Last Monday when an archenemy of the right, Pete Seeger, died at 94, the right-wing guns were silent or as distant as summer thunder. Rush Limbaugh merely snarked about a moment of silence during the State of the Union.
I first learned of the menace to white Protestant civilization the folksinger posed in the eyes of the right on an evening in the 1970s at the house of friends. Two local friends and a visiting Texan strummed guitars and sang a Hank Williams song about the death of a black baby.
They projected a barrier-crossing feeling of common humanity as those educated, privileged white men sang a lament for the black baby’s death written by the poet of blue-collar culture, Hank Williams.
The moment was shattered when I asked innocently if anyone knew “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The Texan’s answer was like an unprovoked slap in the face, “We don’t play communist songs.”
At the time, I wasn’t aware of Seeger’s flirtation with Stalinist Russia, and so his rebuke came straight out of right field. Instead, I had him fixed as a prominent part of the historic 1963 March on Washington I had covered as a young Washington correspondent.
Many times during that long day, the Peter, Paul and Mary trio’s songs were an entertaining part of the event, such as, “I got a hammer and I got a bell, it’s the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom.”
And the anthem of the movement, “We Shall Overcome,” which impressed me even more than Dr. Martin Luther King’s poetic speech, I later learned was a Pete Seeger arrangement.
When people sing, and sing as the thousands upon thousands of the marchers did, it is a soul-stirring and impressive statement that all barriers are destined to fall before it.
Seeger was such an essential part of the inlay of the civil rights movement that I naturally took the Texan’s rude remark to be racist, in the sense that segregationists of that time tended to equate integration with communism.
It is true that Seeger for a time supported Stalinist Russia, just as many left-leaning Americans did in the 1940s and 1950s, believing our wartime ally had created a paradise for the common man.
Seeger was one of those who learned that the paradise was a lie and that the gulags were a better metaphor for Soviet society.
If not communism, what did the skinny, bearded singer believe? What was his philosophy? It is all there in his songs: he believed that life is sometimes hard, that kisses are sweet, that there is worry, danger, warning and that there is love and the hope for a good, long, married life — with grandchildren.
Take “I got a hammer,” it’s not aggressive, to smash somebody’s skull, “it’s the hammer of justice and the bell of freedom, it rings out danger, warning, and love between my brothers and my sisters all over this lands.”
Finding communist ideology in that is quite a stretch. Did he intend to make a Soviet-supporting contrast with our “shackled” society in “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song?”
Is that what he meant by “crossing the river and waking up to find shackles on my feet?” Or did he mean, as he explicitly said at concerts, it is a song about life, growing up, breaking the apron strings and taking up responsibility for making one’s way, prevailing over frustrations, barriers and disappointments to make a good life in a free society?
In “Kisses sweeter than wine,” he wrote a hymn to the bliss of young love and a happily married life. He found a girl and kissed her and “uh oh, kissed her again.” Soon came marriage, twins and the anticipation of grandchildren.
Seeger’s playful side mixed with sorrow for the lost fantasies of childhood are in every bar of the happily turned nostalgic, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Was he mourning the death of his fantasized belief in a Soviet paradise, or simply the sad recognition that some of the delights of childhood have to be left behind?
I prefer the simpler answer, for Pete Seeger was a simple though brilliantly talented entertainer. His philosophy was the same as his Christian faith, which he retained to the end. Love is greater than any ideology.
Did the guns from the right flank fall silent with Pete Seeger’s death? No, they will be heard again. The quiet on the right-wing front was just because Limbaugh and Hannity, too, have tapped their feet to his tunes.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.