On Monday, Pete Seeger died. He was 94.
And while we wouldn't wish death on anyone, it's impossible to suffer the brain-dead, genuflecting veneration which his passing has provoked in the media.
Sure, his unwavering stance of defiance and dissent were admirably All-American, but did you know that he was staunchly pro-Stalin, even as the dictator snuggled up to Hitler with the Non-Aggression Pact and beyond, right through the entire nightmare of Stalin's very bloody rule?
That's just the beginning with this guy who was, above all else, a bore.
Born to a wealthy family, educated at private New England boarding schools, Seeger played the fictional role of a horny-handed son of the soil.
Was he really a Communist? Who cares? Personal political views are an inalienable right, but it's worth mentioning that he was quite often on the wrong, deplorable side of history.
Seeger went to China in 1949, when Mao's troops were butchering the populace. He was there to “collect songs of the Red Army,” at least one of which (“Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention” – above) he kept in his repertoire for decades, breezily relating its origin as if it were a traditional laborer's chant rather than a war-time dictum of military indoctrination.
Again, just as with Stalin, the cynical Seeger didn't only turn a blind eye to the greatest war crimes of the 20th century, he openly supported evil regimes. Even later in life, he couldn't really bring himself to make a heartfelt apology about Stalin.
Then there was the 1965 Newport Folk Festival controversy, where Bob Dylan was booed for playing an electric guitar. Seeger is said to have been upset, and to have tried to cut electric power cables to the amps. Much later, Seeger, “almost apologetic,” denied the incident ever occurred.
But Seeger's greatest shortcomings…
[…were as a musician and performer. He was a marginal talent, whose scant handful of original compositions tend toward the forgettable and simplistic. Seeger's on-stage presentation was chronically cloying, cutesy and colorless.
The New York Times' fawning obit characterized his voice as “a hearty tenor.” Oh, sure. Hearty like a bowl of oatmeal. The truth is, he could barely hit the notes. (And he barely learned to play the banjo, to boot.)
In the end, Seeger's legacy was propped up largely by Manhattan-bred activists who weren't really invested in American music, folk or otherwise. Seeger may have enjoyed the institutionalized immunity reserved for darlings of the American ruling class (naturally, since he was one of them) but the reality of his cultural contribution and legacy came sharply into focus when he performed at the Occupy encampment at New York's Zucotti Park in October, 2011.
As he and Arlo Guthrie exhorted the crowd to sing along, they were rewarded with near silence. Almost no one knew who they were, let alone the words to their songs. His true legacy will ultimately be one of irrelevance.
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Arlo Guthrie as Pete Seeger's son. Further, after a bit of thought, I'd like to add that I believe Seeger had giant balls for staring down the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and a jail sentence. Also, this song is powerful. -Ben Westhoff
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