By Scott Ross
With Pete Seeger I note the passing of perhaps my last living hero.
Well, as that grand old troubadour himself might have noted, the need for heroes may indicate something lacking in ourselves, or at the very least something unformed, and immature, about our sense of values. One of the more difficult lessons to endure is the recognition that those one admires most are all too capable of revealing themselves to us as fallibly human. There was, I’ve discovered, much that was unsavory, or anyway less than admirable, about Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams and Arthur Laurents and Pauline Kael and Bob Fosse and Billy Wilder. Stephen Sondheim too has proven to have feet of clay, as have Larry Kramer and Harlan Ellison. (My heroes have tended to be artists; I’ve never emulated a politician or a soldier, two species who seem to me far more alike than can bear a great deal of scrutiny.)
But Pete, whatever his personal foibles or his slowness to come to grips with, say, sexual politics, seemed—seems—to me if not above reproach, seldom in its vicinity. He, and his fellow Weavers (Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and the late Lee Hayes) may have been uncomfortable fitting themselves into the mold required by Decca and Gordon Jenkins, may even have believed they were selling out in some way, but when push came to shove, their collective sense of ethical probity was not a movable feast. Pete after all was at Peekskill, risking life and limb in the face of sense-maddened (and officially sanctioned) rioters as bent on shredding the Bill of Rights as he was on defending it.
Pete’s system of values was humanist in the very best sense, his causes uniformly devoted to the elevation of his species, and the earth in which (and the air and water on which) they lived. Not for Pete Seeger the easy means of escape, or the avid role of the happy informer, in the case of Burl Ives, or the paid one, as with Harvey Matusow. It was Pete, not jolly, bearded, avuncular Burl, who appeared before the actively fascist House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and stated, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, essentially under such compulsion as this.”
I am reminded today of something I once overheard in a music store (remember those?) in the mid-1990s. Some young dolt was looking through the folk section and not coincidentally “educating” his girlfriend on the performers whose CDs they were perusing. Something in his tone, and his gasbag manner, instantly annoyed me. But when, exhibiting one of Pete’s albums he bloviated, “His politics are all wrong, but he wrote some great songs,” it took all the restraint I possessed to keep from screaming, “Pete’s politics are his songs, you puffed-up, know-it-all, Republican ignoramus.”
I bet when he reads Ayn Rand his lips move.
Pete would no doubt have smiled benignly, and demurred, gently, in that mellifluous tenor of his, preferring to take the opportunity to teach rather than simply to vent. That’s one of the differences between Pete Seeger and me. Pete’s impulse was to inclusion, and, if not solution, at least diffusion. You can hear it in his choice of material, in the words he wrote, and in his urge to call-and-response in his concert appearances.
Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”