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: