Commentary Magazine


Pete Seeger or Philip Johnson?

A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940′s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

Unlike Johnson, Pete Seeger explicitly apologized for his political past, repenting, in a 1972 memoir, for “not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.” Seeger joined the American Communist party circa 1940 and left circa 1950.

Seeger has done work of indisputable social value: entertaining the troops while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, working for 40 years with the Clearwater group to clean the Hudson River. But I would argue that his musical performances, like this 1949 TV version of the Hebrew song “Tzena Tzena” by Seeger and his quartet The Weavers, are his most lasting achievements. But whatever Seeger’s motivations in performing it may have been, his buoyant bluegrass style in “Tzena Tzena” echoes the majesty of band member Ronnie Gilbert’s contralto, one of folk music’s great voices.

Seeger’s own voice, though fragile, possessed an ineffable charm, which may have lessened the bite of his topical songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” (Marlene Dietrich, no less, became a frequent performer of “Flowers” both in English and in German.) What music fan, whatever political accounting he might have with Seeger, would want to be without those unexpected performances?