The New York Times wants you to know Pete Seeger renounced Joseph Stalin “years” before his 2007 song “Big Joe Blues.”
In fact, as the Times reported at the time, the folk singer criticized the Soviet dictator “at least as early” as 1993, only 40 years after Stalin’s death.
The Gray Lady dryly summarized the matter: “If anything, the interest in Mr. Seeger’s views on the Soviet Union shows the durability of cold war ideological debates.”
Those debates are once again proving durable now that Seeger has died at age 94.
Nicholas Kristof — a New York Times columnist, natch — described Seeger as someone “whose folk music backed the civil rights movement and stood up to Congress.” The Nation’s John Nichols wrote that Seeger “surrounded hate and forced it to surrender.” (It’s an adaptation of Seeger’s line about his banjo.)
There’s been plenty of criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with which the singer refused to cooperate. Some of this coverage comes painfully close to suggesting that HUAC and Joe McCarthy were the biggest, even the only, injustices of the Cold War era. (Alger Hiss was guilty, by the way).
Deep dives into the political beliefs of musicians and other celebrities, red-baiting or otherwise, are often dumb. Many of them harbor misguided views out of naivete more than malice, as was almost certainly true for Seeger himself. They see sins in their own country, like racism, excessive resort to military force and corporate misconduct, while assuming available alternatives are without sin.
It’s a shortcoming of figures far more significant than Seeger, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela.
In some ways, Seeger was better than other politically expressive singer-songwriters. Yes, he went much further in endorsing an evil political system than most. But he also went further than many in acknowledging error on that front.
Nevertheless, you can’t have it both ways. Seeger is being lauded not just for his music, but his politics. Even President Barack Obama praised Seeger as someone who tried to “move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”
The president said Seeger “believed deeply in the power of song” but also “in the power of community.”
Indeed, Seeger has been celebrated for making it from the blacklist to Obama’s inaugural.
Community is the IS-1 tank and the liquidation of the kulaks? I guess government really is another word for the things we do together.