February 13, 2014

STALEY | Pete Seeger: Comrade in Life, Martyr in Death

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Pete Seeger was as ambivalent about becoming a celebrity as our society was about making him a celebrity. The famous singer/songwriter and political activist died in January and I think his passing, alongside the heroin overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Farrow’s outing of her father, Woody Allen, on long-disclosed sexual abuse charges, invites us to have a conversation about our sometimes complicated relationships with cultural icons.

As the death of Nelson Mandela reminded us, martyrdom capitalizes on selective memory. Although Pete Seeger never flirted with terrorism (as Slavoj Zizek claims that Mandela did in his column last December — “Mandela’s Socialist Failure”), he had some history that many would like to forget. Namely, that he was a communist. That is “communist” with a “small c” as he liked to say, distancing himself from the “big C” Communist Party. Throughout his career, this caused him to be picketed, jailed and shunned. I believe, of course, that the response to his politics was the crime, not his politics, and I write to celebrate the fact that his art was able to succeed beyond the limitations placed on his politics and also to remember why it makes us feel uneasy when we celebrate musicians that our society has persecuted and misrepresented in the past.

One reason that I term the celebration of Seeger uneasy is that, on many occasions, he shunned fame and opportunism. If you saw Inside Llewyn Davis this winter, you probably understand that folk musicians are antagonistic towards commercialization and celebrity (and you probably wish that you didn’t have to sit through the movie to learn that). Pete Seeger epitomized this antagonism more than any singer of his generation (Bob Dylan’s appearance in a Victoria’s Secret ad and a recent Chrysler Super Bowl ad disqualifies him from this contest). Seeger left his band, the Weavers, after they agreed to use their song in a Lucky Strike commercial. A decade later, Jim Morrison would pull “Light My Fire” from a car commercial that his band-mates had authorized the song for — amongst the credit Seeger receives for inspiring future songwriters to resist authority, he can also take credit for influencing future artists to place music and message over money and fame.

The problem with this is that, when the association between the artist and their art is severed, their ideas can be misrepresented. And with the number of artists who have “If I Had a Hammer” (Peter, Paul and Mary, Sam Cooke, Trini Lopez), clearly misreding the song, I think his messages have been distorted. I remember attending Sunday services at a church in California when a very conservative pastor asked an almost unanimously conservative audience to sing along to “If I Had a Hammer.” The song was written in 1949 as an anthem for the Communist Party of America in response to the persecution of Marxist leaders under the Smith Act and uses language that quite explicitly refers to revolution — “A hammer of freedom / a hammer of justice.” That is, at least, the hammer part. Believers in free market capitalism would argue that freedom and justice are just as much on their side as Seeger would argue they are on his.

As odd as it was to watch a group of Republicans and former John Birchers emphatically sing a song written in defense of communism, I do not think the song’s message was out of place in a house of Christianity. As much as Christianity has become synonymous with American conservatism and atheism with Russian communism, the language of Christ and Marx is not too different. I think of Norman Mailer’s theory that the Red Scare rose from Americans’ subconscious fear that the Russian system had come closer to the image of Christ than they had.

This discussion, I think, points to the genius of Seeger. His music showed us that two warring countries shared one vision. While he was able to clothe these subversive suggestions in agreeable and ambiguous terms, he could still, in earnest, stand in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and tell them that his music never used conspiratory or partisan language. For this reason, Seeger stands alongside a canon of Cold War artists including Arthur Miller, who presented his take on McCarthyism allegorically (The Crucible) and Sergei Eisenstein, who used historical allusion to criticize Stalin (comparing him to Ivan the Terrible). While great art came out of these climates of persecution, I think that it is important to remember one thing: Each time a death like Seeger’s occurs, it is an occasion to remember the historical misdeeds our society has done to certain artists. So, when we martyrize Seeger, let’s remember him for a crime no one else could commit: sympathizing with the enemy.