Pete Seeger,
At 89
(Appleseed, 2008)

It ought to be enough to acknowledge that Pete Seeger is a good citizen who has had a positive effect on American culture. Somehow, though, that has never been enough. He has to be elevated, alas, to sainthood -- in defiance, conscious or otherwise, of George Orwell's warning that saints are to be presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Seeger himself, from all accounts and appearances a modest man and no egomaniacal monster, sometimes expresses bewilderment at the godlike entity others conjure up when they think or speak of him. In other words, the fault lies not in him but in us.

Well, at least some of us. Present at the creation of the 20th-century American folk revival (a creature of the latter-1930s/early-1940s Popular Front), Seeger has been as much a political figure as a musical one, or maybe more of one. As a political figure, at one time or another he has expressed admiration for Stalin, Mao and Castro, attachments few others would find anything but baffling; appalling may be more like it. The other, more congenial political Pete Seeger -- the one who gets honored regularly, by Bruce Springsteen most recently and prominently -- resembles an in-the-American-grain left-liberal or democratic radical, the brave and idealistic activist who labors for a clean environment, peace, civil rights, civil liberties, unions, immigrants and other causes that all good people favor, if often only abstractly. Seeger's involvement is not abstract, and blessings on him for that. Even so, many others have managed to put themselves on the line for a decent society without falling into the profound moral error of favoring -- or at least rationalizing -- detestable regimes.

What Seeger thinks privately about these issues is less than clear, lost in a fog of disingenuous words. He quit the Communist Party USA sometime in the 1950s -- very quietly -- but he did not publicly disavow Stalin, and then without notable vigor, until the 1990s. Does this matter in 2008? Does it matter that Seeger's longstanding advocacy for victims of repressive governments has always been one-sided, confined in its entirety to dissenters persecuted by rightwing governments? Is it enough, in Orwell's rhetorical question, to be anti-fascist without also being anti-totalitarian?

Though in some circles (as I know from experience) it is considered outrageous heresy to raise these questions, they are certain to be discussed openly after Seeger's passing as biographers and cultural historians seek a rounded assessment of a remarkable -- really, sui generis -- life and career. Perhaps the essential point is that Seeger, at least in the shorter term, has favored a charitable, nonviolent and just America of a sort that -- especially in the last eight years -- seems to be eluding our grasp at alarming speed. If he was short-sighted in some important ways, he did no harm (more than can be said for "respectable" public officials who have launched unjust wars and trampled the Constitution), and he did much to promote the common good. If he has had some of the wrong friends, he certainly has had all of the right enemies.

Over the decades, Seeger also did more than any other single individual to generate an awareness of folk music among his fellow Americans. Along with many other happy consequences, that effort made jobs and records for self-identified folk musicians possible. In his memoirs the late folksinger Dave Van Ronk, otherwise ambivalent about Seeger's legacy, called him "the man who invented my profession." Whether you realize it or not, Seeger is as responsible as anybody for your being here to read these words. Seeger also wrote a handful of superb songs, along with a dismaying assortment of forgettable ones (in the present instance everything but the brilliant "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," as piercingly pointed now as it was when first composed during the Vietnam-war era).

At 89 is strictly for the faithful, those who have filled the pews at the Church of Seeger all these long years. Which is to say it's not for me, though I quarrel with not a single lofty sentiment expressed. Most of the "songs" are more like jingles, and some -- perhaps none more so than "If It Can't Be Reduced" -- border on self-parody. "The First Settlers" is a pointless recitation that drearily reiterates the not exactly previously unreported message that soon after their arrival on these shores, Europeans stole massive amounts of land from the native peoples.

To the extent that real musical performance is going on, folk-literate listeners will be led to reflect that Seeger's most direct influence turns out to have been on the pop-oriented groups of the Kingston Trio/Brothers Four/Highwaymen flavor ("fauxk music," an old friend quips), not on the more commited, enduring revival artists. For the latter, actually, Pete's half-brother Mike Seeger, who has always been less interested in politics than in authentic singing and instrumental styles, has been a far more significant and lasting model, as no less than Bob Dylan attests in a tribute to him in his autobiographical Chronicles.

Even so, here and there some impressive music elbows its way through the 89's crowded choir (there are no fewer than 32 cuts). Most of all I like the haunting guitar/recorder instrumental arrangement of the beloved "The Water is Wide." I wish there were more of that, but then I attend a different church where that kind of thing is attempted rather more often.

Pete Seeger is, in the end, who he is. If you love him uncritically, his time is passing, and here's your chance to sit at his feet one more -- or maybe the last -- time.

review by
Jerome Clark

18 October 2008

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