Pete Seeger

When someone like this dies at 94, working for what he thought was right to the very end, I don’t think there’s anything to be sad about.  Seeger’s political judgment wasn’t always the best, though he was wrong ‘for the right reasons’ (ignorance and misplaced hope, not bloody-mindedness or cruelty), and in the days he got Stalin wrong, a lot of good people did the same.  A fine musician, and a big heart.

When lefties were finding him jobs during the blacklist, he was my fourth and fifth-grade music teacher.  I still remember all the Spanish Civil War songs, union songs, and political songs he taught us, and there were a lot.  I will always think of him leading a big group of people singing together about something important, which he did as long as he could hold the banjo inscribed “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

No tears, just gratitude.  Pete would have loved this song: “When I die, I don’t want crying and candles…I want a yellow ribbon…and a pretty girl dancing on my coffin…just music from a flute, guitar and cavaquinho.”  He would surely remind us of Joe Hill’s valedictory: “Don’t mourn for me, organize!”

Goodbye, Pete, and thanks.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

28 thoughts on “Pete Seeger”

  1. Well, when he first “got Stalin wrong”, a lot of people were making that mistake, (Aided by the work of propagandists like Duranty.) though a lot weren’t.

    But, towards the end of when he “got Stalin wrong”? Not so much, no. The best that can be said is that he stuck by Stalin way too long. And stuck by communism long after anybody with any sense would understand how evil it was. At best willful blindness.

    I feel like I’m channeling the Joker, though, when I say that he was a great musician, even knowing that he was an apologist for a murderous ideology.

    1. Seeger was wrong about what was happening in the Soviet Union. He was right about what was happening in the US, though, championing civil rights (a home-grown murderous ideology), the environment (home-grown slow motion murder), Vietnam, and unions, among other things. I don’t know how many Soviets suffered as a direct result of anything Seeger did, but the suffering of quite a few Americans was relieved by Seeger’s activism.

      1. We don’t give people a pass on being nazis, just because they claim good intent, or did good works. I don’t see any good reason why communists should get any more of a pass.

        All the good Seeger did in his life would have been drowned in blood, if ever he had succeeded in bringing communism to the US. His greatest ambition was an abject failure, and we should never forget we can think well of him only because of this.

        1. “We don’t give people a pass on being nazis, just because they claim good intent, or did good works. I don’t see any good reason why communists should get any more of a pass.”

          Well, we gave Martin Heidegger a pass, and his works are still required reading for courses in modern philosophy.

          We gave George Bernard Shaw a pass, even though he did praise Hitler for remilitarizing the Rhineland and abrogating the Treaty of Versailles, which Shaw saw as unjust. He said that if the fortunes of the Great War had been reversed, and if England had been on the receiving end of such a treaty, he would hope that an English political leader would come along and do what Hitler had just done.

          We give Ezra Pound a pass and place his poetry into college literature courses, even though he was active in working for the fascists during WW2.

          Heidegger was a great philosopher, Shaw was a great playwright, and Pound was a great poet. The causes that Pete Seeger supported during the lifetime of most of us were just causes. We should continue to support those causes today; their rightness is not affected by Seeger’s unwillingness to see Stalin for who he was until rather late in the game.

          1. And I still don’t see why we should give communists a pass.

            Historically, the only reason communists get treated differently from Nazis is that, after starting WWII on Hitler’s side, Stalin switched sides after Hitler attacked the USSR. So they were nominally our allies for a while.

            But, objectively, communism had the bigger body count. It was the evil of Nazism, with staying power.

          2. Okay, I could make the point that there’s a distinction between Stalinism and communism more broadly, and you could make the counterpoint that communism hasn’t worked out very well in most other places either, but instead I’ll just say that I don’t think we’re exactly “giving him a pass”, except in the sense that Ed Whitney means it, so much as acknowledging that it was a mistake and one he later realized was a mistake, and trying to weigh that against the righteousness of most of his other causes in the subsequent 60+ years.

          3. Actually, while we are listing proto-fascists who were given a pass, let’s not forget some Americans. Folks like Charles Lindbergh, Prescott Bush and Henry Ford were at the least sympathetic to fascists if not outright supporters.

          4. Nazism set out to do evil from the very beginning. It was evil by design. Communism set out to do good and failed.

            That’s a difference which matters when you judge the individuals who advocate a system.

          5. Both claimed to be intent on doing good, both did evil. Considering how consistently communists managed to do evil, I don’t give the claim they intended good much credence.

        2. American Communists were active in the early (’30s) civil rights movement, defending black Americans from unjust prosecution – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottsboro_Boys for an example. (not Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians)

          Tarring _all_ their actions with the Soviet Communist Party’s repression, much happening after the ’30s is too far.

    2. It’s also worth pointing out that Seeger ended his affiliation with the CPUSA… 60+ years ago. And did an awful lot thereafter.

  2. I woke up this morning still bummed about reading the news last night. Now you’ve turned me on to a wonderful voice from Brazil I didn’t know. Apparently, Pete Seeger lives after all.

    1. Pete Seeger will live as long people can sing.

      During his blacklist days, Pete worked with many of the next generation of folk singers: Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Zimmerman (better known as Bob Dylan), Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and the list goes on. They sang (and continue to sing) his songs. In their turn, they have worked the next generation.

      A list of Pete’s songs is almost a history of the protest movement of 1960s: Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn… . His book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo is complete and it helped preserved a style of playing that was in danger of dying. It’s also one of the most cryptic books I own. (My father, a far better string player than I, assures me it is all there.)

      As far as staying with the CPUSA is concerned, perhaps Pete stayed because of his father’s influence and sacrifices. Lord knows I stayed associated with the Republican Party far too long to honor my parents’ commitment. For me, the bottom line on Seeger’s understanding of the communists was his statement later in life that if the Communists had taken over he would have been one of the first people rounded up and jailed.

      There’s going to a hell of a hootenanny somewhere tonight.

  3. Just maybe, you could’ve worked “civil rights” into the first paragraph and left Stalin for later, if at all? Seriously, Stalin died before I was born, and I’m not all that young, not to accuse anyone of being stuck in long-ago political battles with a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps the titleof a single song Seeger sang, before mentioning a dictator he was soft on? A really radical idea — mentioning American deniers of rights Seeger spent a lifetime opposing.

  4. You’re kidding — he was your music teacher? Wow!

    My sons have grown up listening to his animal folk songs, my wife and I were lucky enough to see him bring Amazing Grace to life in concert, and our parents were fans as well. We pulled up the Spotify Pete Seeger this morning this morning and when “We Shall Overcome” came on my 5-year-old announced gleefully, “That’s the March on Washington song!” Then the Woodie Guthrie covers, Bring em Home, Jericho, etc. An incredible run.

  5. My mom taught Seeger Russian language at Berlitz. He was always offering her tickets to his shows and seemed surprised that she don’t know who he was. (It’s not her fault–immigrants often occupy a parallel universe.)

    She always speaks fondly of him.

  6. This Machine Surrounds Hate
    And Forces It to Surrender

    Seeger had that placed on the head of his banjo as an echo of the sticker on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” I prefer Pete’s sentiments.

  7. Seeger had an unfortunate affinity for a US ally, and appropriately repented without doing any real damage. Certainly the people who persecuted Seeger for it have more to answer for than does Seeger himself.

    All kinds of hideous people – not people who made errors, but people who set out to accomplish evil and succeeded – are given a free pass in US life even absent repentance.

    The people who are pissed off at Seeger’s dalliance with communism have no coherent, proportional argument to make at all on the subject, as Brett demonstrates. What these people are pissed off about is his decency – his support of civil rights, opposition to Vietnam, etc.

    1. If you hate the causes that Seeger fought for – civil rights, for example, or environmentalism – you’ll use whatever you can to discredit a prominent proponent of those causes.

  8. Age should influence the severity of any judgment about Seeger’s political perceptiveness. He was about 12 or 13 during the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, and was in his teens during the great show trials. By the time Seeger was an adult, Stalin was our wartime ally. But Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were already grownups when Hitler came to power.

    As intimated above by Phil, we also gave a pass, not to mention American citizenship, to Wernher von Braun, and it was probably a good thing we did. His SS membership and his creation of the V-2 rocket, which was manufactured by slave labor, was all forgiven right after the war.

    And, as has also been pointed out above, no one past high school should countenance any argument which has the form “Pete Seeger praised Stalin when he was young; therefore, we should not try to rebuild the strength of labor unions, we should support hawkish foreign policies, and we should tell the Knee Grows to be happy with the rights they already have.”

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