Pete Seeger condemns Stalin...
November 16, 2007 12:13 AM   Subscribe

The pleasant but hagiographical Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (production company website w/ trailer) is playing in New York and Los Angeles. The movie is entirely uncritical... prompting this response by Ron Radosh who is interviewed in the film, but whose critical comments were left out. But most interesting is this followup article by Radosh describing Seeger's response and a new song against Stalin. The filmmaker comes out worst in Radosh's account...

The closest the movie comes to criticism is when George Pataki (interviewed about RiverKeeper) says something about who he and Seeger didn't always agree politically.

The film could at least have talked about the folk song "movement" critically in the way Tom Lehrer did:
One type of song that has come into increasing prominence in recent months is the folk-song of protest. You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a protest song is that it makes you feel so good.
The New York times has a more skeptical take than Radosh, reporting on earlier apologies by Seeger, but missing the point by emphasizing Seeger's writings rather than his music... which is of course Seeger's art, and not being clear that the NY Sun articles didn't say Seeger had never repudiated Stalin.

Since seeing the movie I've had "Bring em Home" stuck in my head. Watch Seeger sing it on youtube. And Bruce Springsteen reinterpret it.

I wasn't able to find a link to the new celebrity version (including among others Ani DeFranco) used in the movie's credits.
posted by Jahaza (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, you know Seeger was the guy Dylan wrote Ballad of a Thin Man about! Didja know that? It's true! Beyond a shadow of a doubt! (Well, ok, it was also about Stalin...)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:05 AM on November 16, 2007

Yeah, I read it on the internet, so it must be true.

I look forward to seeing this movie. Pete is an inspiring and inspiring man.
I'm going back to youtube to watch some more videos of him.
posted by MtDewd at 1:43 AM on November 16, 2007

Nothing in the Seeger back catalogue is quite as appalling (or appallingly hilarious) as Ewan MacColl's 'Ballad of Joe Stalin'. All together now:

Joe Stalin was a mighty man, a mighty man was he.
He led the Soviet people on the road to victory.
All through the revolution he fought at Lenin's side,
And they made a combination till the day that Lenin died.

Joe Stalin was a southerner, in Georgia he was born
Where the oranges grow thick and fast, and fields of waving corn.
And Joe he was a farmer, his fingers they were green
And he has planted the biggest crop the world has ever seen.

One day he looked upon the map and frowned and shook his head:
'There's too much brown and not enough green', these are the words he said,
'We'll have to change the weather, boys' he said and then he smiled,
'So let's begin by planting trees along three thousand miles.'

Joe Stalin was a mighty man and he made a mighty plan;
He harnessed nature to the plough to work for the good of man.
He's hammered out the future, the forgeman he has been,
And he's made the worker's state the best the world has ever seen.

If anyone can direct me to a recording of this, I'd be very grateful. One could do quite an interesting compilation album of Stalin songs: 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin'', 'The Red Airmen's Song' ('And every propeller is roaring Red Front! Defending the USSR'), and so on. Even the incredibly comprehensive Songs for Political Action (10 CDs, 300 songs) doesn't seem to include them.

It's rather touching that Seeger's response to all the fuss is .. to write a new song. He must be the last person alive who still believes that folk-songs can change the world (and I must say I admire him for that). But Ron Radosh's comment on Seeger's new anti-Stalin song made the smile die on my face:

Only an audience composed entirely of the now-aging old left veterans would understand it instantly. Undoubtedly, many of them would be shocked.

The thought of these 'old left veterans' still trapped fifty years in the past -- now, that's depressing. I love Seeger's songs, but the company he keeps ..
posted by verstegan at 2:17 AM on November 16, 2007

I always wondered what Robert Wyatt was up to singing "Stalin wasn't Stallin'" on his excellent Nothing Can Stop Us album. Wiki claims it was a Cold War reminder that we were all on the same side. I forgive him pretty much anything for the version of Costello's Shipbuilding off the same album.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 AM on November 16, 2007

er, on the same side once, that should have been.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 AM on November 16, 2007

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.

The tenuous segue between the two sentences not withstanding, is Radosh saying that Pete Seeger is obligated to specifically denounce every dictator in the world, or just Castro?

Shouldn't Pete be allowed to apologize for his leftist bent the way an American liberal does-- saying he Supports the Troops all the time?
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:20 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

this is so much nonsense. When will America repent for sidng with Stalin in WWII when will the GOP repent for Joe McCarthy or Iraq invasion? and on and on...who gives lyou the right to demand someone repent? Pete did more to bring environmental concerns to the public awareness (Hudson river ship etc) than Bush has done in all his years in office. and that was some time ago.

want repentence? look in a mirror and change what you do or think or fail to do....
posted by Postroad at 4:53 AM on November 16, 2007

Umm... if you read the links, Pete Seeger acknowledges he was wrong not to ask to see the gulags, support Stalin etc. So you're arguing with the man himself if you think he shouldn't apologize.

During World War II itself was a special case and the US shouldn't apologize for cooperating with Stalin then... I think even Radosh would agree.
posted by Jahaza at 5:08 AM on November 16, 2007

I always wondered what Robert Wyatt was up to singing "Stalin wasn't Stallin'" ...

Ha! I just picked up a 78 of Stalin Wasn't Stallin' by the Song Spinners (b/w Love Is Going To Be Rationed !)on Decca--but the original was by the Golden Gate Quartet ? Hmm, then who were the Song Spinners ?

I got that along with a Bessie Smith from 1929 and Heartbreak Hotel and It's Now or Never by Elvis on RCA Victor at a yard sale a couple of weeks ago. Not Elvis on Sun but, man, still--a Bessie Smith and two Elvis 78s. I never had such luck with the yard sale78s before....
posted by y2karl at 5:30 AM on November 16, 2007

Boy... I gotta buy a record player...
posted by Jahaza at 5:37 AM on November 16, 2007

When will America repent for sidng with Stalin in WWII

There's absolutely no reason to do that. Sitting idly by while Germany grabbed Russia would have given the Germans access to raw materials and factories that would have drastically changed the outcome of the war-- Britain might have fallen and it definitely would have taken many, many more Allied soldiers lives in the prolonged fighting. It might even have lead to a treaty instead of total German defeat, which would have left mainland Europe under Nazi oppression for a long time.

Also, more Russians would have died in the fighting than Stalin executed (even if you believe the ludicrous numbers some sources give for Stalin's victims)-- the traditional Russian military tactic is to throw every available body in the way of the enemy, whether you can equip and train them or not.

"Umm, comrade, I don't even have a rifle. I have some wood cut and painted to look like a rifle from a distance."

"Don't worry about it-- there will be rifles lying around when you get to the front."
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:40 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

But most interesting is this followup article by Radosh describing Seeger's response and a new song against Stalin.

Wow. That is fearless and controversial of Seeger. He really ought to get his hands on my new song which really puts Pontius Pilate in his place.
posted by flarbuse at 6:12 AM on November 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

I disagree with the FPP's characterization of the Times piece. The Times rightly criticizes the Sun for trumpeting the Seeger apology when it's something that happened long, long ago. After all, the original Sun article was titled: "Time for Pete Seeger To Repent." The original Sun article asked, "Why doesn't Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?" Also: "Yet he still says nothing critical about Fidel Castro's Cuba, or any other "socialist" regimes." Also: "I also asked why, after supporting Stalin's tyranny for most of his life, Mr. Seeger had never written a song about the Gulag."

So Pete Seeger had, in fact, publicly rejected Stalin and had even written a song against him. The fact that the Sun article never mentioned that Seeger'd repudiated Stalin is a failing of the Sun, not the Times.

Since we're demanding apologies, how about Radosh apologizing for not repudiating Joe McCarthy? After all, he writes in the second Sun piece: "It not only makes the point that Joe Stalin was far more dangerous and a threat than Joe McCarthy - a man Mr. Seeger and the old left view as the quintessential American demagogue - but emphasizes the horrors that Stalin brought." I think Radosh is being far too deferential to Joe McCarthy here, denying that he's a demagogue.
posted by factory123 at 6:35 AM on November 16, 2007

Ron Radosh (like fellow Red Diaper Baby, David Horowitz) has made a living denouncing his parents' generation. I'm an RDB myself, by the way, and have fond memories of Pete Seeger in the 50s and 60s. What was Radosh doing back then?

A long-time member of the Communist Party´s youth group, the Labor Youth League, Mr. Radosh joined the party in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the so-called "Khrushchev report" condemning Stalin had caused many longtime communists to lose faith in the cause.

His FBI file, which he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, makes note of his status as a student communist leader at the University of Wisconsin and his 1955 arrest for distributing the Daily Worker -- the Communist Party newspaper -- outside a factory gate in Madison, Wis. The FBI identified Mr. Radosh as someone to be detained "in case of a national security emergency."

His radical past is a source of bewilderment to his youngest son, a junior at the University of Maryland. "He says, 'I can´t understand how you ever fell for that communist crap,´" Mr. Radosh says.

But having lived so many years in what he describes as a "left-wing milieu" -- he spent childhood summers at Camp Woodland, a communist-dominated resort for "red-diaper babies" -- Mr. Radosh says it was hard to reject those early influences.

"It´s a whole world you´re in -- it´s like a church," he says. "You don´t want to leave that. You don´t want people who used to be your friends to call you 'traitor.´"

By Robert Stacy McCain
May 30, 2001

posted by Carol Anne at 6:41 AM on November 16, 2007

The only "folk" Seeger ever represented were the rich "folk" of his aristocratic family and their uncanny ability to turn oral tradition into a commodity and a nice living. I know people in Appalachia whose first rule upon being approached about their community's or family's oral tradition is to ask "you're not one of them Seegers, are you?"

The leftist romance with the noble working class is no more egregious than the rightist one. By the time Pete Seeger was born, the electric guitar was the folk instrument of the American worker. The banjo was the folk instrument of the castrated left, lost in its rapture with socialist mythology.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:27 AM on November 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

By the time Pete Seeger was born, the electric guitar was the folk instrument of the American worker.

Oh, man, that's a keeper.
posted by y2karl at 7:40 AM on November 16, 2007

Pete Seeger was born in 1919. The electric guitar wasn't developed to the point where it was regularly played in public until 1932. And, even then, but for some exceptions, it was used the way jazz tended to use guitars, as an extension of the rhythm section. It didn't really come into its own as a lead instrument until the 1950s, 30 years after Pete Seeger was born.

I have no problems with criticizing Seeger, but let's be fair about it. When he was born, the banjo really was a popular instrument.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:04 AM on November 16, 2007

I have no problems with criticizing Seeger, but let's be fair about it.

Or at least a little better informed.

1919 ? Ya mean they had them there 'lectric geetars way back when Dixieland was a-bein' invented ? Gol-l-l-lee!
/Gomer Pyle
posted by y2karl at 8:22 AM on November 16, 2007

So these Neocons? Have they renounced their support for Marcos or Allende yet?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:28 AM on November 16, 2007

Forgive fourcheesemac's typo, he was undoubtedly referring to the steam guitar.
posted by anser at 8:40 AM on November 16, 2007

I'm not sure anyone's ever believed that folks songs can change the world directly. Anyhow, Seeger's not the last one whose feelings lean in that general direction. This guy keeps acting like there's something there.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:44 PM on November 16, 2007

Atomic guitar!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:29 PM on November 16, 2007

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