Pete Seeger, "America's Most Successful Communist"
Posted Sun, Sep 25, 2005 at 9:34 pm
Where have all the flowers gone indeed:
The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Party's "Popular Front" effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.Others mentioned include Joan Baez (now washed-up and touring with Cindy Sheehan), and other songs you might vaguely recall include "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had a Hammer". Note that one of the Little Red Schoolhouse's alumni includes Angela Davis...
One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, "folk music legend," and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever...
...The Popular Front Left saw such homespun music of poor rural Southerners - eventually labeled American "folk" music - as perfect for molding into a new Marxist cultural vernacular. "[W]hen the Communist Left and its intellectuals . . . tried to sink roots in American tradition, radicals turned a new ear to traditional folk tunes," notes Dunaway. They could cast folk music as the politically pure art of America's noble rural proletariat-plus, because this non-commercial music wasn't copyrighted, they could adapt it freely.
Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax took on this project with gusto. Lacking a real tradition of social protest in American folk music, the pair set out to create one. The music served as the crucible of Seeger's own style: "Folk songs, radicalism and patriotism blended in his mind," Dunaway observes. Through Lomax, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a March 1940 New York benefit concert for California migrant workers... Made to order for the Popular Front, Guthrie was a middle-class Oklahoman with a calculated aw-shucks cowboy manner, who just happened to be a Communist Party sympathizer and had written for communist newspapers. As Lomax later put it: "Go back to that night when Pete first met Woody Guthrie. You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night."
The Almanacs/Weavers also dressed the part of authentic jes' plain folks, sporting farmer's overalls on stage. Anticipating the fashion affectations of later pop stars, in which studiedly grungy clothing often serves as both costume and political statement, they suffered from what biographer Dunaway calls "a bad case of proletarian chic."
Seeger-whom critics dubbed "Khrushchev's songbird"-made ends meet largely by playing children's concerts at such venues as the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and its upper school, Elisabeth Irwin High, which, as historian Ronald Radosh recounts, was known for hiring former New York City public school teachers unwilling to sign a loyalty oath...