The Death of 'Stalin's Songbird'

Pete Seeger’s love of Stalinist ideals endured through the nightmare of pogroms and purge trials in the Soviet Union. His totalitarian sympathies should not be whitewashed.

Gai Terrell/Redferns/Getty

Along with countless other sensible people, I have often bristled at the mindless deification of Pete Seeger, the nonagenarian folk singer who died yesterday at age 94. I have no doubt that Seeger was a lovely man (a mutual friend, who became a dedicated enemy of Seeger’s far-left politics, once assured me that he was), nor can one argue with his outsized influence on American music. And we all remember good-but-overpraised songs like If I Had a Hammer and the treacly classic Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

But as the encomiums threaten to overwhelm, it’s important to remember that Seeger, once an avowed Stalinist, was a political singer devoted to a sinister political system--a position he held long after the Soviet experiment drenched itself in blood and collapsed in ignominy. So while we wistfully recall the foot-stomping versions of This Land is Your Land, let us not forget Seeger’s musical assaults on the supposedly warmongering F.D.R. (see the justly forgotten Ballad of October 16th), featured on a record presciently released on the very day the Nazi-Soviet Pact collapsed. As Moscow instantly shifted its position from fascist accommodationism to fighting what it had previously denounced as a war for big business, Seeger and his fellow folkies in the Almanac Singers recalled the record and retooled their allegiances. It was soon replaced by a series of pro-war, pro-F.D.R. songs. Art must be used in service of the people—and is always subject to the vicissitudes of the party line.

And few, if any, obituarists have mentioned the forgotten classic Hey Zhankoye, a bizarre bit of Stalinist agitprop Seeger translated from Yiddish, recorded with the Berry Sisters, and frequently revisited during subsequent live performances. Historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of Seeger's, reminds us that as Stalin cranked up his brutal post-war anti-Semitic pogroms, he was singing of a collective farm (“paradise”) where Soviet Jews lived like kings:

There's a little railroad depot known quite wellBy all the peopleCalled Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzahn.Now if you look for paradiseYou'll see it there before your eyesStop your search and go no further onThere we have a collective farmAll run by husky Jewish armsAt Zhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan

It’s no surprise that a man who believed the purge trials—during which approximately a million innocents were executed—were rough but necessary justice would also ignore the brutal, sustained, and widely-known campaign against Soviet Jewry.

This is ugly stuff that the countless Seeger books, documentaries, and remembrances seem to always strenuously whitewash or subtly downplay. Writing in the Boston Review, William Hogeland criticized a PBS hagiography of Seeger for eliding his troubling politics: "Cleansing the story of anything possibly upsetting or even nuanced, the filmmakers must be hoping to certify Seeger, despite former Soviet attachments, as an unimpeachably great American cultural figure of the kind often celebrated on PBS American Masters. Gained at the cost of falsehood, certification not only does no good, it weakens our grasp on the truth.”

Seeger’s party membership, which he has since openly acknowledged, is rendered by the Washington Post's obituarist in the most anodyne way conceivable: “For a period during his Harvard years, he attended meetings of the Communist Party.” And that’s the extent of his association.

Or the countless mentions of his bravura performance in front of the HUAC (Slate called it “extraordinary and historic”), during which he schooled his dopey inquisitors on freedom of association and the necessary freedom to not be hauled before a congressional committee for holding heterodox political beliefs. Seeger was absolutely right, of course, though shouldn't we mention that in the political systems he supported, such freedoms weren't even a matter of debate? That a Russian dissident would have celebrated the opportunity to debate his slave master and walk away a persecuted but free man?

Seeger never really did abandon the dream of communism, despite the inconvenient fact that it had long since (starting around 1918) transformed into a pitiful nightmare. So it was unsurprising that in 1995 he would provide an effusive blurb for a book of poetry written by Tomas Borge, the brutal secret police chief and interior minister of Sandinista Nicaragua (“An extraordinary collection of poems and prose”). When it was reported in 2007 that he had, at long last, written a piece of anti-Stalin doggerel, the New York Times leapt to his defense, noting that Seeger--who was not only quiet on the crimes of Stalin, but the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the various gulags dotting the Soviet empire--had previously distanced himself from the Kremlin mountaineer:

"Mr. Seeger, 87, made such statements years ago, at least as early as his 1993 book, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In the book, he said in a 1995 interview with the New York Times Magazine, he had apologized "for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader."

As I noted at the time, this is an astonishingly lazy defense: at least as early as 1993, a mere forty years after Stalin’s death? And perhaps I am expecting a bit too much, but it seems slightly understated to describe a man responsible for tens of millions of deaths as a “cruel misleader.”

But the misty-eyed remembrances of Seeger demonstrate a depressing truism: slavish devotion to totalitarianism isn’t necessarily a character flaw, provided one makes sufficient reference to “the workers,” “freedom,” “peace,” and “equality.” For all of these contributions to the losing side of history, he talked enough peace, equality, and freedom to be eulogized by President Obama. Seeger, the president said, “believed in the power of community--to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.” Which, according to party orthodoxy, would have been an economically backward, single-ideology vassal state of the Soviet Union.