June 2012        


A singing labour man

Allan M. Winkler, “To everything there is a season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-19-532481-5; $24).

Editor and journalist, university drop-out, husband and father, communist agitator, union organiser, environmental activist, general thorn in the side of the establishment, but most of all a visionary folk singer and song-writer: Pete Seeger is all of this, and more.

     Born in May 1919 in New York to a well-off family, Pete, whose father was professor of music at the University of California and a member of the Communist Party, was immersed from birth in his two lifelong loves of music and politics. His father also took him travelling around the United States, teaching and playing music to any people willing to listen and learn.
     So it is not surprising that Pete spent most of his life travelling, playing music, and immersed in politics. But what is surprising is his amazing commitment and unflinching principles under extreme pressure and blacklisting when many others broke or tempered.
     Facing the House Committee on Un-American Activities (full text available at www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm), Pete was bold and assertive in answering the interrogation. While friends either pleaded the fifth amendment to the Constitution of the United States (providing protection against self-incrimination) or quoted the first amendment (which guarantees free speech), Pete wanted to challenge the committee on the very basis of their questioning.
     To the usual questions of whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party (which he was for many years) Pete replied:
           I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.
     I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee, that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr Willis, or yours, Mr Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
     Although this language may not seem the fiercest today, in its time and under those circumstances Pete was challenging head on the authority of the state and publicly defending communism during the height of anti-communism. He faced criminal prosecution and prison—blacklisting was the least of his worries for taking this stand. Fortunately, following a number of years of appeals, Pete won out. The state’s case against him didn’t stand up on appeal, though Pete still suffered blacklisting, which lasted a long time, costing him financially and in popularity.
     Amazingly, Pete’s optimism rarely waned. Winkler’s biography describes the many times he picked himself up and launched new initiatives or campaigns, whether it was new singing groups (most notably the Almanac Singers and the Weavers), a new musicians’ journal and songbook, or a new political campaign. Pete’s true revolutionary optimism—as opposed to naïve idealism—based on his understanding of history and belief in struggle, helped him maintain his radicalism up to today.
     In his own words, “history shows that there is a hidden heritage of militancy which comes and goes, but never completely dies. It undergoes transformations and permutations from century to century, but the lessons learned by one generation, even though in defeat, are passed on to the next.”
     Important words when one considers the challenges this generation of activists faces and the temptation some may have to drift into despair at the lack of consistent organised opposition.
     Winkler lays forth Pete’s life, loves, politics and musical influences in an enjoyable read. Short—a mere hundred pages—and full of pictures and lyrics, the book lacks a detailed analysis but makes up for this by quoting extensively from interviews and by the unprecedented access the author had to Pete. Winkler spent a number of days over the last couple of years talking to Pete specifically about this biography as well as important points in his life and playing many songs together.
     This is where the biography really benefits from extensive research and historical notes but also the contemporary views of the subject.
     You can read the book quickly but close it feeling that you really know the subject. Pete is still alive, now ninety-three, singing and politically active, having recently sung and marched with the Occupy movement and recent Earth Day events. Despite his condemnation of Stalin and of socialism in the USSR, Pete still maintains that he is a communist and does not run from the word or the philosophy, as others have.
     Pete Seeger: a man of his time, no doubt, but in so many ways he shows how timeless is the struggle for freedom, democracy, and humanity.

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