Sight and sound with Pete Seeger

PeteSeeger2Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News offered an amazing package about Pete Seeger on Saturday and Sunday, including a Q&A about his nominal Unitarianism, another Q&A on his standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and his life as a happy lefty; and still another brief feature on his strawberry shortcake recipe.

Better still, a sidebar offers several MP3s in which Seeger, 86, performs at the Beacon Sloop Club’s Strawberry Shortcake Festival, voices his disapproval of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and offers his advice for reforming the U.N. This package is a good example of how reporters can combine writing and sound without pandering.

Two segments are especially striking. First is the pleasant surprise of Seeger’s respect for two staples of modern evangelical music-making — projecting lyrics onto a wall, and repeating lyrics over and over and over:

Question: Other than performing, what message did you have for the Unitarian Universalist convention in Fort Worth?

Answer: The point I wanted to make to Unitarians is, too often you ask your congregations to sing, and they’re supposed to open the hymnbook and turn to page such-and-such. With their noses buried in their hymnbook, they aren’t really singing. They’re kind of mumbling. I want them to start doing what some evangelical churches do — they project the words on the wall and everybody has their face up and they’re singing out!

Also I’ve tried to persuade them to have songs with more repetition. This is the great thing about spirituals and gospel songs. More repetition.

And in these paragraphs, Seeger reflects on communism and moral equivalence:

Question: How did you become a communist?

Answer: I joined the Young Communist league in 1937 in college — because Hitler was helping Franco take over Spain. And [Maxim] Litvinov stood up in the League of Nations — he was the Soviet representative in the League of Nations — and said all aggressors should be quarantined, that is, boycotted. He was talking about Japan in Manchuria, Italy in Ethiopia and Hitler and Franco and so on. Well, they just laughed.

Question: But didn’t Stalin turn out to be one of the worst despots of the 20th century?

Answer: Well, when it comes to big ones. But there’s bad ones all over. And, you know, for 50 years, the United States has helped control the politics of Latin America. And they have the School of the Americas, they call it, in Fort Benning, Ga. Training military — Latin American military men — how to torture, how to massacre, how to assassinate.

Question: But the U.S.S.R. really was an enemy of the U.S.A., yes?

Answer: Not necessarily. The communists claimed, I won’t say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution. It wasn’t Soviet soldiers helping Mao Zedong take over China. They could applaud them and perhaps even help them. But they didn’t likewise in Vietnam or Cuba.

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  • ECJ

    “The communists claimed, I won’t say they all believed it, that they would encourage revolutions all around the world. But the people of each country had to make their own revolution.”

    Well except for Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the eastern half of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, and what used to be Yugoslavia. No, the Red Army had nothing to do with the establishment of Communist governments in these countries.

    Considering that the Communists killed more people (estimated 9-16 million) in the six months of the Ukraine Famine then the Nazis killed in the entire life span of the death camps, why do people like Seeger get such good press? No one ever gives a Nazi good press. Shouldn’t we hold ersatz revolutionaries like Seeger to account for what they preach?


  • Charlie

    “…why do people like Seeger get such good press?” Artists are often held to a more generous standard, it seems. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s filmmaker, always claimed she had no knowledge of what Hitler was really doing. Her talent was greatly admired, and that was enough for some to give her the benefit of the doubt (though she never made another film).

    Seeger at least now admits that he made a mistake in judgment and failed to understand the true nature of Soviet Communism.

  • Terrence Berres

    I have the impression Riefenstahl did not eventually receive any award equivalent to Seeger’s 1994 Presidential Medal of the Arts.

  • ECJ

    “Seeger at least now admits that he made a mistake in judgment and failed to understand the true nature of Soviet Communism.”

    Yes, and it’s that modifier ‘Soviet’ that irritates me. He implies that it isn’t communism per se that is at fault – its “Soviet” communism. What is Seeger doing besides attempting to distance his cause from the crimes of the regimes that instantiated it? It’s yet one more version of the “If only Lenin hadn’t died, things would have been different” argument. No they wouldn’t.

    The Left is always looking for the next revolution in hopes that it will not be consumed in blood. But invariably the blood flows thick. And they never take responsibility for what they do. The Left will never allow responsibility be laid at the feet of the poisonous ideology which has given birth to all this death and destruction. It’s their ideology too.

    Whittaker Chambers recognized the evil of Soviet Communism. Would Peter Seeger would do the same. But the media – they just ignore all this and give him fawning interviews. David Duke should be so lucky. No enemies on the left, I guess.


  • Tom Breen

    A lot of old Communists get a pass from the media, but then, so do a lot of old Nazis. When the noted modernist architect Philip Johnson died in January, most of the obits I read fawned over his glass house and his legendarily warm personality. Both the NY Times and the Washington Post called him the “elder statesman” of American architecture.

    Neither mentioned his efforts in the 1930s at organizing a fascist party in the United States, nor his comments upon seeing, as an invited guest of Hitler’s, the Wehrmacht sack Poland in 1939: “We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”

    But to what extent do we hold artists culpable for their attraction to evil ideologies? Particularly in the case of someone like Seeger, who is less guilty of direct collaboration with totalitarianism than, say, Ezra Pound, I wonder where to draw the line.

    It’s depressing to see that Seeger hasn’t entirely abandoned the mythology of Communism, but to what extent does it matter? Can’t a reporter take his life as a whole, his mistakes as well as his triumphs?

  • Victor Morton

    I can’t believe what Charlie wrote. First, we get:

    Artists are often held to a more generous standard, it seems.

    … followed by …

    though she never made another film (which isn’t quite accurate but close enough for government work)

    … I mean, it boggles the mind. Do people even read their own posts? If she was de facto blacklisted for almost 60 years, how is that a “more generous standard”? More generous than what standards that nonartist Germans/Soviets/post-Mao Chinese/post-Apartheid South Africans, etc., were held to

    Plus the words attributed to Seeger:

    Seeger at least now admits that he made a mistake in judgment and failed to understand the true nature of Soviet Communism.

    … were said many times by Leni Riefenstahl, although she wouldn’t ever repudiate her 30s work.

  • Charlie

    I always read my own posts, Victor. Note my use of the word “often” to modify “held”. Thus I am making an observation about human nature, not writing a law of physics.

    Riefenstahl paid a much higher price than most artists because her sin, glorfying Hitler, was beyond forgiveness (in a cultural, not a theological sense). Nevertheless, there are many in the artistic community who seemed ready to believe that she was used by Hitler and had paid too high a price. She is an extreme case, but still her talent produced sympathy for her. Which was my point.

    Jane Fonda (another example) has done pretty well for herself despite the backlash of her Viet Nam protests.

  • Stephen A.

    Repetition? Repetition you say?

    How about this: We’ve dug up yet another mouldy old communist. Why? So the left can revel in the “good old days” when communism was chic. Come to think of it, in some circles, it still is.

    It just glides right off us today that Seeger was ‘inspired’ by the priest-killers in Spain to become a Red. Those butchers got off easy because of who the allies of their enemies were.

    But they shouldn’t get away with it, and I credit the reporter for trying to expose his remaining Stalinist sympathies, anyway.

    Another fantasy of the Left is that very few “old Nazis” have been held to account. It’s actually the other way around. Where are all the pro-Nazi singers these days? Very few old (or young) communists have been held to account for actively spouting the nonsense Mr. Seeger still spouts.

    Yeah, Philip Johnson’s fascism failed to make the obits. So did Theo Geisel’s radical Stalinist sympathies. Google “Philip Johnson +fascist” and you’ll get hundreds of anti-Johnson screeds ‘exposing’ him. Type in “Theodore Geisel +communist” and you get no bios at all, just random coincidental name listings. Nope. No bias there.

    And back to religion, if we dare, where’s the news story about the UUers’ support of the Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which has been glorified and justified by the UUers ever since?

    When will they atone for that, or will they, like Seeger, continue to say “The U.S. government supported bad folks, too!” Not a good justification, for Christia…. oops, never mind.

  • ECJ


    If there was any justice in this world, Jane Fonda would have been shot. She didn’t just protest the Vietnam war. She gave aid and comfort to the enemy.

    So how does that not finish her career – ala Charles Lindberg? Because the enemy in question was a communist revolution, and the Left approves of communist revolutions. If she had given aid and comfort to Pinochet, now that would have been different. She would have disappeared like a rock dropped into the Mariana Trench.

    In fact, I suspect that Fonda did more damage to her reputation by becoming a Christian then she did by her trip to Hanoi. What’s treason compared to attaching oneself to a reactionary premodern religion?


  • Erik Nelson

    Ideology can blind people to all sorts of evils, as demonstrated by Seeger, here. Something that we should all remember.

  • Victor Morton


    Even if you were not intending to describe a law of physics, if your point was to argue that artists get a pass for glorifying repugnant ideologies, the solitary example cited in your initial note is this century’s least-applicable case.

    And glorifying Hitler or Nazism is no worse (in either sense) than glorifying Lenin or Communism.

    there are many in the artistic community who seemed ready to believe that she was used by Hitler

    You mean she wasn’t? That “she was used by Hitler” is a fact about which there are not two opinions (the serious disagreement is on whether, and the degree to which, she was used willingly)

    and had paid too high a price

    60 years of de facto blacklisting is NOT? Then why do we have to listen to the caterwaulings about The McCarthyite Reign of Terror in Blacklist-Era Hollywood which consisted (the Ten aside) mostly of people being forced to worked on Broadway, in Europe or under pseudonyms for barely a decade.

  • C. Wingate

    There’s little more to be said than Tom Lehrer said in The Folk SOng Army.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Thanks for the shout-out, Doug.
    And one response to the comments here. These weren’t stories about Seeger. These were Q&As. Which are really very different animals. He’s on the soapbox, I’m writing only the minimum needed to put things in enough context for readers (most of whom weren’t alive when HUAC was active). And readers get to read his words and decide what you think of ‘em. Which you have…1:-{)>

  • Tom Breen

    Stephen A. wrote:
    “Another fantasy of the Left is that very few “old Nazis” have been held to account. It’s actually the other way around. Where are all the pro-Nazi singers these days? Very few old (or young) communists have been held to account for actively spouting the nonsense Mr. Seeger still spouts.”

    Well, actually, if you look at many of the important people in the German government in the decades after World War II, quite a few of them had Nazi pasts that were overlooked. So did a certain rocket scientist named Von Braun, as I recall. Are you going to argue that a banjo player is somehow more important than West German politicians and military leaders, or the father of the space program?

    The left is certainly addled by fantasies, but so is the right. One of the chief rightist fantasies is that everyone on “the left” was secretly in love with Communism and is secretly disappointed that Communism has been defeated (although the governments of China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba still seem to be alive and kicking).

    This is not the case. The history of anti-Communism in the United States is filled with people on the left who opposed it, and opposed it quite a bit more effectively than those on the right. Expelling the Communists from the CIO in 1948 did a great deal more damage to them than anything Joe McCarthy or Joe Welch ever dreamed up.

    It’s ludicrous to take a Q&A with an elderly folk singer as evidence of some grand pro-Communist plot on the left. If you really want to complain about people who are soft on Communism, I recommend you look at the people urging us to ignore the fact that China’s government is still a one-party, Marxist-Leninist state, and that we should instead strive for “engagement.”

  • C. Wingate

    “quite a few of them had Nazi pasts that were overlooked. So did a certain rocket scientist named Von Braun”

    Tom Lehrer again:

    [fake German accent]
    “Once the rockets go up who cares where they come down?
    It’s not my department,”[/accent] says Werner von Braun.

  • Stephen A.

    It’s actually not a secret that the left is in love with Communism.

    Ever watch one of CNN’s fawning pro-Castro pieces, or “light” stories focusing on individual Cubans doing interesting, funny or clever things meant to humanize the regime and gloss over the wretched, oppressive life the masses there are really leading?

    I stand corrected on letting people gloss over their Nazi past, though. But only because I am a bit Ameri-centric and didn’t consider Europe’s experience. And because I forgot about the likes of Von Braun. He took us to the moon, but he was a former Nazi. You got me.

    It’s true that German society overlooked (and still does) the involvement of many people in the Nazi regime. (Japan is far worse in this regard.)

    It must be recognized, however, that everyone over a certain age in Germany must have had some involvement in the regime, so it would be difficult to blacklist an entire nation.

    Of course that’s just what some radicals on the Left want to do, and that’s a bit unfair, since the decision was usually, “Put your kid in Hitler Youth or find yourself in a prison camp.” Most simply did it, but were never enthusiastic Nazis.

    Von Braun himself said he was ordered to join the party (and later, the SS) or he would not be able to work in rocket science any longer. Tough choice. But he said he was never active politically.

    This elderly Communist fellow, however, was and remains an enthusiastic supporter of international totalitarian communism. No regrets, no apologies and no cow-towing, because frankly, no one is demanding he do such things, as we often see on the other side.

    Who’s worse? The unrepentant and unpunished ‘banjo player’ who remains an enthusiastic apostle of old fashioned Communism, or the repentant former nazi rocket scientist who put us on the mooon 36 years ago yesterday?

    The Red. No question.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    Related to Pete Seeger’s revisionism only in the sense of another misappropriated legacy, but how about that Terrell Owens and his “people hated Jesus, too”?

    Story at:

  • Tom Breen


    I’m glad we agree on a few things, but I still don’t think the entire Left can be tainted with a pro-communist brush (nor do I think CNN counts as being part of the Left).

    What, exactly, should Seeger be “punished” for? Being an idiot? That seems like its own punishment.

    Von Braun obviously is going to be a repentant Nazi because his side lost on the battlefield; but at the time, whether he was “forced” to join the party or not, he was an SS officer who oversaw V-2 production facilities that utilized slave labor, including the slave labor of American G.I.s.

    Although Von Braun’s relationship to the Nazi Party and the slave labor at the V-2 production facilities is complex, he’s obviously more culpable in the crimes of Hitler’s regime than Pete Seeger is culpable in the crimes of Stalin.

    I understand the disgust at the seeming free passes that people like Pete Seeger get, but the point is the artists and intellectuals who fell for Communism were little more than dupes.

    And there are still dupes of Communist regimes today: you cite CNN’s soft focus profiles of Cuba, but what about Rupert Murdoch’s enthusiastic support for the Chinese Communist government?

    Check out these fawning remarks from Murdoch:

    The Reds these days are not just on the Left.

  • Stephen A.

    Tom wrote: “What, exactly, should Seeger be “punished” for? Being an idiot? That seems like its own punishment”

    Good point there. But I will expect the same treatment for those on the Right who fall prey to foolishness.

    As for CNN, I’m convinced. There is no motive other than political for the fuzzy historical revisionism and willing blindness toward the Castro regime. It’s “chic” on the Left to be pro-Castro.

    The Murdoch example you cite is an aberration on the Right, brought on by greed. Folks like him, and Bill Gates, are stumbling over themselves to do business in China. They can’t wait to get their hands on the $400 annual income of the average Chinese worker, I guess.

    Makes me wonder if Murdoch and CNN would have done the same thing to get into Nazi Germany.

  • Victor Morton

    Stephen, you’re missing the point about China. It only became evil in the eyes of the left when it abandoned Communism and began cooperating with greedy capitalists like Murdoch.

    When it was merely engaging in cultural revolutions and great leaps forward and killing people by the tens of millions in the name of the proletariat and Mao’s Little Red Book (plus backing the Viet Cong and Lumumba and other chic Third World thugs) … move along people … nothing to see here.

  • Stephen A.

    And in Cuba, the darling of CNN’s eye and the Leftist’s paradise, they just started another brutal crackdown on dissidents:

  • Victor Morton

    Well, but the BBC makes sure that we know that “the Cuban government has not confirmed the arrests [and that] Cuba’s long-standing position is that dissidents are not representative of public opinion, but rather mercenaries in the pay of the US.”

    Have to get both sides of every story, as this man reminds us.

  • Stephen A.

    Yes, it’s good that the BBC faithfully parrots the ludicrious progaganda of a totalitarian state.

  • Tom R

    I wonder how Peeger feels now that “Guantanamera” refers to a captured Islamicist fanatic who considers himself profaned if a female US soldier questions him…

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