Pete Seeger Honored despite a Lifetime of Singing the Wrong Tune

By Stephen Chapman Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 4, 1995 | Go to article overview

Pete Seeger Honored despite a Lifetime of Singing the Wrong Tune


Stephen Chapman Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Americans have a great capacity to forgive and a small capacity to remember, which has been a great asset to the career of folk singer and national monument Pete Seeger. He was recently given two of the country's highest arts awards despite a life spent laboring on behalf of the most malignant political ideology ever put into practice.

It is doubtful that anyone with a long history of association with Nazism could gain popularity and respect in America - even someone who had repented. But Seeger proves that a long and continuing history of association with communism is no bar to success in the leading capitalist nation on Earth.

Last week, CBS broadcast the Kennedy Center Honors, which included a tribute to Seeger. At 75, he has gained a measure of immortality for writing or co-writing such songs as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," as well as remaking an old spiritual into the protest anthem, "We Shall Overcome." In October, President Bill Clinton gave him the 1994 National Medal of the Arts. He praised Seeger as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."

Clinton didn't bother to inform his unwitting constituents that the way Seeger saw things was invariably the way the Communist Party saw them. Seeger was a member from the 1930s into the 1950s. Ronald Radosh, a historian at Adelphi University and an authority on the American left, recalls that one of his best-loved songs, "If I Had a Hammer," was written for a fund-raising rally to help communist leaders arrested under the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate overthrowing the government.

Clinton further obscured the truth by saying it was a "badge of honor" that Seeger was blacklisted from radio and TV during the McCarthy era. Blacklisting was a bad thing, but some care should be taken to distinguish between those people who were harmed when they were falsely accused of being communists and those people who were harmed when they were accurately accused of being communists. Not all victims of McCarthyism were innocent victims.

Seeger generally comes across as an all-purpose idealist, portraying his career as one of "singing for civil rights, singing for peace." The Kennedy Center press release played along, noting his "pro-union and anti-fascist songs" and his effort in the "civil rights and anti-war movements. …

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