If Every Concert Were A Benefit, Pete Seeger Would Be Frank Sinatra

Photo by Josef Schwarz via Wikimedia Commons
Pete Seeger
[The following article, written by Tom Smucker, ran in The Village Voice on
October 16, 1976

See also: Legendary Texas Punk Tim Kerr's Tribute to Folk Hero Pete Seeger

I had a friend, about 10 years ago in Chicago, who owned a banjo, but liked classical music. So he tried to play the banjo with "classical" instruments like violas and cellos, but it never worked out right. Most of the records he bought and concerts he went to were classical, and I thought his interest in folk music had disappeared. But whenever Pete Seeger came to the Opera House, he would buy two top-priced tickets for each show. Which cost a lot of money.

I wondered why my friend would spend so much money on a type of music he wasn't into anymore. But even though I knew his father was an old labor organizer in the steel mills, it wasn't until I was older, and met more children and charter members of the Old Left, that I understood. Folk music, as presented by Pete Seeger, was the musical culture of the Old Left.

Southern Baptists liked to sing quaint old campmeeting rousers with a sort of rigid ragtime piano style. Mainline white suburban Protestants liked to sing old English hymns with an organ played so loud it drowned out everybody but the choir. And Old Lefties, mainly from New York, liked songs from Appalachia with banos in which the word "Jesus" was often changed to "the union."

No one likes to bullshit more than me about left-wing sects, and how their politics and cultures differ. And it is interesting to try and figure out why folk music, of all musical styles, got associated with the Communist party, of all political groups.

Initially, as I understand it, CP music was usually performed by choral groups. At one time, in fact, there were so few native-born American members that none of the groups sang in English. So why did a movement (hopefully) of the urban proletariat choose songs of the rural "folk" as its musical mode of propaganda? I mean, it's not automatically obvious, right? Why folk music rather than Irving Berlin parodies, let's say?

Was it as misguided attempt at assimilation by the largely East European membership? A more subtle cultural perception that has yet to be explored? Or just that a lot of the creative folk music revival figures like Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger's father Charles found a sympathetic ear in the orbit around the CP at the time?

For whatever reason, it happened. So that if one bothers to trace it, the career of a performer like Pete Seeger follows some kind of party "line." At an early point, Seeger and the other Almanac singers even changed their repertoire from anti-war to pro-war songs when Germany invaded Russia during World War II and voided the Hitler-Stalin pact. But in general, particularly after the 1950's, these folksingers reflected a vaguer political and cultural consensus of those once, but not necessarily still, associated with the CP, who still identified themselves as radicals.

So much so that my banjo-playing pal, when he had apparently lost interest in "folk music" itself, still felt loyal to the representative of the culture of his childhood, Pete Seeger. Or from the opposite point of view, the people who own television stations kept him off the air for 17 years. Or as a friend of mine, who calls herself a "dirty Trot," put it: "Ugh, that Stalinist! I used to crawl under the seat when my parents took me to his concerts."

But enough, before everyone who can't tell Trotsky from Stalin, or CP from SWP or UPI, quits reading this. Because, although it's interesting that Pete Seeger represents the culture of a distinct minority group ('30s-'40s Communist), what's more interesting to me is that you never had to be up on Old Lefty politics to be a Seeger fan.

I'm a good example. When I went to my first Pete Seeger concert, a long time ago, I couldn't figure out how a paper called The Militant could be sold by someone who said he had just been on a peace march. I liked Pete Seeger. I didn't understand the milieu.

There's a definite (although flexible) political perspective at work in the man's music. And I find it interesting to watch how he uses that perspective. But he projects his politics through music broad enough to reach people outside of his immediate political framework. Something "political" music rarely does.

So that understand the ins and outs of left-wing politics isn't necessary for relating to his music. You can enjoy John Denver without knowing about Erhard and est. You can enjoy Pete Seeger without knowing about Browder and CPUSA.

Which doesn't make him Elton John. He has made it into the pop heap at least twice (during the middle-'60s civil rights folk revival, and in the early '50's, when he was with the Weavers and they hit the top 10). But old ballads and protest songs accompanied by a five-string banjo have not remained a mainstream taste.

Still, if it wasn't for Seeger, and later Earl Scruggs, there would be no taste for banjos at all.

"Unlike the others, who accompany themselves on guitars, Seeger strums the almost extinct long-necked banjo" noted Variety in 1947, when he debuted at the Village Vanguard. And concluded, "the lad...should make out okay." But why did he?

For one thing, although those who commie-bait him wouldn't suspect it, the man's politics are fairly supple. In the course of a long conversation he volunteered that "art is ambiguous," that "the truth is like a rabbit in a bramble patch," and that "you have to compromise, although there's a difference between compromising and selling out." These are sentiments that might be forced out of a rigid left-winger. But they aren't the kind of thing such people come up with on their own. Believe me, I know.

This suppleness has led to an interesting twist in his career over the last few years. Rather than continue with nationwide or worldwide tours much anymore, he's been spending more time around where he lives in Beacon, New York. Or promoting ecology and a clean Hudson River on the sloop Clearwater. A boat which is not his boat, he was quick to point out. He's just one of many owners.

When we caught up with him a few weeks ago, he showed us the volunteer people's park he's involved with in Beacon, with a soon-to-be-debuted nonpolluting outhouse that turns shit and garbage into humus.

And when we saw him perform, it was at a benefit for the New Haven equivalent of the Clearwater. Which was attended by about 400 people, standing in the rain.

His localism has kept him politically alert in a time when large political generalizations are in a state of bad repair because it has anchored him to a specific situation. And it has also preserved the vitality of his music.

Watching Seeger at one of his regular concerts (or "benefits for my manager," as he calls them) can make for an enjoyable and somewhat nostalgic time. But it is hard to muster enthusiasm for many of the old songs when memories of their earlier energy are in your mind for comparison.

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