De mortuis, etc.


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.

17 thoughts on “De mortuis, etc.

  1. I always saw ol’ Pete Seeger as just sort of a 60s ∼ 70s “fixture”. Was thinking about how Joni Mitchell really, like, dislikes Bob Dylan. It dawned that I never really thought of Dylan as a musician at all. Yea, a sort of poet. A performance artist, perhaps. So maybe a similar line of reasoning would apply to Pete Seeger. He made me think a little. not a whole lot but a little. I knew zilch regarding his personal political life; didn’t much care really. He was just on the scene, and made a small contribution to my existence.

    I’ve very loosely categorized peoples political perspectives:

    They are: communists, equalitarians, anarchists, everydays, demlackeys, acadaficials, disinteresteds, new-agers, survivalists, libertarians, neocons, nazis. “odd-balls”.

    I am an equalitarian. Most people are either everydays, disinteresteds, or survivalists. This is in a somewhat “left-to-right” order, but all these people are reasonably OK. They would be different people if voting meant anything (no machines, simple score voting). The libertarians are creeps and the neocons are just (usually wealthy) fascists.

    Need to be a bit careful about putting folks into categories. And of course there will be some “overlap”.

    Great to see you back Michael. This is what I do to quickly detect new posts on blogs that that don’t post regularly (like my own):

    “If you have the Firefox browser, you can use the time-saving Sage RSS feed notifier to instantly check for new articles! Get this add-on by going to:

    —› Add to Firefox —› Right-click on my “Subscribe to RSS (Posts)” icon —› Left-click on Copy Link Location —› Left-click on the Sage “leaf” icon —› Right-click in the white area —› New Bookmark —› Location —› Right-click —› Paste (the address from my “Subscribe to RSS” icon) —› Left-Click on Add —› All Done. This all takes five minutes, and it will amaze you!”

    I hope you had a great Groundhog Day! I announced it on Portland Indymedia:

    Cheer Up! It’s Groundhog Day (Feb. 2nd)! Winter Is Half-Over!

  2. A kind correspondent points out that ‘Little Boxes’ was not in fact written by Seeger, which I should have known. My friend attributes it to Hazel Dickens but Wikipedia says Malvina Reynolds. There’s a quote floating around the web, attributed to the wonderful Tom Lehrer, to the effect that this is the most sanctimonious song ever written. Can’t seem to find a reliable source for this, however. I must say it does sound like Lehrer, who once said that he stopped writing political satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    • Y’know, out of all the songs that Seeger either wrote or popularized, “Little Boxes” was the only one with any kind of meaning or relevance to me personally. I grew up in a “little box” of some kind or another in the DC suburbs during a major chunk of the ’60s and ’70s, especially my high-school days in the early ’70s. Right after my Dad retired from the Army in early ’71, my parents bought a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision in Fairfax County — a classic early ’70s modern split-level on a huge-assed lawn in a neighborhood full of similar and identical houses built to the same set of three or four plans, that looked as if a giant machine rolled down the street in the middle of the night and just sort of crapped out house after house in three or four basic designs and three or four basic color schemes.

      The day we moved into that neighborhood, I took one look around the place and immediately heard Pete Seeger singing “Little Boxes” in my head.

  3. Speaking of Zionists, an excerpt from a recently published letter:

    I stayed away from Israel just as I stayed away from Nazi Germany.

    Some forward thinking folks in Fort Zion were already aware of the power of analogies and are moving to ban the word ‘Nazi’.

  4. Not to be crude, but who gives a fuck? Pete Seeger may have been a commie but he’s being remembered because he was a famous musician. I really wish people spent more time memorializing those close to themselves, or even those close to someone close to themselves, rather than trying to discern the importance of someone no one really thought of until they died. I guess I’m just really sick and tired of this celebrity culture.

    A digression, but somewhat related, was Nader’s 2000 run. I remember being really excited because he seemed to have the ear of more people than he ever had before. Then he started those super rallies, at which a number of celebrities showed up to lend their ‘support’. I felt uneasy even at the time because I felt that the people that were showing up because BILL MURRAY and EDDIE VEDDER and other COOL PEOPLE were behind him weren’t going to stick around if/when those people changed their opinions. Sure enough, 2004 rolled around and those same celebrities were claiming they had made mistakes and used the support of their acolytes against Nader. I think if Ralph had stuck to his message he might have had a more lasting impact on politics in this country. As it was, his shacking up with celebrity cost him in the long run.

    That’s how I look at talk about Pete Seeger. Yeah, he called himself a Communist and he wrote some songs about the working man. But was his impact really any greater than that of your active CP member? Sure some people may have discovered the Left after listening to one of his songs, but I’m fairly sure the Beach Boys spreading of ‘consumer culture’ was far more successful.

  5. I realize that you were in no way memorializing Mr. Seeger, MJS. My reply was more in response to the Phillip Seymour Hoffman encomiums on my Facebook page than anything, you just happened to be talking about someone else famous that had recently died.

    • Paul is right. The left worships at the feet of celebrity as much as any other group of people. And Facebook certainly is the place to find plenty of evidence of this. No sooner does some famous person die than leftists are telling us how they saw that person on the street or in a bookstore or knew a person who knew a person who knew the celebrity or went to school with a friend of the dead man or woman. Then they go on and on about the deceased’s movies or books or music. Mostly these posts are made to draw attention to the poster! You wonder sometimes how life manages to go on after a celebrity’s death.

  6. I have all sorts of issues with Seeger and the whole early ’60s folkie scene — culturally, artistically, and politically — but I kept it classy and didn’t pop off either on the Internetz or around my wife or her friends; after all, I can still remember some of the bile that people like George F. Will were spewing the week Jerry Garcia died, and I didn’t want to be like that.

    Still, a huge majority of my Leftie pals lionize Seeger for his ballsy performance against the HUAC, and my wife and her Folklore Society friends idolize him for also being a big-time folkie idol. In fact, the DW made a huge-assed deal out of attending a Seeger memorial sing-along fest up in Columbia Heights right after he died; I had the good sense not to antagonize her by mentioning that the last place I wanted to be was with a bunch of creaky old Liberals standing around in the cold singing about what they’d do if only they had a goddamn’ hammer.

    While I can certainly appreciate what Seeger ostensibly represented and admire his courage for standing up to the witch hunters, I still staunchly maintain my long-standing “editorial positions”:

    1. I hate “folk music”, man, just fucking hate it. After 22 years of marriage, I’ve had the chance to watch the DW and her musician friends from that segment of the Baby Boom generation who were part of that whole campus-chapel basement ban-the-bomb hootenanny scene, and it just makes me hate it even more. I heard enough Brothers Four and Kingston Trio on my parents’ stereo when I was six years old to last me the rest of my goddamn’ life. The only “folk” artists who ever mattered to me were Phil Ochs — for expressing himself in blunt, clear terms instead of cloying, mournful warbling, and Bob Dylan — for kicking down doors artistically, writing interesting, challenging and pointed lyrics, and generally giving us an alternative to that insufferable, square-assed, checkered-shirt-wearing whitebread folkie scene. I’ll take “Masters Of War” over “If I Had A Hammer” any goddamn’ day of the week.

    2. Bela Fleck notwithstanding, I still think that the banjo is the instrument from Hell, made and sent by the Devil to annoy other musicians and music lovers.

    3. The guy was a friggin’ Stalinist, f’crissake. There was a rather nice opinion piece at Al Jazeera America which makes a case for not conflating Seeger and other US Communists with Stalin’s rule in the USSR — lots of tap-dancing and triangulation, but, I have to admit, fairly well-done tap-dancing and triangulation — but, still, this is now, and that was then… and back then, when Seeger was spitting in HUAC’s face, the legacy of Stalin was still quite alive in the USSR, and Seeger was one of those who was pretty much just letting them skate:

    Do you remember ’36?
    We went our separate ways —
    You fought for Stalin,
    I fought for freedom!

    –Against Me!, “Baby, I’m An Anarchist”

    • Mike, I just wanted to say that I completely agree with your distaste for folk music and the choice of “Masters of War” over “If I Had a Hammer” is fantastic! It’s such fucking boring music!

    • It doesn’t look like Pete let him so much as Mr. Hurt had taken control of the segment. And you’re right, they look so unnatural, like the hipsters everyone gives shit to about their attempts at authenticity.

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