaching across class boundaries and celebrating of common people. The participants were preserving what seemed to them to represent an important part of the American identity, a part that was in danger of disappearing under pressure from the modern world. The class consciousness of that movement easily (perhaps inevitably) led to socialist and communist politics. As my colleague Rebecca Rosen notes, even Seeger’s choice of an instrument was charged. Like James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (or for that matter The Grapes of Wrath), the early folk collectors evinced a belief in the wisdom of the common people, but also an anger at their destitution—all the more extreme in an era before New Deal infrastructure projects and labor reforms. Even after FDR, that radicalism remained. There’s a reason that the New York folk scene was viewed with suspicion by anti-Communists in the 1950s and 1960s: Many of them were Communists.
This worldview led Seeger to some distressing and dangerous positions. He opposed American involvement in World War II up until the moment Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Though he’d quit the Communist Party by 1950, he never owned up adequately to having served as a useful idiot for the regime. The apology he delivered in his 1997 autobiography, quoted by Dylan Matthews, is shockingly terse and grudging:
Today I'll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a 'hard-driver' and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks … for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let's look ahead.
As late as the 1970s, in his column in the left-wing folk magazine Sing Out!, Seeger was giving space to horrifying ideas. Dealing with the case of Wolf Biermann, a socialist singer expelled from East Germany for dissidence, he gave space to correspondents arguing that there might appropriately be limits on what artists should say in an ideal Marxist regime. In 1999, he accepted an award from Fidel Castro’s regime. It’s hard to square these actions with the ideas Seeger promoted elsewhere, and they deserves condemnations.