Pete Seeger Before Pete Seeger

by CLANCY SIGAL

There are all sorts of ways to celebrate the life of Pete Seeger, but the one I prefer is a deliberately forgotten and suppressed album, “Songs for John Doe”.

Much of his life Pete was hounded by rightwing blacklisters, but the John Doe songs were kept under lock and key by the left.

The John Doe album, by the Almanac Singers (who later morphed into the gentler, more mainstream Weavers of “Goodnight Irene” Top Ten fame), was released in spring 1941 before Pearl Harbor.  Lyrics by Pete and Millard Lampell, it reflected the Communist left’s antiwar “isolationist” pacifism at a time when Hitler had invaded western Europe but not yet Russia.  It was the Party line at the time.  These wonderful, Almanac_Singers_Johndoetrenchant songs are incredibly up to date now, but suddenly were out of sync when on June 22, 1941 Hitler blitzkrieged Stalin and the line changed.

Let Bess Lomax, an Almanac singer, tell it: “The Almanacs… were inevitably affected by the intense national debate between the “warmongers” and the “isolationists”…Before every booking we had to decide: were we going to sing some of our hardest-hitting and most eloquent songs, all of which were antiwar, and if we weren’t, what would we sing anyway? … Woody Guthrie wrote a song that mournfully stated: “I started out to write a song to the entire population / But no sooner than I got the words down, here come a brand new situation”.

Poor Woody, poor Bess, caught up in the slipstream of history and the CP’s ever-shifting line.

On the other hand, there were the John Doe songs themselves which I heartily sang until I was dragged before the leftwing bishops and commanded to shut my mouf  because FDR’s “President New Deal” had changed to “President Win the War.”

Overnight neither for love nor money could you find a trace of John Doe in any radical book or record store.

So let’s remember Pete before he became America’s folkie grandfather welcomed to the White House by presidents.

“Oh, Franklin Roosevelt

Told the people how he felt

‘I hate war, so does Eleanor

But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”

Or

“Will you go to the war, Billy boy, Billy boy?

Will you go to the war, charmin’ Billy?

It’s a long ways away, they are dying every day.

He’s a young boy and cannot leave his mother.

 

Can you use a bayonet, Billy boy, Billy boy?

Can you use a bayonet, charmin’ Billy?

No, I haven’t got the skill to murder and to kill…

 

Don’t you want a silver medal, Billy boy, Billy boy?

Don’t you want a silver medal, charmin’ Billy?

No desire do I feel to defend Republic Steel…

Don’t you want to see the world, Billy boy, Billy boy?

Don’t you want to see the world, charmin’ Billy?

No, it wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Dupont in Brazil…

Girls would like your uniform, Billy boy, Billy boy.

Girls would like your uniform, charmin’ Billy.

They wouldn’t get much chance to love me with six feet of earth above me…”

R.I.P. Pete.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

 

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Ellen Brown
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Binoy Kampmark
Inside Emailgate: Hillary’s Latest Problem
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People