THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
January 29, 2014
Pete Seeger's symphony of bad ideas
We should learn to appreciate a man's artistry even when we despise his politics
by James Panero
No other singer could connect with an audience of different ages quite like Pete Seeger, who passed away in New York this week at age 94. The night before he died, my mother, my daughter and I all happened to find ourselves gathered in my living room listening to “Pete Seeger and Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street,” the 1974 album that was the soundtrack of childhood for my Upper West Side generation and, now, continues to be loved by the next.
What else brings a family together quite like a sing-along to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Kirk, Big Bird and Seeger — whose soft voice and rooted instrumentation, so recognizable, will continue to be welcome for generations?
That I have come to see the message behind Seeger’s musicality to be so wrong, often terribly wrong, has only made me appreciate his musicianship more. I seem to spend much of my career editorializing against the full range of mistakes he made. From world politics to the environment of New York State, the innocent idealism communicated through his songs would only be destroyed, I would argue, if we were to act on the positions he took in his lyrics. Seeger’s beliefs began with big-C Communism and ended in little-c communism. The fact that his music could be so inviting despite the many bad ideas that went into it speaks to the power of his artistry.
Great artists don’t always have great politics. If we let the politics dictate the art, we let the politics win out. Richard Wagner’s anti-semitism shouldn’t deprive us of the Overture to “Tannhäuser.” Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet sympathies shouldn’t detract from our appreciation of “Battleship Potemkin.”
The same goes for Seeger. He was politically effective precisely because his music was that good.
Despite his hardscrabble, rail-riding demeanor, Seeger was the Harvard-educated son of an American musicologist who studied how to push his ideas out in the guise of a well-tuned folk vernacular.
Some years ago in City Journal, the journal of the conservative Manhattan Institute where I am also a contributor, Howard Husock wrote that, “Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.”
This is true especially in the way Seeger could package leftist anthems as children’s songs. Husock does a line-by-line analysis of the political messages in Seeger’s lyrics. For example, “If I Had a Hammer,” Husock writes, “was an extraordinary anthem. It pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle.”
Writing in the New York Sun in 2007, Ron Radosh, a one-time student of Seeger’s who has been arguing against Seeger’s ideas longer than I have, struck a similar note: “He never pauses to criticize the communist regimes he once backed, nor the few that still exist, like Castro’s prison camp in Cuba. Mr. Seeger’s cries for peace and his opposition to every American foreign and military policy (even ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan) show that he has learned little from the past.”
(To Seeger’s credit, he responded to Radosh in a letter expressing remorse for his youthful Stalinism: “I think you’re right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” This story was recounted by the Sun’s editors in a tribute to Seeger this week — one that also pays tribute to his musical legacy separate from his politics.)
Beyond Seeger’s Stalinism and his isolationism, there was also his environmentalism. A resident of Beacon, New York, Seeger had long lamented the pollution in the Hudson River. In “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song)” Seeger wrote of “Sailing down my dirty stream/ Still I love it and I'll keep the dream/ That some day, though maybe not this year/ My Hudson River will once again run clear.” In 1969, he constructed a sloop called Clearwater as an icon of advocacy and went on to fashion an organization around it to campaign for the river’s remediation.
Seeger was right that the Hudson needed help, but his advocacy has at times made it worse. One of Clearwater’s main targets have been the PCBs that General Electric legally discharged into the Hudson from its electrical-equipment plants in Ford Edward and Hudson Falls, New York. GE ended this practice decades ago and had undertaken its own cleanup, leading to dramatically improved river conditions.
Yet river advocates including Clearwater pushed for extensive dredging of the river bottom, which the current EPA compelled GE to do through an interpretation of contamination levels that was more punitive than prudent.
“General Electric’s dredging to clean up 30 years of deposited PCB’s from the river is a direct result of Clearwater activism,” the organization boasted in a tribute to its founder.
Yet as I wrote in a study of this action, the cleanup is “both unnecessary and environmentally destructive . . . Because the river bottom was being disrupted, PCB levels in water, air, and fish all rose dramatically and exceeded federal limits. By every measure, the health of the river and the surrounding community deteriorated, at least temporarily, through the EPA’s intervention.”
The same goes for fracking for natural gas from New York’s shale reserves. As its obituary reminds us, Clearwater is “also active in the battle to pass moratoriums on hydrofracking in the region.” Just last year, Seeger himself marched on Albany to keep fracking out of state. “If you take the money that they want to give you for going along with fracking and injuring people for generations to come,” Seeger says to Gov. Cuomo in a YouTube address, "you will go down as perhaps the worst [governor in the history of New York].”
Once again, Seeger came out on the wrong side his own ideals. New York’s fracking moratorium is actively hurting the poor workers of New York’s depressed Southern Tier, as opposed to just the fictional ones Seeger liked to sing about. Environmentalist opposition to fracking, based on a host of dubious claims, also negatively impacts the environmental gains that would result from further gas exploration, especially when it comes to airborne pollutants.
“Displacement of coal-fired power by gas-fired power . . . is the most cost-effective way of reducing CO2 emissions in the power sector,” concluded a recent study by MIT. As I recently documented, the gas from fracking in fact “helps protect the environment by replacing coal in power plants, since gas produces far less carbon dioxide, sulfur, carbon monoxide, and ash than coal does.” The same would go for converting the dirty basement boilers in New York City from oil to gas — if only environmentalists wouldn’t stand in the way of gas exploration and distribution.
If you really want to understand the appeal of disagreeable positions, there's sometimes no better way than through its art. In this regard, Seeger could be a teacher without equal. The simplicity of his songs, perfect for a child's call and response, is also what made them ill-equipped to deal with complex issues. It is certainly true that his artistry was dictated by his politics. That doesn’t mean we must be dictated by it, too.