Pete Seeger, 1919-2014: Rest in Peace

Pete Seeger died Monday.  He was a great songwriter, musician and fighter for social justice, and a great example of a life of integrity.

He sang songs in support of the labor union movement in the 1940s.  During the 1950s,, he was blacklisted for his Communist sympathies and nearly went to prison for contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but made a comeback in the 1960s.

I think his illusions about Communism and the Soviet Union were a serious thing to have been mistaken about, but they matter less than his great songs and his example of courage in standing up for what he thought was right.

“Union Maid” was composed by Pete Seeger’s friend Woodie Guthrie in 1940 when the two of them were in Oklahoma, performing for the benefit of striking oil workers.

Pete Seeger composed “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in 1967, and was invited to perform it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, along with songs of the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War One.  CBS management perceived the political implications and scissored out the song.  Seeger fans, including the Smothers Brothers themselves, protested and Seeger was invited back to perform the song in 1968.

In this appearance by Pete Seeger on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970, it is clear that Cash regards Seeger as the master and himself as the student.


Click on the following links for more about Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger: 10 Great Songs by Martin Chilton for The Telegraph in London. This article embeds videos of Seeger performing 10 of his best songs.

Pete Seeger, America’s conscience in song, dies at 94 by Claudia Luther for the Los Angeles Times.

A previously unpublished interview with Pete Seeger by David Hajdu in The New Republic.  [added later]

Pete Seeger’s Magnificent But Messy Legacy by Paul Berman for The New Republic.  [added later]

In defense of Pete Seeger, American communist by Bhaskar Sunkara for Al Jazeera [added 2/4/14]

Pete Seeger: a Troubadour for Peace and Justice by Peter Stone Brown for Counterpunch.  [added later]

Pete Seeger’s enduring impact on American culture by Tom Maxwell for Al Jazeera.  [added 1/31/14]

This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced It to Surrender by John Nichols for The Nation.

Pete Seeger’s Heavy Folk by Ben Greenman for The New Yorker.

This article was edited after being posted to correct some careless factual errors.

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4 Responses to “Pete Seeger, 1919-2014: Rest in Peace”

  1. whungerford Says:

    It was wrong for Seeger to be threatened with prison and blacklisted for his political views whatever they were. I don’t agree that his views were necessarily illusions, that they were wrong, or that Seeger didn’t continue to hold them.


    • philebersole Says:

      I certainly agree that the government was very wrong to persecute Pete Seeger (or anybody else) for his political opinions, which he had every right to express, no matter what they were.

      And, in case I haven’t made myself clear, I admire Pete Seeger. I think that when you consider Pete Seeger’s whole life, the things he was right about were more important than the things we was wrong about His mistakes were the mistakes of a person of good will.

      And none of this subtracts in any way from the merits of Pete Seeger’s great songs. I strongly urge everyone who likes Pete Seeger’s music to click on The Telegraph link.


    • philebersole Says:

      Joseph Stalin was one of the greatest killers and enslavers in human history. To have mistaken Stalin for defender of humanitarian and democratic values is a non-trivial mistake which should not be passed over in silence.

      However I am not one of those who equates Communists (the ones outside Communist countries) with fascists and racists.

      Communists (the ones outside Communist countries) are usually people who want a better world and have a wrong idea about the way to bring it about.

      Fascists and racists, inside and outside fascist countries, are usually people who want a worse world (by my standards if not theirs) and have a correct idea about the way to bring it about.

      Pete Seeger was a great and good person and his errors of judgment were the errors of a person of good will, but, like almost everyone else, he did err.


  2. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    His music and his ethics influenced an entire generation of people, possibly even two. I think we will not see his like again any time soon. Sadly, his death will not merit the amount of coverage and emotional outpouring that Michael Jackson’s did for far less reason.


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