Today Pete Seeger turns 90. He is a relic of the Old Left, a specimen who, when the time comes, might be embalmed and put on display in the Smithsonian as representative of the breed. He was a party-line Communist and Soviet apologist. Yet thanks to the dominance of the left in American culture, Seeger has survived to become a national institution, honored at the Kennedy Center in 1995 and awarded a Medal of Honor in the Arts from Bill Clinton.
Ronald Radosh is a former acolyte of Seeger. As a teenager Radosh took banjo lesons from Seeger, seeking to emulate both Seeger’s musical style and his politics. Radosh outgrew his leftism, becoming a proponent of historical truths that have shattered more than a few leftist myths. In his memoir Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, Radosh recalls:
[S]omehow, the award makers forgot to tell everyone about Seeger’s most famous record — the Almanac Singers’ very first album — Songs for John Doe. Released during the week in June 1941 when Hitler broke the pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR, the antiwar album was filled with hard-hitting songs that called for no intervention in European battles on behalf of British imperialism, and condemned Roosevelt as a warmongering fascist who worked for J.P. Morgan…The reason so few people know of the album’s existence is easily explained: In true Communist fashion, Pete and his comrades had to respond immediately to the change in the party line that occurred when Hitler invaded the USSR. That meant a recall of the album just beginning to be introduced. All pressings were destoryed, leaving only a few for posterity.
Today the “award makers” have every reason to know of Seeger’s disgrace, and it makes not the slightest difference. In “Happy birthday, Pete,” Radosh notes that PBS is filming a tribute to Seeger on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. Radosh also collects his recent columns on Seeger and links as well to Mark Steyn’s 2007 National Review column on Seeger (subscribers only). Steyn observed:
Giving [Seeger] a Kennedy Center Honor a decade or so back, President Clinton hailed ol’ Pete as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them,” which is one way of putting it. You can’t help noticing, though, that it’s all the documentaries and honors ceremonies and lifetime-achievement tributes to Mr. Seeger that seem to find certain things “inconvenient.” The Washington Post‘s Style section, with its usual sly Ã©lan, hailed him as America’s “best-loved Commie” — which I think translates as “Okay, so the genial old coot spent a lifetime shilling for totalitarian murderers, but only uptight Republican squares would be boorish enough to dwell on it.”
Radosh had credited Seeger for Seeger’s slight deviation from the Old Left line on Stalin about 50 years after the fact. Steyn found Seeger’s deviation unworthy of the credit. Radosh graciously concedes: “The brilliant Mark Steyn, with his usual acerbic sense of humor, hit me hard. Let me go on record. Mark Steyn is right. Everything he writes is on the button.” Today we observe that both Radosh and Steyn are righter than PBS.
NOTE: Howard Husock’s superb 2005 essay on Seeger — “America’s most successful communist” — deserves special mention today.