Lauren Weiner calls Pete Seeger the Communist consumers loved — but the whole movement mixed money-making and progressive propaganda:
These were borrowed tastes, but nobody seemed to mind. As Van Ronk observed, “One of the first things that must be understood about these revivals is that the folk have very little to do with them. Always, there is a middle-class constituency, and its idea of the folk” whoever that might be ”is the operative thing.” Capturing all of the contradictions, the historian Robert S. Cantwell wrote that this was a time “when the carriers of a superannuated ideological minority found themselves celebrated as the leaders of a mass movement; when an esoteric and anticommercial enthusiasm turned into a commercial bonanza; when an alienated, jazz-driven, literary bohemia turned to the simple songs of an old, rural America.”
That part about an “ideological minority” being “celebrated” by somebody had gone over our heads, too: We did not know that the folk boom was a reverberation of an earlier boomlet, a foray into American music roots, many of whose movers and shakers were as Red as a bowl of cherries. Who on our suburban street knew that Woody Guthrie, the hero of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan, had been a columnist for the Daily Worker? Or that the man from whom we heard rollicking sea chanteys, a Briton named Ewan MacColl, was at one point kept from entering the United States as an undesirable alien? Then there was the cuddly-looking guy with the slightly pedantic six-record set and companion volume, Burl Ives Presents America’s Musical Heritage. If my parents or any of the neighbors were aware that Ives had been summoned, in 1952, to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and had identified Pete Seeger as a communist, they kept the details to themselves.
From the nation’s founding, through the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Wobblies printed their pamphlet of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, political themes had made their way into popular music. Without question, however, the most concerted effort at politicization came from the CPUSA. Go out and make antifascist alliances with liberals, Georgi Dmitrov ordered in Moscow in 1935, and so the communists obediently fanned out into the American labor movement and civil-rights activities.
The collective first tried bringing high-brow modernism to the masses. This involved, among other things, holding a contest for best original May Day marching song. (Copland’s entry took the laurels; Seeger countered that his was more singable and, anyway, the workers weren’t likely to have a piano handy during their protest marches.) The effort was a bust. But it led Seeger, family in tow, to roam the rural southeastern United States, exploring the music played by the regular folk and groping for a way to turn these demotic musical expressions in a politically helpful direction.
By the time Charles’ son, Pete, came of age, the record laid down by the “people’s democracy” in the Soviet Union had lengthened to include show trials, the forced collectivization of agriculture, a well-developed police state, and the takeover of neighboring countries. Nonetheless Seeger fils, the next-generation wandering minstrel, stuck with his inherited “Pan-Sovietism” through a long and successful musical career. (The historian Ronald Radosh, in a public exchange with him in 2009, elicited a rueful comment about having stood by Josef Stalin despite everything.)
Pete first took up the banjo as a twenty-one-year-old, sitting on front porches across the South and learning from the old masters of the rural tradition. Sometimes those masters balked at city slickers glomming onto their music. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a North Carolinian who mounted what may have been the first “folk festival,” detested Seeger for his communism. (As the historian Ronald D. Cohen notes, Lunsford once introduced a folk act at his Asheville festival as “three Jews from New York.”)
Seeger and his friends were undeterred. Their duty, as they saw it, was to convert the middle class to their way of thinking. Besides, they genuinely loved the music. By Van Ronk’s casual estimate, half the folk revivalists were Jewish, and they “adopted the music as part of a process of assimilation into the Anglo-American tradition.”
By the 1940s, folk singers had become a ceremonial part of Communist Party meetings. And at nearly all of them, one would find Pete Seeger playing, under the revolutionary pseudonym “Pete Bowers,” with the likes of Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Burl Ives, Josh White, Saul Aarons, Bernie Asbel, Will Geer, and a new arrival on the East Coast musical scene, Woody Guthrie.
“However loathsome and psychotic” J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was, according to Dave Van Ronk, they “got one thing right: The CP [USA] was the American arm of Soviet foreign policy, no more, no less.”
In 1940, folk music spoke out against the war — the war between Britain and Germany. Once the Germans invaded Russia, it was time to do something about that Hitler.
After the war, folk music evolved into “a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics.”