I’m sorry to say that the late Pete Seeger always left me rather cold. It’s a dismal thing to say about a man who lived through some very interesting times, and was always more or less on the side of the angels. His defiance of HUAC, if nothing else, deserves respect — indeed, something more than respect.
But I always saw him — alas — as a sort of living exhibit illustrating what went wrong with the old CP. And I don’t mean the Stalin thing. Indeed, one of the most depressing episodes in his later years was a grovelling apology, extorted by the unspeakable Ron Radosh, for Seeger’s Stalinism in the 30s. As it happens, I believe the only people who had it even halfway right in the 30s were the Stalinists, and they have nothing to apologize for. I mean, consider the alternatives. Hitler? Trotsky? Puh-leeze.
Admittedly, my fathers in God, the old Stalinists, were only halfway right. But to paraphrase Phyllis McGinley — now of course a forgotten name — halfway right is better than stupid(*).
Halfway, alas, was the best they did — the high-water mark. Subsequently many became Democrats, and then mere liberals, and ended up, like Pete, apologizing for the only heroic phase in their career.
Poor Seeger’s banjo — seen above — illustrates the degeneration. That po-faced inscription is an hommage to Woody Guthrie’s guitar, on which he wrote ‘This machine kills Fascists’.
Woody’s is better, don’t you think?
As I see it, Fascists are not an extinct species, and I would rather see a few of them killed than see an abstract noun surrounded. Oh, I’m not a bloodthirsty guy, and I’ve never killed anybody and probably never will; probably never could. But there’s something refreshingly concrete about Woody’s slogan that’s missing in Pete’s. I’ve never felt that abstract nouns are much of a problem, but I’m quite worried about Fascists.
Then of course, besides Fascists, there are Zionists. As with many other old CP types, poor Pete had a soft spot for Fort Zion, and actually broke with his old collaborator the Rev Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick over the latter’s support for the Palestinians.
(Full disclosure: I knew Kirkpatrick slightly, in his last years, and liked him very much. There’s a little doorway to a basement apartment in my neighborhood, which I pass a couple of times a week, where Rev Kirkpatrick lived in those days. Sunt lachrimae rerum. Too many places in my nabe are now associated with those who have gone before. Time to move, perhaps.)
Another old pal of mine has a different and more fond connection with Pete, and we spent some time talking about Pete purely as songwriter. It was borne in upon me — depressingly enough — that I never much liked his songs either.
‘Where have all the flowers gone’ is so associated in my mind with early — and mostly unsuccessful — attempts to get laid that I can’t begin to say whether it’s any good or not. Usually I relish the elegiac mode but there’s something a little too weepy about this one. Even for me.
Always loathed ‘If I had a hammer’. Too many abstract nouns. Somebody please explain to me how you’re supposed to ‘hammer out love’.
‘Little boxes’ seems smug, and the lip-smacking way Seeger pronounced ‘ticky-tacky’ always made my skin crawl.
‘Waist deep in the Big Muddy’ might actually be my favorite, but even that has some strangely inartistic touches — like the painstaking explanation of the fatal creek’s hydrography; as if the Big Fool’s error was that he didn’t do his geography homework.
But Seeger was an energetic and convincing performer, whose presentation could make you overlook the weaknesses in the material. And undoubtedly he did more good than harm.
Let’s hope we can all say as much, should we live to be 94. Sit levis terra.
(*) Oh, all right:
Martin of Tours, when he earned his shilling
Trooping the flags of the Roman Guard,
Came on a poor, aching and chilling,
Beggar in rags by the barrack yard.
Blind to his lack, the guard went riding.
But Martin a moment paused, and drew
The coat from his back, his sword from hiding,
And sabered his raiment into two.
Now some who muse on the allegory
Affect to find it a pious joke;
To the beggar what use, for Martin what glory
In a deed half-kind and part of a cloak?
Still, it has charm, and a point worth seizing.
For all who move in the mortal sun
Know halfway warm is better than freezing,
As half a love is better than none.
I’ve always liked the pun on ‘half a love’ — worthy
of Dorothy Parker.