01.30.2014

The Sound of the Small C

  • Alexander Billet

Pete Seeger represented a musical tradition that can’t be divorced from American radicalism.

Pete Seeger’s life and work have a strange symmetry. He lived almost a century, yet until his dying day seemed frozen in time — not a relic, but a reminder that despite all mainstream arguments to the contrary, American culture has always had an organic and irresistible socialist streak living within.

It speaks volumes that even Fox News has heaped a kind of awkward praise on Seeger’s music and persona. But even as most outlets equivocate about his membership in the Communist Party, it’s impossible to separate Seeger the artist from Seeger the communist (with, as he was a fan of saying, a small “c”).

He lived one of those extraordinary lives which track history’s ups and down: Joining the Communist Party at the height of the working class rebellions of the 1930s, leaving after World War II as the heavy-handedness of Stalinism became clearer. Along with Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, he was among the leftists who literally had to flee for their lives from a mob of KKK members looking to shut down a Civil Rights benefit concert in Peekskill, New York, in 1949.

Those riots weren’t just an opening shot for McCarthyism. They pushed folk music off the streets and into the coffee houses on society’s margins. Seeger himself was sentenced to jail and blacklisted for giving the House Un-American Activities Committee a hard time.

During the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and their attendant folk revival, Seeger served as something of an elder statesman; he claimed it was he who changed the line “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome.” He sang for the anti-nuclear and environmental movements during the 1980s and supported Solidarność in Poland as a potential force for real socialism against its Stalinoid pretender.

Like much of the Left, he was enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s election in 2008; he and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day before the inauguration. No matter how quickly the hope faded, the performance is breathtaking by any standard. But a better indicator of his legacy is the performance he gave during Occupy Wall Street, along with Guthrie’s son Arlo. He marched with Occupiers to Zuccotti aided by two canes at the age of ninety-one.

Seeger did not actually write many of the songs he became known for. They were old folk standards that had been updated by him or his collaborators. The folk music milieu of the 1930s was a profoundly communal atmosphere, with musicians frequently borrowing from each other at will. And yet, even performing others’ work, Seeger’s arrangements and sensitivity, his depth of musicianship, made him compelling. There was a certain amount of understated theatricality when he sang — an element that seems overlooked today by many when they think of folk music.

His version of “Jarama Valley” with the Almanac Singers, dedicated to Spanish Republicans slaughtered by Franco’s fascists, sounds as if it’s sung by ghosts, right down to the gentle whistling in the background. There is an appropriate menacing satisfaction in “Buffalo Skinners” when he describes leaving an unscrupulous boss dead on the plains, “his bones bleaching in the sun.”

But he also had a true talent for humor. His lilting tenor had a versatility to it that made him capable of the sly shifts in tone necessary for communicating sarcasm and wit. A 1963 live performance of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” truly brings the impish absurdity of the song to the forefront. Listening to it now we can hear why an audience eager to be rid of stultifying McCarthyism would laugh at the notion of bland suburbanites being “made out of ticky-tacky” and getting “put in boxes.” And of course, every labor song he performed had the rousing collective heartbeat of an anthem.

Not that he was a lightweight in songwriting. A key instance of his sophisticated capabilities with words is found in the original version of “Union Maid.” Though the words telling the story of the woman union activist “who never was afraid” are well-known, the original lyrics are far more dramatic, even grotesque. Co-written with Woody Guthrie during a trip to Oklahoma, they describe the real-life torture of Anna Mae Merriweather, a black organizer with the Sharecroppers Union in Alabama. It’s a harrowing tale, mixed with a righteous wrath straight out of the Old Testament.

There are hundreds of others. “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” — these are some of the most recognized songs in popular music. It seems appropriate that just as Seeger popularized songs written by others, so were these songs transplanted into the ether of the 1960s by the likes of the Byrds, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.


All of this makes for an impressive obituary. But appreciating Seeger’s importance requires a much deeper understanding both of the state of popular music in the 1930s and its interaction with the class struggles that characterized that decade.

Seeger, raised in a family of highly-trained classical musicians and musicologists, became attracted to folk music when he was sixteen. At that time, the very notion of “popular music” was still very novel.

The industrial revolution brought the production of sheet music and later recorded sound, making it possible for songs to travel quickly and thus gain a following from workers across disparate areas. Come the stock market crash of 1929, it wasn’t just the phonograph but radio that made this possible. Folk genres like the blues, jazz, hillbilly, and cowboy music had been hitherto a marginal force, provincialized and isolated, rarely taken seriously. Now they were able to travel, crossbreed, and influence listeners from hundreds of miles away.

Yet the Communist Party that Seeger joined in the mid-1930s seemed itself rather stuck, even snobbishly dismissive of the potential that existed in the popularization of folk culture. He was, as Joe Klein describes:

something of a renegade member of the Pierre Degeyter Club, a society of American Communist musicians . . . Just as Communist labor organizers were attempting to form their own separate trade unions in the early 1930s, Communist musicians wanted to develop a new, distinct “proletarian” music — music the victorious workers would enjoy after the revolution. To the Degeyter group, this seemed to mean the ponderous, hortatory choral tradition of the German Communist Hanns Eisler. Their idea of proletarian music was a “workers’ chorus” singing clangorous, oddly formal compositions like “The Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die” or “The Comintern.” When Seeger brought Aunt Molly Jackson, fresh from the Harlan County coal wars, to the Degeyter Club and had her sing “I Am a Union Woman,” the reaction was “That’s very nice, but what does it have to do with proletarian music?”

Though Klein’s characterization is mostly spot-on, he mistakenly positions Seeger’s outlook as opposed to that of Eisler. In fact, as Mat Callahan argues in The Trouble With Music, Seeger saw his work with folk music as complementary to radical cultural theorists and composers such as Eisler, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer. But while these thinkers had at best a complicated relationship with the new popular music, Seeger threw himself headlong into it, arguing that there was something in such music that workers not only identified with but that might set their own natural creativity ablaze.

Some of it sprung from Seeger’s own almost primitivistic sense of simplicity. He often spoke in glowing terms about the communism in pre-class societies. He was also, however, quoted as saying, “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

This was romantic anti-capitalism personified, fighting “against the tide of modernity” as Michael Lowy would say, against the robbing and regimentation of time that was sapping workers’ lives away. But there was also something profoundly modernist about it — not coincidentally, popular culture and modernism both hit a turning point in the 1930s.

This was not the overwhelming of the sophisticated by the crude, of “serious music” by the “lowbrow,” as many have argued. It was a conscious political and cultural outlook for which the tasks of lifting up forms of art forged in the subaltern and pushing against the formalities of bourgeois culture could be one and the same. Though Seeger was key in pushing the argument within the Communist Party, he represented many others in the progressive and radical ranks of artistic expressives.

His father Charles was classically trained, but he also served as an administrator in the Federal Music Project of the WPA, and was known to occasionally help his friend Alan Lomax in cataloging folk songs that otherwise may have been lost to the lawnmower of industrial capitalism. The younger Seeger’s stepmother is herself to this day regarded as one of the most important modernist composers of her time, but was also fascinated with folk music and contributed arrangements to Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag. The Greenwich Village where Seeger spent his teenage years was awash with avant-garde artists looking to redefine Americana.

This was a reinvention right at the intersection of artistic bohemianism and political upheaval, both balanced upon a tipping point in the history of recorded sound. As ideas of socialism became nearly hegemonic among ordinary people, the idea floated within popular culture that they could reshape the arts just as they could the world at large. The very term “popular culture,” still so new at that point, practically begged its audience to take ownership of it.

It was here that Seeger’s own artistry, his skill at reinterpreting and dramatizing songs, updating their subjects, was so crucial. These performances, with the Almanacs, the Weavers, or by himself, gave voice not to some abstract world later to be won, exciting though that can be. Their lyrics consciously voiced that microcosmic feeling of triumph when workers are able to steal back time and reassert their own control — be it on the picket line, the union hall, or even enjoying a day off.

Such ideas were rife within the culture that emerged from the era in music, film, theater, art, literature. The Communist Party would end up embracing folk music as a tactic of its Popular Front phase. And though most of the aesthetics that rose from the Popular Front years hewed closer to the realist than the experimental, very few of them would survive the hammer of McCarthyism. Folk, on the other hand, would endure well beyond the decline of the American CP.

When folk resurfaced as a significant cultural force during the struggles of the 1960s, entirely different progressive and militant organizations were leading the way. Seeger made it a point to be there. He may have allegedly wanted to take a hatchet to Bob Dylan’s PA at the Newport Folk Festival, but folk-rock’s mixture of jangly amplification with honest storytelling was in keeping with the spirit of reinterpretation that Seeger’s generation had introduced to music. By then the notion that Seeger had pushed — that if something has become stale and used, it should be scrapped or remade — was embedded in popular culture.

Folk itself has gone through countless more iterations, swerving into and crossing over with many other genres, always somehow finding its way back to the rallies and grassroots actions. Some things just never change. And some on the Right are still shrieking about communists plotting to infiltrate popular culture. Maybe they’re onto something. It’s not hard to imagine Pete Seeger laughing at them, even now.