Etiquette requires a respectful silence about any less-than-exemplary qualities of the recently deceased, but an exception should be made in the case of Pete Seeger. The obituaries for the famed banjo-strumming folkie, who died Monday at the age of 94, have been all too adulatory.
Lionized in life and death by the likes of The New York Times as a “Champion of Folk Music and Social Change,” and honored by the President of the United States as a man “who believed deeply in the power of song” and “more importantly, believed in the power of community,” Seeger did indeed exert a powerful influence on America’s musical culture and politics. That influence was mostly baleful in both cases, however, and there’s simply no use hemming and hawing about it at the graveside. The hipper corners of the conservative press have already duly noted that Seeger was an unapologetic communist who long advocated changing society by Stalinist methods, a defining fact of the man’s life which the president and the more respectable media outlets have politely ignored, but it should also be noted that his main contribution to American music was reducing its most glorious traditions to mere pap and agitprop.
Seeger first came to the public’s attention in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s as a member of The Weavers, who achieved such widespread popularity with their smooth and polished renditions of old rural standards that they inspired an abundance of suburban hippies fancying themselves folk singers to converge in the remotest corners of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s and set off a “folk boom” that reverberates to this very day. This is considered an admirable achievement by Seeger’s more awestruck obituarists, but one can only wonder how many of them still subject themselves to the cloyingly precious and oh-so-political dreck that mostly came out of that scene. The local old-folks AM radio station that we listen to for Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee classics has an infuriating tendency to mix in Joan Baez and The New Christy Minstrels and The Kingston Trio and the rest of those buttoned-downed and well-pressed folk boomers, and it always causes us to hit the scan button in search of some right-wing talk radio host’s rant.
There was some good that came of the folk boom, as is bound to happen when you’ve got a million earnest young well-scrubbed white kids strumming guitars on every street corner, but it was rarely half as good as what it emulated. The Weaver’s sweetly-sung recording of “Goodnight, Irene” was a far bigger seller than the one by Leadbelly, the convicted murderer and barroom-brawler who authored the durable romantic tune, but it lacked the rough edges required to make its romanticism truly heartfelt. A similar tendency is found in most of the so-called “folk music” of the ‘60s that followed the Harvard-educated Seeger, as most of the feisty young rebels from affluent families could never quite replicate the rough and rowdy sound of the sharecroppers and coal-miners and cowboys on whose behalf they claimed to sing. For the real deal American music you could listen to the oil patch Okies in Bakersfield and their Fender electric guitars, or the pimple-faced sons of Midwestern factory workers banging out industrial strength three-chord rock ‘n’ roll ditties in their two-car garages, or some zonked-out old black men in leopard-skin leisure suits playing the seedier bars of Memphis or Chicago, but that was all just a bit too authentically proletarian for the tastes of the collegiate and strictly-acoustic bohemians in Greenwich Village.
Real deal American music was thought insufficiently political, too, and we will never forgive Seeger and his many acolytes for trying to correct that. The rich vein of traditional American folk music that the folkies mined did include an occasional song about disgruntled workers and community action, but for the most part the American folk sang little about Bolshevism and a lot about love, and a disturbingly large amount of the time about death and natural disasters, with very patriotic and even jingoistic sentiments commonly espoused, and the biggest portion of the very best of the catalogue are songs expressing a fervent religious belief that a doctrinaire Marxist such as Seeger would have decried as the opiate of the masses. Songs of tragedy and faith have no use to a cultural movement openly dedicated to “social change,” however, and thus Seeger and his cover-artists tried to impose a political program on those private emotions of life that music can best address. Lavish tributes to Seeger by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and other recent stars demonstrate how his ideological approach has permeated every genre of American music, and this should not be counted as a success.
As with Walt Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself,” the very best of America music is a celebration of the creator’s individuality and an invitation to the listener to celebrate his own individual self. At its best American music is primitive and rustic and urbane and sophisticated, earthy and spiritual and rebellious and loyal, and always makes palpable the exhilarating freedom to choose from any or all of the mutually-exclusive options. The music that Seeger made in his long and lucrative career celebrated only the collective, was limited by its creator’s severely constrained view of life and America and life in America, and will be long forgotten in a far-off but long-awaited time when the real deal American music is still playing on the late-night airwaves.
— Bud Norman