It happens that as Pete Seeger lay dying in Presbyterian Hospital at New York we were thinking of him. We did not know he was ill, but we ourselves were down with a cold and had retreated to our study, where we pulled up a few of his songs from the internet and spent an hour or so in reverie. We’ve done this from time to time, even when we didn’t have the flu. It’s an odd fact that although we have given much of our life over to the struggle against communism, we’ve never lost our love of Pete Seeger’s music and our regard for him as a figure in American life. Plus, we were in love with the same river.
We never had the honor of meeting Seeger personally, but we heard him several times in the 1960s, when he made appearances at various venues in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Sometimes it was when he was singing solo, sometimes with the Weavers. Covering the civil rights movement in the deep South, we often heard and thrilled to “We Shall Overcome,” which was never sung better than when Seeger sang it at Carnegie Hall, where he was backed up by his 12-string guitar and went rocketing up one or two octaves in the course of the word “today.”
Gosh it was glorious. All the more reason to reflect on the dark side of the Seeger story, his failure to confront communism and the crimes of Stalin. His stubbornness, if that is the word, on the point often left us — and no doubt many others — wondering. This is why we gave such play to his confession, late in life, to his long-ago friend and erstwhile student Ron Radosh, of regret over his failure to investigate the Gulag. Radosh had written about a documentary on the troubadour’s life; it had run in the Sun under the headline “Time for Seeger to Repent.”
Mr. Radosh almost fell out of his chair when he received a letter from the man who taught him to play the banjo and opened it to discover these words: “I think you're right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” Wrote Mr. Radosh: “For years, Mr. Seeger continued, he had been trying to get people to realize that any social change had to be nonviolent, in the fashion sought by Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Seeger had hoped, he explained, that both Khrushchev and later Gorbachev would ‘open things up.’ He acknowledged that he underestimated, and perhaps still does, ‘how the majority of the human race has faith in violence.’”
Seeger attached what Mr. Radosh reported were “the words and music for a song he had written, ‘thinking what Woody [Guthrie] might have written had he been around’ to see the death of his old Communist dream.” It was called “The Big Joe Blues” and of how he “put an end to the dreams.” Seeger, Mr. Radosh related, wrote that “the basic mistake was Lenin's faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!" Mr. Radosh related that Seeger said he often told his left-wing audiences to read Rosa Luxemburg's famous letter to Lenin about the necessity of freedom of speech. Mr. Radosh understood that Seeger was still a man of the Left, but honored and admired him for acknowledging the crimes of Stalin.
What Pete Seeger really stood for above all other things is the transcendent power of music and it’s ability to communicate — politics, narrative, spirituality, and all the noble emotions. It’s hard to think of any musician who kept on — as Seeger might have put it — longer than Seeger himself. He did a number of other important things in his life besides music, particularly his work to clean up that most glorious of rivers, the Hudson, but even then, music was at the center of his crusade. He was said to be an active musician until the day he died, and how much richer the world was for all the songs he sang so soaringly.