by Dick Flacks from Jewish Currents: Activist Politics and Art
Editor’s note: Pete Seeger died at 94 on January 27th, after a short hospitalization. We’re reposting this fine appreciation by our contributing writer Dick Flacks, originally published in Jewish Currents in 2009.
When Pete Seeger turned 90 on May 3rd, providing the occasion for a huge celebratory concert in Madison Square Garden featuring a wide array of popular musicians, Pete got more mainstream attention than he’d received in the previous seventy years. Bruce Springsteen had toured internationally with a large band playing material from Pete’s folksong repertory over the previous two years. There was a documentary film in theaters and on public television, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Two new biographies are in the stores (To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, by Allan Winkler, and The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, by Alec Wilkinson), and David King Dunaway’s earlier work, How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger, has been updated and republished. There’s even an ongoing campaign to get Seeger nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The attention he is now getting is certainly deserved, given his life story and his influence on American music. One feature of that story, however, is that he is one of the least-known famous people in America. I use protest music a lot in my teaching about social movements, and over the years I’ve found that fewer than five percent of my students can identify him. Even with the attention he’s received in recent years, he remains paradoxically shadowy, given his political and cultural influence.
This paradox goes to the heart of what his life project has been. One obvious reason for Seeger’s marginalization has been his commitment to the political left. His father, noted composer and musicologist Charles Seeger, was an important leader of the cultural front fostered by the Communist Party during the 1930s. Charles helped form a composers’ collective that sought to create a new music for revolutionary workers and to preserve and reinvigorate folk and vernacular musics as an alternative to commodified mass culture (its members included Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, and other young radical musicians). So Pete grew up immersed in the left. He joined the Young Communist League during his brief time at Harvard, and was a Communist Party member (according to his biographers) during most of the 1940s. Although he dropped formal membership in the CP in the late 1940s, he was one of the star cultural figures of the communist-oriented left for many years after. Teenagers like me and my wife (both red-diaper babies) were proud that Pete was “ours,” appearing at the benefits, hootenannies, summer camps and rallies that defined much of our cultural lives during the 1950s, when kids of our background felt pretty isolated from the political and cultural main-stream. His allegiances made him the prototype of the blacklisted entertainer — and it was the blacklist that excluded him from television and blanked him out of the awareness of mainstream America.