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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, trenchant 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.”
“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…”
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.