Today, Jim Brown's new documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," opens the annual American Film Institute/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival near Washington, D.C.
Two years ago, Mr. Brown asked to interview me for the film. I was a former student and friend of Mr. Seeger's and have written critically about his life and politics. I asked Mr. Brown whether he would actually use what I said. Mr. Brown responded that Pete and his wife, Toshi, wanted a critical voice in the film and did not want just to paint him as a man without blemishes.
In my interview, I praised Mr. Seeger's contributions to music and reminisced about being his student in New York while in high school and as a counselor at Camp Woodland, a left-wing summer camp. I also asked why, after supporting Stalin's tyranny for most of his life, Mr. Seeger had never written a song about the Gulag. He often introduces his song "Treblinka" by saying how we cannot forget the past. Yet he still says nothing critical about Fidel Castro's Cuba, or any other "socialist" regimes.
Mr. Brown's film is beautifully crafted and photographed, with great footage and a lot of good folk music. But although my praise and personal memories made the final cut, my critical comments did not. When I spoke to Mr. Brown a few days ago, he told me my remarks weren't appropriate for a tribute to Mr. Seeger's spirit and his contributions to America.
Some will argue that Mr. Seeger deserves such praise. But our country has more than made up for the 17 years Mr. Seeger was blacklisted from both radio and TV. In the past decade, Mr. Seeger has received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton and has been fêted at the Kennedy Center. A recent profile in the Washington Post style section proclaimed him a "national treasure" and America's "best-loved Commie." A few years ago, Mr. Seeger was invited to speak at the National Press Club. Just two months ago, the Library of Congress held an all-day tribute to him. After all of this, shouldn't a new documentary give its audience an accurate and honest account of his life?
In Mr. Brown's film, Bruce Springsteen calls Mr. Seeger a great "citizen-activist" on camera. There are more accolades from all the usual suspects — Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Manes of the Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez, and Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers. But when it comes to specifically addressing Mr. Seeger's politics, whom do we see on camera? First comes Charlene Mitchell, a former Communist Party leader and Presidential candidate, and then Henry Foner, a union official and lifelong fellow traveler.
The film's most egregious moment comes when it tells us that Mr. Seeger joined the Communist Party in 1939, and drifted out of it a decade later. It relates how in 1941 he joined the first folk music group, the Almanac Singers, which sang for the labor movement and the CIO. Next the film mentions that Mr. Seeger entered the Army during World War II, another sign of his patriotism.
Nowhere does this documentary describe the Almanac Singers' very first album, "Songs for John Doe." As readers of this newspaper know, in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a
180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR's America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels.
In the "John Doe" album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, "I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won't be safe till everybody's dead." Another song, to the tune of "Cripple Creek" and the sound of Mr. Seeger's galloping banjo, said, "Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain't a-gonna send us across the sea," and "Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me."
The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after "John Doe" was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing "Dear Mr. President," in which he acknowledges they didn't always agree in the past, but now says he is going to "turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise," i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.
For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called "Hey Zhankoye," which helped spread the fiction that Stalin's USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn't Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?
According to the film, one of Mr. Seeger's greatest accomplishments was his tour with third-party Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace in 1948. Viewers are told only that Wallace was a peace candidate opposed to the America-created Cold War, and that he was falsely accused of being a communist. Nowhere do we learn that Wallace's campaign was in fact a Communist Party-run affair, and that had he been elected, Wallace announced he was going to appoint men to his Cabinet who we now know were bona fide Soviet agents. Instead, we are asked to assume that every position taken by the old pro-Soviet left wing has been proved correct.
When the blacklist came to an end — of course the film concentrates on his victimization in those dark years — Mr. Seeger finally reached millions of Americans who, during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, came to believe there was never any merit to anti-communism, that it was the same as McCarthyism. Mr. Seeger went to visit North Vietnam in 1972, and came away ecstatic about the beautiful country and the peace-loving people there. We hear nothing about the political prisoners, the boat people, or about Ms. Baez's lone protest after the war's end against political oppression on the part of those she called "aging Stalinist leaders," a protest that Mr. Seeger, for once, took no part in. Instead we see the video of him singing his anti-war hit, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy."
In the film, Mr. Seeger says he slowly drifted away from the Communist Party because he didn't like its top-down organization. He does not address the policies for which it stood. 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. Mr. Brown's film lionizes him, and lets viewers believe that his old causes were on target, that his opponents were in essence war criminals.
A sympathetic but accurate film would praise Mr. Seeger as an individual and an artist, and would honor him for his contribution to American music and for his dedication to causes he believed in. But it would dare to criticize him for his anachronistic and false political views.
We come out of the film viewing Mr. Seeger as a man who always stood for peace. The truth was that he called for peace when the Party line demanded it, changed to supporting military intervention when the Party line changed, and then resumed the campaign for peace during the Cold War, when he regularly endorsed disarming America and excusing the Soviet arms buildup. Now, he constantly tells interviewers that he is a communist with a small c. He has finally gotten off the Stalinist bandwagon — a little late to make any difference, but better late than never. I even heard him publicly read aloud Rosa Luxemburg's famous sentences about the need for free speech under socialism, to which he added, "I wish I had read that earlier. It would have saved me a lot of trouble."