Seeger: Singing to order

I only ever saw Pete Seeger live once, and that was more than forty years ago, at the height of the folk-song boom, when Seeger was a kind of demi-god to us folkies.

I decided then, and I still think now, that Seeger was both a first-class musician, singer and songwriter and also a self-important prick. He used his considerable gifts to pursue the latest fashionable ideas, always adopting the line of least resistance, without ever taking an unpopular or principled position on anything. The most notorious case was the 1940 recording he made, with others, of anti-war songs urging Americans not to support a war against the Nazis. Although this is now indulgently  presented as a youthful error on Seeger’s part, it was nothing of the kind. It was the result of a political instruction from the American Communist Party, which was following Stalin’s orders to respect the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and to present the war as a capitalist confidence trick. When the Nazis invaded, the Soviet Union, Seeger obediently started writing songs in favor of the war. He was both an originator and an example of the disastrous tendency of the Left to abandon any coherent ideology, which might have involved difficult choices, and to opt for the simpler and easier alternative of bending to changing intellectual and political fashions

I remember from that evening how every song, whatever it was about, had a verse in favor of world peace, like, now, sellotaped onto it. I remember also that he followed the incomparable Where Have All the Flowers Gone, which you might think of as a pacifist song, with Viva La Quince Brigada,  a song in praise of the foreign volunteers who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which you might not think of as a pacifist song. He seemed completely unconscious of the slight contradiction involved here, and so, for that matter, did the immense and enthusiastic audience. But then these were the days when people would say to you, quite unself-consciously, “I’m a pacifist. I support the Viet Cong.”