Pete Seeger’s Musical Folk Radicalism

Pete Seeger was a man with powerful enemies like J. Edgard Hoover and the FBI. He was involved in the Communist Party USA for a period of his life, and although he did express support for the Soviet Union for a while, It would be unfair to call him a Stalinist, which The Atlantic did in their article “Pete Seeger’s All-American Communism”. In reality the man was no authoritarian, but instead was a musical pioneer and true champion of social justice.

Taken by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer in 1955

Pete Seeger was first and foremost a political radical, and a communist who believed in unions as a tool for political change. However, he did not have the same shortsights of perspective that many on the old left had: he was a firm proponent of LGBTQ+ liberation, feminism, environmentalism, and anti-racism. He was quoted in The Voice of America as saying

I have tried to combine social action with music all my life, whether it is peace or war or unions or civil rights or the women’s movement or the gay liberation movement, I have participated in all of them,” he explained. “ I am convinced they are all different sides of one huge crisis that is either going to wipe out the human race or we will solve it.

He clearly saw the worlds problems and decided that he wanted to do something about all of them, and he did so through his music. His first political songs were done together with Woody Guthrie while they were in the band The Almanac Singers. Their second album was called Talking Union & Other Union Songs. The songs were strongly pro-union and anti-capitalist, such as “Which Side are You On” and in particular “Talking Union”. “Talking Union” explains how to organize a union and gives warnings about what the response will be to it. It explicitly takes a stand against racism in the last verse:

That if you don’t let red-baiting break you up,
And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up,
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up,
You’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!

The song demonstrates that the state, racism, and patriotism are all tools of the capitalist used to keep the working class subjugated.

Later on in his life, Pete Seeger was heavily involved in the movements against the Vietnam war and the anti-racist / civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. The song most symbolic of this was “We Shall Overcome” which he talks about in an interview with Pacifica Radio.

Despite the attempt at red-baiting that many have aimed at Pete, the people will always know the truth that he was a people’s hero and champion of liberty.

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