It was no surprise last year when rock stars, led by Bruce Springsteen, barnstormed battleground states for John Kerry, and no surprise that, save for a handful of country singers, George W. Bush could count on no similar support from pop performers. After all, American music stars are overwhelmingly left-liberal, and often publicly sofrom punk rockers Green Day, who recently recorded American Idiot, a George W. Bush Rock Opera, to Grammy-winning blues rocker Bonnie Raitt, who once dedicated an album to the people of North Vietnam. Asked why President Bushs iPod featured songs by singers whod campaigned against him, White House advisor Mark McKinnon dryly observed: The fact is that any president who would limit themselves to pro-establishment musicians would have a pretty small collection.
The conventional wisdom holds that it was ever sothat American popular musicians have always been leftists, and that music-as-radical-politics has stretched across the decades, expressing the nations social conscience. The late New Left chronicler Jack Newfield, for instance, celebrated a native tradition of an alternative America that included not just such openly activist musicians as Woody Guthrie but also apparently non-political singers like Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson.
Yet this native tradition is a myth. Until quite recently, popular musics prevailing spirit was apolitical: It has a good beat, you can dance to it, I give it a 95, as fifties teens gushed about new records on Dick Clarks American Bandstand. The politicization of American pop dates from the 1960s, but it grew out of a patient leftist political strategy that began in the mid-1930s with the Communist Partys Popular Front effort to use popular culture to advance its cause.
One figure stands out in this enterprise: the now-86-year-old singer, songwriter, folk music legend, and onetime party stalwart, Pete Seeger. Given his decisive influence on the political direction of popular music, Seeger may have been the most effective American communist ever.
Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building progressive coalitions with various institutionsincluding political parties and labor unionsthat the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque, observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser. In the Far East, Japan kept growing bolder. The Kremlin leadership . . . now felt its sole hope lay in a military-political blockade with the Western powers. Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. Communism is 20th century Americanism, Earl Browder, the American partys general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.
The Popular Front sought to enlist Western artists and intellectuals, some of them not party members but fellow travelers, to use art, literature, and music to insinuate the Marxist worldview into the broader culture. The murals of Diego Rivera, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the novels of Howard Fastall exemplified this approach. Its an irony that communists should seek to change the culture, of course, since Marxism holds that culture is merely a reflection of underlying economic structures, whose transformation will bring about capitalisms inevitable collapse.
Still, the party kept sending its legions to the cultural front lines, even after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact abruptly ended the Popular Front coalition-building. The American Communist Partys bluntest expression of the idea of culture as a revolutionary tool came in writer V. J. Jeromes talk Let Us Grasp the Weapon of Culture, presented to its 15th national convention in New York in 1951. Cultural activity is an essential phase of the partys general ideological work, Jerome observed. Federal officials cited the speech as an overt act seeking the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, landing Jerome in prison for three years.
It took a while for the Popular Fronts strategy to get results in popular musicand Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presleys arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock n roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.
It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seegers Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Seegers lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboards easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seegers fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectoryculminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.
For Seeger, the sixties breakthrough came after decades worth of mixing music and politics. His belief in musics potential political power ran in the family, reports biographer David King Dunaway. Seegers eminent father, Charles Seeger, a musicologist teaching at Berkeley in the early 1900s (the folk-music archive at Harvard is named after him), found the plight of California migrant workers so disturbing that he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, despite being a pure son of the American upper class with Puritan ancestors; later, he conscientiously objected to World War I. Anticipating the Popular Front, he yearned for a revolutionary classical music that would help usher in a new political order. Though he ultimately made little headway in marrying politics and music, his sonwho shared his view that realizing the American dream meant economic as well as political egalitarianism, and that in turn meant communismsucceeded brilliantly.
Pete Seegers life mission first took shape as he toured the rural South with his father in the mid-thirties, listening to performances of traditional music and thrilling to their authenticity as perhaps only a Connecticut boarding-school product could. He listened attentively also to his fathers close friend Alan Lomax, assistant director for the Library of Congress music archive and another man of the Left. Using primitive early recording equipment, Lomax and his father, John Lomax, who preceded him at the Library of Congress, brought to the librarys vaults a priceless treasure of traditional music from the Ameri-can South: the African-tinged singing of the Georgia sea islands, the Elizabethan ballads of Appalachia, the blues of the Mississippi Delta (including the first recordings of the great Muddy Waters, made on the famous Stovalls Plantation outside Clarksdale), and powerful gospel songs by poor whites and blacks alike.
The Popular Front Left saw such homespun music of poor rural Southernerseventually labeled American folk musicas perfect for molding into a new Marxist cultural vernacular. [W]hen the Communist Left and its intellectuals . . . tried to sink roots in American tradition, radicals turned a new ear to traditional folk tunes, notes Dunaway. They could cast folk music as the politically pure art of Americas noble rural proletariatplus, because this non-commercial music wasnt copyrighted, they could adapt it freely.
Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax took on this project with gusto. Lacking a real tradition of social protest in American folk music, the pair set out to create one. The music served as the crucible of Seegers own style: Folk songs, radicalism and patriotism blended in his mind, Dunaway observes. Through Lomax, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a March 1940 New York benefit concert for California migrant workers. (The Popular Front might not have invented the benefit concert to fund political causes, but it certainly helped boost the institution, which lives on in the form of Farm Aid, Live Aid, Live 8, and the like.) Made to order for the Popular Front, Guthrie was a middle-class Oklahoman with a calculated aw-shucks cowboy manner, who just happened to be a Communist Party sympathizer and had written for communist newspapers. As Lomax later put it: Go back to that night when Pete first met Woody Guthrie. You can date the renaissance of American folk song from that night.
Guthrie, with little or no popular following down home, was by no means an indigenous representative of some vital American political folk-music tradition. He owed his eventual lionization to Seeger, who formed with him the Almanac Singers, which first brought his work to popular attention. If Guthries songs based on John Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath (Tom Joad and other Dust Bowl Ballads) became some of the most influential American recordings of the twentieth century, journalist Joe Klein, a Guthrie biographer, argues, it was only because Seeger tirelessly promoted them.
Seeger and Lomax also helped popularizeand politicizethe blues music of Huddie Ledbetter (nicknamed Leadbelly), another major figure in their made-up tradition of American protest music. The African-American Ledbetter had no real politics, and no commercial recognition, before the Lomaxes helped get him out of a Texas prison and move him to New York. But Lomax soon co-wrote a song with him called The Bourgeois Blues: Home of the brave land of the free/I dont want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.
Before Leadbellys radicalization, the traditional folk music of American blacksamong whom social protest music would seem most likely to find a hometended to be personal and religious, not political. Gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, in her classic Thats Enough, expressed this apolitical spirit: The mean things you said dont make me feel bad/Cause I cant miss a friend that I never had/Ive got Jesus, Jesus, and thats enough. In the same spirit, Martin Luther Kings favorite song, Why Am I Treated So Bad?, was a deeply personal response to injustice penned by Mississippi Delta gospel musician Roebuck Pops Staples.
During the early 1940s, Seeger and the Almanacslater reconstituted as the Weaversbluntly propagandized in their songs. Writes Dunaway: They opposed war and promoted unions the way early Christians believed in the Church. Union organizers in the past had sometimes put political lyrics to gospel music, as when Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill sang of the wonder-working might of the union (rather than of the blood of the lamb). Popular Front supporters, the Almanacs included, made this approach their trademark.
Party stalwarts Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson had already penned one of the classics of the form, a tribute to Joe Hill himself, a Swedish immigrant executed in 1915 in Utah for committing a murder for which many leftists believed the authorities, influenced by the mine owners, had framed him. Hayes and Robinson composed the song during the summer of 1936, at Camp Unity, a left-wing retreat in New Yorks Dutchess County, setting their lyrics to a traditional folk melody (Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream). Joan Baez later sang I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night at Woodstock in 1969:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Another Popular Front success from this period was the 1937 reworking, at Tennessees communist-founded Highlander Folk School, of the traditional black gospel number I Will Overcome into We Shall Overcome, soon a labor rallying song.
Though Seeger didnt formally join the Communist Party until 1942, the Almanacs lyrics marched in lockstep with the partys views well before then. In keeping with the line adopted after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact (which caused many U.S. party members to quit in disgust), for example, the Almanacs warbled against American entry into World War II, foreshadowing the preference for peace at any price that later characterized the McGovernite Left. Franklin D., listen to me,/You aint a-gonna send me cross the sea. The group continued in this vein into the late 1940s. Campaigning for Progressive Party anticold war candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, they regularly performed a send-up of Harry Truman, to the tune of Oh, Susannah:
Weve got to jail the communists
(The lyrics referred to the newly enacted Smith Act, requiring Communist Party members to register with the government.) A more militant Seeger-Guthrie song, 66 Highway Blues, threatened: Sometimes I think Ill blow down a cop/Lord, you treat me so mean. . . . Im gonna start me a hungry mans union,/Aint a-gonna charge no dues,/Gonna march down that road to the Wall Street Walls,/A-singin those 66 Highway Blues.
The Almanacs/Weavers also dressed the part of authentic jes plain folks, sporting farmers overalls on stage. Anticipating the fashion affectations of later pop stars, in which studiedly grungy clothing often serves as both costume and political statement, they suffered from what biographer Dunaway calls a bad case of proletarian chic.
Ironically, given such heavy-handedness, Seeger and company would gain a far bigger influence over the broader culture through the subtlety of their later work. It
was a changed Americaa McCarthy-era country that now regarded the Soviet Union as an enemy, not an allythat pushed Seeger toward a more refined style. As the labor movement kicked out the radicals, Seeger recalled, I settled for Lets get America singing; maybe the basic democratic philosophy in these folk songs will filter out subliminally to the American people.
After the Weavers had some mild commercial success, including the song Goodnight, Irene (reportedly requested by atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to accompany their march to the electric chair), the groups Communist Party connections drew the attention of those on the Right seeking to expel the Left from American popular culture. After the onset of the Korean War, the blacklisted group abruptly found itself without invitations to record or perform. Seegerwhom critics dubbed Khrushchevs songbirdmade ends meet largely by playing childrens concerts at such venues as the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village and its upper school, Elisabeth Irwin High, which, as historian Ronald Radosh recounts, was known for hiring former New York City public school teachers unwilling to sign a loyalty oath.
In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee, holding hearings in New York on communist influence in the entertainment industry, subpoenaed Seeger. He refused to answer committee questions, including whether he was a Communist Party member, not on the usual Fifth Amendment grounds but on the grounds that he had a First Amendment right to sing and associate with those interested in hearing him. Seeger thus opened himself to criminal charges of contempt of Congress that would hang over him until 1962, when a federal judge threw out a looming ten-year prison sentence, decreeing that the singer couldnt be held to have violated committee rules because those rules were unclear.
Shortly after his contempt indictment, Seeger wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, adapted from a Ukrainian folk song (quoted by Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov in his novel And Quiet Flows the Don):
Where have all the flowers gone?
And the young girls have gone to take husbands, the husbands have gone to be soldiers, the soldiers have gone to their graves, and around and around in the tragic cycle:
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Under duress, Seeger had replaced propaganda with a softer idealism. The song portrayed all war as futile, only implying that those who saw the Soviets as a threat worth fighting werelike warmongers historicallymisguided, or worse.
Seeger had composed one other such number. Written with Weavers bandmate Lee Hayes and first performed at a 1952 benefit for communists in legal trouble, If I Had a Hammer was an extraordinary anthem. It pulled off, with great aplomb, the old Popular Front goal of linking the American revolutionary past with the communist revolutionary future, joining the Liberty Bell with the hammer and sickle, and extolling freedom and justice while implying that these quintessentially American qualities were the very virtues that American society lacked:
If I had a hammer
And so, too, if he had a bell to ring and a song to sing:
Now I have a hammer
Only Commies used words like peace and freedom, Seeger later recalled. The message was that weve got tools and we are going to succeed. The last verse didnt say, theres no hammer, there aint no bell but honey I got you. No flinching for Seeger.
Both songs owed much to Guthries This Land Is Your Land, his 1940 response to Irving Berlins straightforwardly patriotic God Bless America. Guthries proclamation that this land is made for you and me contained an accusation that an unjust social system was robbing the countrys rightful ownersan accusation that a couple of verses made quite directly:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
Seeger, for his part, was leaving such rhetoric far behind. So brilliantly understated did he become that he even crafted a protest song out of the Old Testament. His musical version of chapter three of EcclesiastesTurn, Turn, Turnamended slightly the words of Scripture, transforming the meaning of the biblical poetry. Ecclesiastes observed, but did not judge, the cycles of life: To everything there is a season. To the penultimate phrase, a time for war, a time for peace, Seeger added his own: I swear its not too late, giving the words an activist edge. The song became an antiVietnam War anthem and a Number One hit for songwriter Seeger, thanks to the Byrds folk-rock version, which topped the Billboard pop chart in December 1965.
Even earlier, of course, the civil rights movement had given further momentum to the politicization of popular music. (The Popular Front had long recognized that the plight of American blacks offered an effective tool in its effort to discredit the American system as a whole.) Seeger ardently supported the civil rights movement, and his We Shall Overcome concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1963two months before Martin Luther Kings I Have a Dream speechmarked a watershed in it. The We Shall Overcome concert would have been notable for its name alone, which made a household word of what had already become a civil rights standard. But there was much more: the show ran through the whole Popular Front songbook, from Guthrie and Leadbelly to a Spanish civil war ballad and the beautiful Oh Freedom, a song not originally of the Left but of black Union troops joining with other Americans to bring slavery to an end.
I remember buying the album of the concert and singing along with it endlessly. Among its songs was Little Boxes, Berkeley songwriter Malvina Reynoldss sarcastic dismissal of the aspirations of American suburban homeowners. Little Boxes, a sneer of alienation, expressed a new sort of critique of capitalismone that would have many echoes in later pop music. For Reynolds, it seemed, mass prosperity was no better than the Great Depression.
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Seeger debuted another soon-to-be-classic left-wing war-is-never-the-answer number at Carnegie Hall: Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall, a hymn-like vision of nuclear apocalypse written by a talented young songwriter:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
The songwriter, Bob Dylan, would shortly overtake Seeger as the leading force politicizing popular music.
The young Dylan quickly mastered the anthemic songwriting style of If I Had a Hammer. The same month that Seeger performed at Carnegie Hall, Peter, Paul, and Mary released a version of Dylans Blowin in the Wind, with its unmistakable, though implicit, references to the civil rights struggle. It suggested that America was no more just, and probably less so, than other nations:
How many roads must a man walk down
How many times must a man look up
How many years can a mountain exist
If Seeger was the Popular Fronts Lenin, Dylan was its Che Guevara, complete with motorcycle. Dylan clearly absorbed Seegers lesson on subtle songwriting. In his recent memoir, Chronicles, he notes that protest songs are hard to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional. But Dylan went beyond Seeger by being rock-star glamorous. Heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beats as well as the political Left, Dylan struck a pose of alienation and nonconformity that has served as a model for so many popular musicians since. Picking up where Little Boxes left off, he mocked the senseless striving and meaningless materialism of American life, scoring hits like Subterranean Homesick Blues, a surreal pastiche of urban hopelessness boasting a line that would inspire a wave of leftist extremism: You dont need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Thirty years after the Popular Front issued its call to transform culture through music, it had now become proper, even natural, for popular music to embrace leftist moral and political causes and for many young Americans to look to musicians for guidance on such matters. As Joan Baez, then emerging as a glamorous folk diva and Dylan duet partner, put it: Theres never been a good Republican folk singer. The Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, in his great novel of post-colonial Africa, A Bend in the River, captured the self-indulgence of these attitudes of opposition and protest when expressed by those who enjoyed, as did Baez and Dylan, the prosperity and security of a free society:
I asked Indar, Who is the singer?
By no measure has all, or even most, popular music since the 1960s been overtly political. But the Popular Fronts ethos, styles, and heroes have become part of the American cultural mainstream. The annual Woody Guthrie Award ceremony, recognizing singers who exemplify Woody Guthries social activism and personal commitment to the visions and hopes of people, takes place at the Waldorf-Astoria, for instance. What Howe and Coser wrote in 1957 remains true: Between the progressive sentiments of Popular Front politics, and a certain kind of urban middle-brow cultural yearning, there was a deep rapportmost of all, a common anxiety and pathoswhich the Communists brilliantly exploited. . . . Even after the Popular Front lay shattered . . . the style of American mass culture retained many of its crucial elements.
Its echoes in music are ubiquitous. We hear them in John Lennons Imagine, a vapid celebration of moral relativism that, like Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, tells us that no cause is really worth fighting for:
Imagine theres no countries,
We hear the echoes, too, in the music of the man who organized the Artists for John Kerry tour: Bruce Springsteen, who specializes in depicting the desolation of American life in albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad (a self-conscious reference to Guthrie). The emblematic Springsteen song, Born in the USA, laments the meaningless sacrifice of the Vietnam vet, the ultimate used and abused working-class hero:
Born down in a dead mans town
Born in the USA, I was born in the USA
Got in a little hometown jam
Born in the USA. . . .
Come back home to the refinery
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Born in USA, I was born in the USA. . . .
Juxtaposed with the bleak lyrical narrative of tragedy and indifference, the songs seemingly celebratory chorus becomes a parody of patriotism, implying the foolishness of the benighted blue-collar victim of the system, naive enough to think that its really a good thing to be an Americanor, God forbid, that America might be worth fighting for.
Its tempting to dismiss the politicization of popular music as of limited consequence. But as the Popular Front keenly grasped, culture mattersand music matters perhaps most of all. Allan Bloom, glossing Plato, wrote that to take the spiritual temperature of an individual or society, one must mark the music. In America, popular music provides a soundtrack for growing up. And the lyrics of that music too often deliver the message that our leaders are idiots, that our politics are corrupt, that bourgeois life is purposeless, that this country is no freer than any otherand probably less so. How can we find ourselves surprised, then, by the cool indifference that typifies many kids raised in times of affluence, freedom, and peace?
For his part, Pete Seeger, who lives near the Hudson in Wappingers Falls, New York, continues to perform, now singing Turn, Turn, Turn as a protest against the Iraq war, a radical to the end. Im still a communist, in the sense that I dont believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, he told Mother Jones last autumn. (The lefty magazine crowns Seeger the grand old lion of the Left.)
Happily, some have embraced the Popular Fronts legacy in ways that Seeger probably didnt anticipate and wouldnt likely approve. In March, a crowd in Taipei, several hundred thousandstrong, sang We Shall Overcome and Blowin in the Wind as part of a protest against forcible annexation by mainland Chinaand the prospect of Communist Party rule.