FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Pete Seeger: a Dissenting View

by NOEL IGNATIEV

Following the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Communist Party strongly opposed the “imperialist war,” and Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers made some great antiwar songs which were published in an album called “Songs for John Doe”:

Remember when the AAA killed a million hogs a day

It’s not hogs, it’s men today, plow the fourth one under

and another:

It was on a Saturday night, the moon was shining bright

They passed the conscription bill.

And the people they did say, many a mile a way

‘Twas the President and his boys on Capitol Hill.

 

Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said

He said I hate war, and so does Eleanor

But we won’t be safe ‘til everybody’s dead.

 

When my poor old mother died I was sitting by her side

A-promising to war I’d never go.

Now I’m wearing khaki jeans and I’m eating army beans

And I’m told that J.P. Morgan loves me so.

 

I have wandered over this land, a roamin’ working man

No clothes to wear and not much food to eat.

Now the government foots the bill, gives me clothes and feeds me swill

Gets me shot and puts me underground six feet.

 

Nothing could be wrong if it keeps our country strong

We gotta get tough to save democracy.

So though it may mean war we must defend Singapore,

This don’t hurt you half as much as it hurts me.

After the Nazis invaded Russia, the Party line changed and the Almanac Singers began beating the drums for war: “Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?” When the U.S. entered the War they became patriots: “It’s gonna take everybody to win this war.” “Me and the landlord may not agree, but when a burglar breaks in you quit fighting with the landlord and throw him out. “ (Some missing words here, but the point is clear.)

He later stated (I think in his autobiography) that his stance between August 1939 and June 1941 had been a mistake. His heart was never in it, and he was happier when the U.S. declared War on the Axis Powers, the U.S and Russia were allies, and he could once again feel at one with prevailing opinion. I like his 1939-1941 view more than than his stance after 1941, when the Party upheld the no-strike pledge (“quit fighting with the landlord”), opposed the 1942 Negro March on Washington Movement and the Puerto Rican independence movement (both of which undermined “national unity”), and kept silent about Japanese internment. (No doubt he came to regret the latter.) Even after he left the CP (around 1958), he remained what he had always been (with the exception of the twenty-two months between August 1969 and June 1941) a proponent of the Popular Front. In short, he was a “progressive” (or, as Alex Cockburn might have called him, a “pwogwessive”).

In an article on CounterPunch Clancy Sigal writes about the antiwar songs. He recalls being “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.” Sigal, more generous than I, suggests we “remember Pete before he became America’s folkie grandfather welcomed to the White House by presidents.”

A google-search for “Songs for John Doe” brings up the Almanac Singers, with Seeger’s inimitable banjo and vocal, performing “Twas on a Saturday night.” One of the commenters remarks that Seeger spent seventy years trying to live down that song. (In the late fifties at a concert I asked him to sing one of the antiwar songs. He declined, saying he didn’t know it.) Another (probably an old Schachtmanite) accuses Seeger of “slavish, bootlicking subservience to Stalin’s foreign policy line.” I can’t tell whether he is referring to the antiwar or the prowar songs – maybe both.

Seeger faced loss of livelihood and even prison for standing up for what he believed. He lent his voice and strength to many good causes over the years; and yet, even though I enjoyed his music and many of the songs he sang have become part of me, I cannot bring myself to join in the celebrations of his life. Why? Because the standard I apply to those I take seriously is not simply their support for peace, civil rights, labor and the environment, but their willingness to oppose the misleaders within those movements, and that, so far as I know, he never did. I guess some would call me sectarian.

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996). He can be reached at noelignatiev@gmail.com

 

 

Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996).  He blogs here. He can be reached at noelignatiev@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Mark Schuller
So What am I Doing Here? Reflections on the Inauguration Day Protests
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail