PETE SEEGER (1997): “Today I’ll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a ‘hard-driver’ and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks … for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let’s look ahead.”
Let us not quibble too much by noting that no present day Christian particpated in any of those things, but that Seeger actually partcipated in supporting Stalin and opposing war with Hitler, at least until the point when Stalin decided otherwise. Calling someone a Stalinist, even accurately, is, in today’s politics, something which usually puts the speaker in the position of being branded an evil, speech-suppressing pariah, thereby often acting to successfully suppress such speech from being uttered.
But, the reasons why people are slurred for saying such things are not without justification.
During a period primarily encompassing the late 40s and early 50s, political persecution of left leaning Americans was a plague upon our political freedoms, now known as McCarthyism, although the most notable manifestations involved players other than the Wisconsin Senator from whom the phenomena drew its name.
One manifestation of McCarthyism was “blacklisting,” primarily a private phenomenon (not that there wasn’t substantial governmental, especially FBI and Congressional, collusion), whereby individuals were denied their livelihoods on the basis of their perfectly legal political conduct. Victims were not only Communists, but sympathizers who had never joined the party, non-Communist leftists and liberals who sometimes had joined Communists in backing causes where Communists took a significant leadership position (including labor causes and civil rights) and others swept into the net by human error.
This is amongst the reasons why I harbor a distaste for politically motivated boycotts.
The other primary ugly manifestation of McCarthyism was the effort by Congress to haul people in front of legislative Committees and force them to testify about their perfectly legal political activities, and name names of others who participated in them, all of whom would then be subject to deprivations of the livelihoods. Failure to answer the questions posed could lead to criminal prosecution for contempt, followed by imprisonment.
Pete Seeger was the victim of both of these ugly, Un-American phenomena.
At its worst, McCarthyism, as manifested by McCarthy himself, involved false charges of espionage and treason rendered against those innocent of any such thing, and often lacking any affiliation with Communism.
But the milder forms practiced by others were bad enough.
Still, the ugliness of McCarthyism and the related phenomena of red-baiting, does not thereby cleanse Joseph Stalin of his unspeakable crimes, which included the murder of millions.
Further, the ugliness of McCarthyism does not mean we cannot use public support for those crimes, and the effort to elicit it from others, as a factor when evaluating the totality of a person’s life.
Even a life where the good may arguably outweigh such evil many times over.
Pete Seeger was an undeniable do-gooder. No one can deny his vital and sometimes courageous efforts on behalf of civil rights, worker’s rights and the environment.
But Seeger was also a person who directly and indirectly lent uncritical support for the crimes of Joseph Stalin and his regime through practically its entire life, never wavering, and then did the same for its successors almost until the end of their reign. Sometimes he was a member of the Party which existed almost solely to give support to these regimes, sometimes he was a member in all but name.
And let us not be mistaken. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) was not a political party in the manner most of come to think of them. It was a disciplined, top-down structure and the top resided in Moscow—its members were supposed to follow a “party line,” and members who were artists, while given some latitude, were supposed to produce art which advanced that line, and were subjected to discipline and criticism when they did not do so.
Since I had a grandmother who was a fellow traveler, “Pink bleeding Red”, I don’t care to redbait romantic 30s Communists. During the 30s, the Communist Party was often one of the few courageous voices willing to stand up for causes like racial justice. But that romance ended for most decent people in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler collaborated on the invasion of Poland.
Not for Seeger though.
Those who became party members and supporters joined for the best of reasons: to make the world a better place—and much of the work they did on the American scene did exactly that, at a time when few others were engaged in such work.
Thus, I am reminded of what Bill Clinton said in his eulogy for one of McCarthyism’s greatest practitioners:
Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say, may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close. May we heed his call to maintain the will and the wisdom to build on America’s greatest gift, its freedom, to lead a world full of difficulty to the just and lasting peace he dreamed of.
And all the same could be said for Pete Seeger, though in Seeger’s case it would be true.
Many of Seeger’s most ardent boosters have asserted that Seeger’s greatness was inextricably linked with his politics, but refuse to confront or candidly discuss those sometimes frightening politics in their totality. Meanwhile, on the right, many want to use the ugliest aspects of those politics to render a complicated and sometimes beautiful legacy into something resembling pure unadulterated evil.
And almost all of those with a political agenda have given short shrift to an important, but by no means uncomplicated, artistic legacy.
Which is where I’d like to begin, for as one of Seeger’s heroes, mass murderer Mao Tse Tung (the title character in a Seeger song which brands him as the embodiment of decency), liked to say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Seeger’s Musical Legacy:
Unlike both Seeger’s supporters and detractors in the political world, I do not think Seeger’s political beliefs and his musical legacy are inextricably linked, even though part of that legacy is Seeger’s role in raising the previously marginal profile of the song of social protest so that it became mainstream.
I believe elevating the previously marginal into the mainstream is Seeger’s musical legacy.
And I am not just talking about protest songs.
At least one leftie obit to Seeger I read noted that “he never sold out.” Others echoed that same theme of “purity.”
For many, Seeger’s supposed purity is embodied by the perhaps apocryphal moment (portrayed in “I’m Not There”) where Seeger allegedly tried to take an ax to Bob Dylan’s sound equipment in order to quiet Dylan’s joyous but angry Rock and Roll noise at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
At the somewhat ironic induction of Seeger into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Arlo Guthrie noted that nearly 50 years before Seeger’s induction, Seeger, as a member of “The Weavers,” had had a number one hit with “Goodnight Irene” and that “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.”
To which I call bullshit.
Seeger’s historical importance as a musical force, to the extent he has any, is not as a singer, an instrumentalist, or as a songwriter.
It is as a popularizer.
While social movements were probably central to Seeger’s career motivations, social protest was merely one portion, however significant, of the things which Seeger played a crucial role in popularizing.
Let me go further. Being a popularizer means that Seeger was not an artist possessed of an original vision, except to the extent that it was his own amalgamation of the visions of others.
Rather than being a folk purist, Seeger was an artist who took the authentic folk music of different cultures, and commercial but regional roots oriented pop music and peddled it to a mass audience –or as much of a mass audience as such music could attract.
Which turned out to be far more than anyone expected.
Seeger was not, like Woody Guthrie, someone born middle class and forced by bad fortune into a hardscrabble life riding the rails. Any rail riding Seeger did was voluntary and for the experience.
Seeger’s dad was a Harvard educated musicologist. Seeger was the product of prep schools and was a Harvard dropout, whose dad got him a job helping musicologist Alan Lomax catalogue early commercial recordings of regional American roots music for the Library of Congress.
The work of Seeger and Lomax was later used by musicologist Harry Smith to compile his seminal Anthologies of American Folk Music.
But while Harry Smith used the Seeger/Lomax lists to compile his volumes of relatively authentic commercial renditions of folk tunes, some dating back centuries in their origins, Seeger used the list, and the work Lomax had done in the field, recording the work of non-professionals, to bring such music to the masses in more palatable, albeit less authentic, form.
Folk music is literally the music of “the folks,” not the professionals. The Smith anthologies were recordings of professionals, but they were local pros recording their own indigenous music.
Seeger was, by contrast, an outsider, like Lomax, but one with a banjo and a microphone.
Actually, Seeger went a step further—he took the music of the folks, and smoothed out the rough edges.
There was, to be sure, a political agenda
In 1935, the Communist International had adopted the idea of “The Popular Front,” which tasked Communists in the West with building coalitions with other groups and institutions.
Part of the Popular Front strategy was to recruit artists and intellectuals to the cause, whether or not they actually joined the party. The important thing was, if possible, to get those “fellow travelers,” to follow the top-down dictated party line in lockstep, something which many friendly, but notoriously independent artists refused to do.
The goal was to use art, literature, and music to propagate the Party’s ideology (the long term goal) and its immediate political positions (which often shifted quite rapidly, depending upon expedience) into the culture, whether one person at a time, or en masse.
Despite the agenda, some great art resulted. Also, some popular (and not so popular) tawdry trash.
Though, I am not dwelling here on the politics, some great politics also resulted. Communists were in the forefront of the movement to improve the rights of workers, and were an early voice in the wilderness for civil rights at a time when few other voices were heard. Often, such views were expressed in the art which resulted. Sometimes, such artists were virtually the only source for art which expressed those views.
At the time, American Communists were very much into flag-wrapping. Their slogan was “Communism is 20th Century Americanism“. They embraced Lincoln, and thanks in large part to Seeger and some of his musical partners, they embraced American roots music as their own.
Seeger, and a cohort of his friends, including far greater creative talents like Woody Guthrie (too ornery and independent to ever join a top-down institution like the CPUSA), Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, were at the center of this movement
With an eye on being seen as embracing the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt, Communists and their allies started to call themselves “Progressives“. The adoption of the name was not an accident. Just like it was no accident that TR’s distant cousin (and nephew by marriage), FDR, had not only exploited the name he was born with, but had further wrapped himself in the TR mantle by surrounding himself with former Bull Moose Republicans like Harold Ickes, Sr. and Henry Wallace Jr.
“Progressive” had the ring of the Roosevelts in it and the ring of America.
And so did the music, as Paul Berman recently noted:
“[Seeger’s] musical style was folk-primitive, with a decided tilt toward children and the grandeurs of sing-along mass participation; and the power of that style is too powerful for anyone’s good. You could suppose, listening to Pete Seeger perform, that only a fascist maniac could entertain opinions contrary to those of Pete Seeger. This is a dangerous thing to suppose…if you can persuade crowds of people that simple morality and a childlike vision of right and wrong can be summed up in a few phrases, there is nothing you cannot achieve”
But while the agenda defined some of the motivation, it did not necessarily dictate what resulted.
Seeger’s earliest recordings with the Almanac Singers included an album of union songs which Seeger admitted were “frankly propagandistic.” But, union songs were the least of it.
In June 1941, Seeger and his Almanac colleagues were first heard on record serving Hitler’s useful idiot “Uncle Joe” Stalin by recording the functionally anti-anti-Hitler Stalinist pro-isolationist propaganda album “Songs for John Doe”, which features a song in FDR’s voice where he sings “I hate war and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead”, which I’m sure had em rolling in the aisles at meetings of the German-American Bund. All told, the album is a nasty collection of hatred directed at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, branding them as murderer wannabees and the handmaidens of war profiteers for their temerity in wanting to prepare for war against Hitler, who was then allied with Stalin in such endeavors as carving up Europe
Seeger was surely a decent man, who served in the forefront of many good causes, but many on the left (and not a few others to the right of that) willfully ignored or yadda yadda-ed the fact that Seeger made common cause with facist fellow travellers like Charles Lindbergh.
Shortly, after “John Doe’s” release, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and “John Doe” was not only pulled from release, but an appeal went out for buyers (primarily CPUSA member and sympathizers) to return their copies so that they could be destroyed.
In its place, the Almanacs came out with the extremely pro-war “Dear Mr. President.”
So Seeger’s influence was not merely musical, but literary. Surely the “John Doe” incident helped to inspire George Orwell’s portrayal in 1984 of Winston’s Smith’s work revising history at “The Ministry of Information.”
But the Almanacs also recorded albums of sea chanties and other examples of American folk music.
The albums, organized as they were, thematically, do not accurately portray the mixture one would see in a concert.
It was not a matter of the folk and children’s tunes being used as sugar coating for the propaganda.
It was more a matter of linking then all together, so that they are were interconnected elements of the same whole in the manner described by Berman.
Postwar efforts by Seeger and various ad hoc combines alternated between albums of union songs and albums of American roots music.
In 1948, Seeger joined with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form “The Weavers,” and eventually attained a steady gig at the Village Vanguard, normally a jazz venue.
The Weavers were then discovered by Gordon Jenkins, an arranger and bandleader better known for his work with Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and other pop artists (Armstrong may have been “jazz”, but Jenkins made him “pop”). They signed with Decca, a major label, and Jenkins recorded them with full orchestra and strings.
Almost immediately, the Weavers had big hits with Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene“ and an Israeli anthem called “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” (support for a Jewish state was at that time, for various reasons, part of the “party line”), both bestsellers.
The Weavers became a top attraction on the supper club circuit and elsewhere, and hit again with “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,”.”Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “The Wreck of the John B” (later covered by the Beach Boys), “Rock Island Line” (later covered by Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Cash),“The Midnight Special” (later covered by Creedence), “Pay Me My Money Down”, “Darling Corey,” “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know You),”” Around the World,” “The Roving Kind,” “Wimoweh” (later the basis for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” not to mention “The Lion King”) “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Around the Corner.”
The sources of the Weaver’s songs were varied. Some like “Smoky,” were real folk tunes from the Appalachian Mountains. Others, like “Pay Me My Money Down,” came from African-American folk sources. “Down in the Valley” was black gospel.
Others were part of the common folk process (more on that later); for instance, “Kisses” was Seeger and Hays’ rewrite of Leadbelly’s adaption of an old Irish folk song.
“Rock Island Line,” was, like “Irene,” a Leadbelly cover, while “Midnight Special” was from an early commercial country tune, of the type collected by Seeger and Lomax, and surely had folk antecedents.
As noted, “Tzena” was from Israel; “Suliram” was Indonesian; “Wimoweh” was a South African popular song which the Weaver’s allegedly believed (wrongly) was a folk tune and therefore in the public domain.
It is now fashionable to put down the Weaver’s Decca period. The Weavers all did it themselves, and it is sometimes hard to blame them. The arrangements (including the vocal ones) are often cloying and annoying (though I love the blaring big band horns and jazzy cocktail piano on “Wimoweh;” and the insinuating background horns on “Midnight Special.”).
But in terms of musical influence, this commercial pop music may have been the most important of Seeger’s career.
So many of these songs have become part of our common culture. For instance, Archie Bunker, the world’s most unlikely fan of Leadbelly, made a joke on “All in the Family” referencing “Goodnight Irene.”
Moreover, they inspired the commercial folk revival of groups and singers like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Rooftop Singers, Harry Belafonte and Burl Ives, bringing folk music, including protest tunes, to an ever larger audience.
Moreover, the Weavers’ music, and the music it spawned, sent people back to the originals, when such “originals” existed and could be found; at the very least, it sent people back to more authentic sources, when such sources existed; and it sent them back to the original genres.
Which then inspired a more authentic revival, where rougher hewed singers liked Rambling Jack Elliot and Dave Van Ronk (and eventually Bob Dylan) intermixed with softer edged revivalists like Joan Baez.
The blacklist brought The Weavers’ era of good fortune to an ignominious end, but by 1955, they reunited without Jenkins or Decca. The horns and strings and pop arrangers were gone, but the harmonies were still sweet in a way authentic folk harmonies were not. The “authentic” Weavers, now adding protest to the mix (they were at their best on their Carnegie Hall Concert recordings), were still not like anything Lomax recorded on his field trips, nor did they sound like the music Seeger helped Lomax catalogue.
And so what?
The work of the popularizer is arguably as important as that of the creator. A great song no one hears might as well not exist. It is like a tree which falls in the forest when no one is there.
There is a disturbing tendency to brand popularizers as ripoff artists and cultural imperialists. Elvis is said to have ripped off “Hound Dog” (written by two Jewish teenagers and adapted by Elvis from a performance by a Vegas lounge act) from Big Momma Thornton; he is said to have ripped off “That’s All Right” from Big Boy Crudup (an artist who is interesting, to the limited extent that he is, almost solely because of his Elvis connection).
Pat Boone’s horrible version of “Tutti-Frutti” brought the tune to millions who might otherwise have never heard it, and sent many back to find the original. Little Richard, who’d been smart enough to hold onto his publishing, would have been elated even if it hadn’t. Boone’s other godawful covers did similar duty.
The cultural ripoff of “hillbilly” (as it was then called) and “race” (ditto) records by white pop artists was somewhat more complicated.
Dinah Washington and other black artists spent much of their time recording “hillbilly” and pop covers for the “race” market. Modern Records, based in the “race” market, covered promising “race” tunes with their own black artists and then soaked up the gravy, courtesy of their superior talent (compare Modern’s hit recording of “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets, arranged by the great Maxwell Davis, to the far inferior original by the Jayhawks) and superior distribution network. King Records, with a foot in both smaller markets, not only had their “race” and “hillbilly” artists cover all three types of music from other labels, but had their own “race” artists cover their “hillbilly” records and vice versa.
And, as a result, more music got heard by more people, broadening the taste of listeners and sometimes inspiring them to seek out the sources.
I built my substantial post war R&B collection without intent to do so, by staring at the credits of records by the likes of the Beatles, Stones and the Cream and wondering who these guys named Berry, Penniman and Dixon were.
Without the Stones, I’d never have eventually heard the fabulous original versions of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” or Alvin “Shine” Robinson’s “Down Home Girl.”
I’m sure Mick would have smiled.
Nor would anyone have heard “Wimoweh” without the Weavers (thanks to Seeger, the real writers eventually got their royalties too).
Ironies, of course, abound. A later bluesman like Robert Cray sounds more like he was inspired by Eric Clapton’s blues covers than by the originals.
P*ost -blacklist, Seeger continued to popularize, albeit to a smaller audience.
He first recorded for Folkways, as one might guess, a folk oriented label. He recorded traditional folk tunes; he recorded children’s songs; he recorded union tunes; he recorded world music (we owe Seeger for “Guatanamera”; “Kumbaya” had been recorded earlier by others, but Seeger certainly spread the news); he recorded songs by contemporaries like Guthrie and Leadbelly; he even recorded some songs he had “written.”
Though he was no longer charting, for those who were listening, and there were thousands, Seeger was still doing the work he began with Lomax, documenting an “America Songbook” at least as important as the one normally credited to Tin Pan Alley.
The records were often poorly recorded. Tantalizing titles, which co-billed bluesmen like Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon and Sonny Terry, are attached to records where those bluesmen were barely audible.
Yet, without these records, much of our heritage would have disappeared.
It matters not that you’ve never heard them, because you’ve almost certainly heard the songs performed by those who learned them there, or learned them from those who learned them there.
And those songs, both the traditional, and the ones by the likes of Guthrie, inspired a new generation of roots writers to create their own songbook.
We would be grateful if the results were only the likes of Phil Ochs, but the new generation of song writers also included Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
The sixties came and the end of the blacklist and the rise of the Civil Rights movement coincided with a new and more exciting generation of the folk revival. Inspired by the commercial possibilities, a major label, Columbia, signed Seeger, courtesy, of course, of John Hammond Sr.
From a technical standpoint, the records started sounding a whole lot better.
Seeger even hit the charts again, with a cover of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” a song then known mostly from Seeger’s pre-“Weeds” version.
He also recorded and helped to popularize and give folk-credibility to other newcomers, including Ochs and Dylan himself.
And his material helped provide sustenance not only to the new folkies, but also to the folk rock movement Seeger initially had more than a bit of trouble understanding.
The Byrds covered not only folk tunes they’d probably gotten off old Seeger records, like “Wild Mountain Thyme” (he’d appropriated the tune for his song “The Flowers of Peace”) and “John Riley,” but also Seeger “originals” like “Bells of Rhymney” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” (the triple repetition perhaps inspired by “Tzena”).
This is probably time to talk about Seeger, the “songwriter,” whose work mostly reflects the scavenger hunt known as “the folk process.”
Let’s take some of the most famous tunes attributed to him.
The words of “Bells of Rhymney” come primarily from a poem by Welsh poet Idris Davies that Seeger found in a book by Dylan Thomas and set to music.
The words of “Turn, Turn, Turn” are taken mostly from the third chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes.
“I Come and Stand at Every Door,” most famous for being recorded by the Byrds, is generally credited to Turkish Communist poet Nizam Hikmet, who’d written the original poem, but is often credited to Seeger. A women named Jeanette Turner had loosely adapted the poem into English and asked Seeger to find a tune for it. He did, taking the melody from a tune an MIT student named James Waters had written to be used for an old ballad called “The Great Silkie.”
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was an embellishment by Seeger (to which another writer later added additional verses) of lines from a Cossack folk song Seeger had found in a Russian novel and then set to a Russian folk tune.
“We Shall Overcome” the anthem of the American civil rights movement, was an old gospel song called “I’ll Overcome Someday,” later adapted into a union song called “We Will Overcome” by another writer. Seeger changed the title in a crucial manner, added a couple of verses and brought it with him to the right marches—but, without Seeger’s adaption, none of us would have ever heard it.
But, before we get too picky, one must note that this was the way of the milieu.
For instance, Bob Dylan adapted the tune of “Blowin’ in the Wind” from an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” Other examples are legion in the early Dylan repertoire (and those of his contemporaries, like Ochs).
And it continued.
The tune of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” (which it also resembles thematically) without the chorus—it certainly resembles “TMMB” more than “Come Together” resembles “You Can’t Catch Me” (and unlike John Lennon, Dylan never settled potential litigation by doing a covers album with a couple of Berry tunes).
The tune of “Ballad of a Thin Man” is largely Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul,” a crime only excused because Charles had himself ripped it off, lock, stock and barrel, from an old gospel tune (“honestly, I didn’t see a thing”).
Both the music and lyrics of “Fourth Time Around” bear a rather stunning resemblance to the Beatles “Norwegian Wood,” though this is likely because the song was intended as a goofy parody of the same.
In 2006, Dylan’s album “Modern Times” sparked controversy over its use of lines from the work of 19th century poet Henry Timrod, not to mention lifting verses and choruses from the American Folk Songbook.
I won’t even detail the other wholesale ripoffs of blues tunes and gospel tunes by songwriters, black and white, although, once again, those tunes (and sometimes words) were often pretty much in the public domain before they were ripped off by the artists subsequently ripped off again.
Though, it must be said that Dylan himself mows down all criticism by the shear depth of his accomplishments as a writer.
Dylan’s early protest tunes (with notable exceptions, like the awful “Masters of War”) were subtle masterworks of story-telling. In “Only a Pawn in Their Game” we are meant to feel that the real object of pity should not be the martyred hero, Medgar Evers, but his dumb, lowlife killer.
Generally, we are never told by Dylan when we should cry, except, as in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” when it is done somewhat ironically.
But, almost from the beginning, even the brilliant innovative protest songs Dylan was writing were too confining for him. Supposedly another protest song, “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” is really the first of Dylan’s surreal streams of word salad.
“Restless Farewell” indicates Dylan’s real ambition was to write for Frank Sinatra; written a few years before Paul Anka wrote “My Way,” Dylan beats him to to the idea and does it far better.
By “The Other Side of Bob Dylan,” Dylan was writing flights of fancy just crying out for an electric guitar, while giving the folk-protest movement an implicit kiss-off implicity (when he wasn’t, as in “My Back Pages,” doing so fairly explicitly). The Byrds and other early folk-rockers absorbed the album like a sponge and did the job for him.
Dylan had experimented with the rock and roll of “Mixed up Confusion” at the time he was putting together his first album of originals, “Freewheelin”—from the beginning, the rock and roll in Dylan’s soul was just dying to get out.
And when it did, Dylan’s songwriting soared to even greater heights.
By contrast, in Seeger’s case, there were only a few songwriting peaks, but the legacy left by his actual originals is extremely limited.
The brilliant “If I had a Hammer,” originally written by Seeger and Lee Hays for a testimonial dinner for Communist leaders on trial for violations of the “Smith Act” (a disgraceful law; however, the situation was rendered somewhat ironic by the fact that some of the same CPUSA leaders had themselves aided the US Government by providing evidence for a similar trial of Trotskyites in the early 40s), is an actual original, but the song’s brilliance is mostly in its lyric, which was written by Hays.
Ironically, Seeger, the great folk popularizer had nothing to do with popularizing his own composition. Almost no one heard the original, pre-Gordon Jenkins, Weavers recording of “Hammer.” The song would have been forgotten if Peter, Paul and Mary hadn’t found it, and overhauled it in 1962, pretty much re-writing Seeger’s melody. The Weavers then re-recorded it a year later (in a version one could actually buy) and Seeger did a solo version two years after that.
“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” a brilliant allegory about Vietnam, thinly disguised as a tale of a soldier killed during basic training during WWII (with a “big fool” sergeant who was a thinly disguised LBJ) is notable, for the fact that it attacks the Vietnam war neither from a pacifistic or leftwing viewpoint, but simply as the quagmire it was, making it far more effective in persuading the large audience who saw it when the Smother Brothers insisted that it be broadcast (providing CBS with item number two in their bill of particulars for the show’s cancellation).
But that’s about it for Seeger’s songwriting legacy—there were other originals, of course, but none which had any large impact or influence.
It is notable that when Bruce Springsteen put together his Seeger salute, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” the title tune was the closest thing it contained to a Seeger “original.”
This is not the legacy of Dylan or even an Ochs.
It is surely not the legacy of a major writer.
Perhaps from this stems some resentment.
Seeger had championed Dylan and spread his gospel in the way he’d championed Guthrie and Leadbelly, but Seeger was disappointed when Dylan spread his wings and expanded his vision of social protest to abandon the topical in favor of the existential.
And Seeger didn’t seem to like folk rock, let alone rock & roll.
Though Seeger now protests that his complaints about Dylan at the 1965 Newport Festival were that he couldn’t hear the words because of the bad amplification, it is hard to picture how he could have heard the words without it.
Methinks that the old protestor protesteth too much.
It’s ironic that the Seeger who castrated Leadbelly for the masses and put out pop with Gordon Jenkins’ strings and horns could so abhor trend-mongering amongst others, especially given his popular-front background.
The idea, after all, was to get the message to people in a way they would listen to it, wasn’t it?
I have to believe that Seeger was at least as angry that Dylan was no longer delivering the message, as he was with the manner of its non-delivery.
Ironically, the song which inspired Seeger’s rage, “Maggie’s Farm,” is one of the few early electric Dylan tunes (“Subterranean” is another) where one can detect conventional social protest if one looks for it.
Of course, Seeger might have known that if could just hear the words.
Ironically, two years later, Seeger was recording with the Blues Projects’ electric guitarist Danny Kalb joined by an electric rhythm section and the blues harmonica of John Hammond Jr.
Because “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was an important song, and he wanted people to hear it.