Back in the late spring of 1979, my friend Saul Brody and I set forth from West Philadelphia in my then still newly acquired 1952 Cadillac Fleetwood for Croton Point Park, New York. We were headed for the Great Hudson River Revival folk festival, also known as the Clearwater Revival. Saul, then a newly minted Ph.D. from the Penn folklore department, was on the bill as a minor performer, but his august presence got me and the car into the performers’ area. I didn’t have to buy a ticket for the two days of music or worry about food or parking. It was a perfect symbiosis. I brought my Gibson F-4 mandolin, just in case and just for fun. Saul brought his guitar, his clutch of harmonicas, and, as I recall, at least two fifths of middling quality bourbon.Why am I telling you all this? Because the Clearwater Revival was the brainchild of Pete and Toshi Seeger. The music began way back in the mid-1960s. It was always set up as a benefit concert to help clean up the Hudson River, which was filthy and getting worse. The event grew with each succeeding year, and by 1978, thanks partly to the large size of a new generation of folkies, the festival set its roots near the river at Croton Point Park. The very next year, I was there.We pulled in at a late afternoon hour. After unloading our stuff, we went over to a large hall where the mess was, and where performers and help-staff were mostly assembled, eating, drinking, talking, picking some in the corners and just wandering around. Around 6 pm in walked Pete Seeger, with his trademark straw hat and gray beard, to welcome everyone and introduce the key staff people who’d be helping to put on the music. It was all very laid back. Seeger did not look or sound like a Communist. But of course he was. Still was.I’m not going to retell his life story here. The obituaries do a pretty good job, except of course most of them pass over lightly or ignore entirely Seeger’s adversary culture politics. President Obama’s uncomplicated eulogy remarks yesterday did so entirely, but I can understand a reason for that which doesn’t ipso facto make Obama into a stealth revolutionary Marxist: It’s just unseemly to speak ill of the dead, especially the so recently dead.Yesterday’s New York Times, which has lots and lots of obit copy about Seeger, does not skip over Seeger’s politics. It tells you that he joined the Young Communist League at Harvard back before World War II, that he left the Party sometime after the war but remained a Marxist and a “communist with a small c”, in Seeger’s own words, all his life. He never really tried to hide it, but later in life he never tried to beat anyone over the head with it either. It never came up during my two or three brief conversations with him back in 1979, which were exclusively about music and musical instruments. But he also never expressed any remorse over the enormities committed by leftwing totalitarians. He frequently referred to capitalism and the United States as evil. If he was critical of any leftwing cause’s tactics or outcomes, I never heard it.
By and by, lots of old lefties from the civil rights and Vietnam War eras thought better of their youthful exuberance. Some became moderates, but a few lurched all the way to the right, keeping entirely intact the Trotskyite style of thinking about politics, merely reversing the conventional ideological valance. To these prodigal right-leaning sons, Seeger’s undaunted leftism became a kind of personal reproach. He became generally known among them as the Banjo Bolshevik. Every once in a while they’d write some scathing criticism of Seeger, whenever he made it into the news with his latest embrace of the Sandinistas or Occupy Wall Street and dozens of causes in between.And of course the criticism was accurate as far as it went: Seeger was a communist, he saw very little good in the United States’ government system or mainstream society, and, by extension, tended to embrace its every enemy, more or less uncritically. It was sort of infuriating to anyone with a brain. And yet the criticisms of Seeger nearly always bore too personal an edge, as if to say, Pete, you remind me of myself when I thought and acted like a complete fool, and I wish you’d stop making me remember what a nitwit I used to be.As for myself, I never felt a need to hone that edge. My father was a member of the Teamsters Union when I was growing up, a genuine Jewish member of the proletariat. He knew all about actual Communists mole-hunting within the labor movement for useful idiots. He instructed me as to how Communists were liars and crazy dreamers all at the same time, how they deployed the worst of human nature supposedly to bring out the best. My father only made it to fifth grade back in the day (when he was born Teddy Roosevelt was President), but he wasn’t stupid; I listened and learned. So when I got to college in the late 1960s and heard what the SDS types were saying, I was by then pretty well inoculated against most forms of ideological bullshistory. Thus, in all the years since, Pete Seeger never really bothered me that much. And now that he’s dead I’m in no mood for schaudenfreude (besides which it doesn’t really seem to fit for someone who made it to 94).Besides, Pete had some good qualities. He loved folk music and made preserving and spreading it his life’s work. He wrote some great songs, too, like “Turn, Turn, Turn”—even though when he sang “If I Had a Hammer”, he pretty clearly had hammer as in “hammer-and-sickle” in mind.He also remained optimistic his whole life. He really believed that if you found the hopeful stories, the inspiring stories, the forward-looking stories and told and sang about them enough, it would make a real difference. He believed that if he could get people to sing along with him, and learn those lyrics whether they really wanted to or not, the words would sink in and he would ultimately convert them to anti-capitalist politics and make the world a better place.Did he? I sort of doubt it, although no one can deny that the Clearwater project has done much good in cleaning up the Hudson. In the end, while I can’t prove it, I think Seeger’s politics were emotional in origin, not intellectual—and that their net impact remains mostly emotional as well (not that emotional impact sums to no impact). His belief that the rich got richer by making the poor poorer was at best childish.When you come right down to it, what Seeger did, probably without knowing it, was to devise a kind of new-age folk religion out of musical protest rituals. What he did made people feel good, made them feel like a part of something larger than themselves at a time when traditional means of religious communal expression weren’t working so well. The merging of environmental consciousness into the older leftist portfolio was almost too good to be true for this purpose: Lenin plus Gaia equaled countercultural nirvana. It was fine for most never to get beyond the lyrical slogans to the second paragraph of any thought about a political topic—that just wasn’t the point. Communal singing is a very powerful form of human celebration that creates and sustains spiritual connectedness; if you don’t realize that, it means you’ve never been involved in it. For all I know it probably has health benefits as well.I really enjoyed myself at that 1979 Clearwater Revival folk festival. I heard some great music, live and up close—the Paul Winter Consort, Pierre Bensusan, Taj Mahal, and many, many others. I got to pick mandolin with Taj on his banjo after hours, just the two of us, a momentary joy I will never forget—“long gone like a turkey through the corn, turkey through the corn.”The ride back to Philly also provided a vivid memory. We were running out of gas at one point, and the fill-up lines to all the gas stations that Sunday were outrageously long: remember, this was 1979. But the station attendant (yes, back then you could not pump your own gas) saw my Cadillac and waved me to the front of the queue. Saul swore he’d have to write a song about that, but I don’t think he ever did.What I don’t remember from that weekend is anything about communists or politics, courtesy of Pete Seeger or anybody else. Many of us, I think, corrode our lives by obsessing too much about politics. It definitely does not have health benefits for most people. But the way Pete Seeger went about it? Well, it makes me wonder.