That Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at age 94, is being hailed as a sort of American hero — re-discoverer and popularizer of traditional folk music, champion of anti-war, civil-rights, and environmental causes — is a testament to just how profoundly to the left popular culture shifted over the course of his lifetime. For there can be no doubt that Seeger, a one-time member of the Communist Party, campaigner for Henry Wallace, unwilling witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, saw himself as a man of the Left, though he might have preferred being described in terms such as “champion for social change.” It is pointless, though, to seek, at this point, to impeach his credibility or minimize the extent of his influence on the basis of such affiliations. Those who might disagree with Seeger on all sorts of issues, owe him, more than anything, grudging admiration. The popular culture that honored him in life — with a lifetime-achievement Grammy Award and the National Medal for the Arts — did so in no small part because Pete Seeger himself did as much as anyone to move it to the left. I’ve referred to him as “America’s Most Successful Communist” — and, if he was that, it was because of his profound impact on popular music, especially through his songwriting.
To understand Seeger’s impact, it makes sense to look back to March 1962 — when a clean-cut group called the Kingston Trio released what would become a No. 1 hit, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” written by Pete Seeger. Adapted from a Ukrainian folk song quoted by Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov in his novel And Quiet Flows the Don, it was a lament about the tragedy of war and its victims — tuneful, subtle, and evocative. And it was brilliant anti–Cold War propaganda: “When will they ever learn?” that war is not worth its costs. Its success was a watershed: It marked the beginning of the introduction of political themes and overt social causes into American pop music — a process that would be continued by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others to the point that now we take it for granted.
But under McCarthy-era pressure, Seeger figured out that he had to be much more subtle. The result was a series of hits in the style of “Flowers” — lyrical, affecting, and effective. They included “If I Had a Hammer,” a huge hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary, (“It’s the hammer of justice / It’s the bell of freedom”) and the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” in which Seeger subtly changed Ecclesiastes to include the anti-Vietnam lyric, “A time for peace / I swear it’s not too late.” It was just this style that Bob Dylan, who began his career as a Seeger protégé (although he would go on to transcend such politicized art), perfected in his anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was Seeger, as much as anyone, who popularized (notably in a famous 1963 concert at Carnegie Hall), “We Shall Overcome” — a civil-rights anthem with no overt reference to race.
In other words, Pete Seeger led the way in devising the formula that pushed popular culture leftward: the music (or the movies) had to work as art and must avoid heavy-handedness. It is, to be sure, a tragedy that this happened — as much for art as for politics. But in promoting the causes he embraced — undermining the view that the American experiment was noble and the nation good, and imprinting the idea that private business is anti-social — he must be considered a resounding success. For its part, the cultural Right has long, and unsuccessfully, been trying to match his example.