Certainly Pete Seeger was a giant of the American folk music scene, a gifted songwriter, tireless supporter of environmental conservation, and, as your Jan. 31 editorial put it, a “man of conviction.” You might, however, have identified the object of that considerable conviction: Soviet Communism, and, for a large portion of his life, Stalinism.
While the House Un-American Activities Committee may have snagged many innocents in its dragnet, Pete Seeger was not one of them. In fact, it actually underestimated his role. He was rather literally a musical agent of Stalin. For example, as soon as the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he switched from anti-war ballads to interventionist hymns, toeing the party line. Long after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes in 1956, Seeger remained blind to the bloodbath that he had supported in song. It was only in the late 1990s that he acknowledged what Stalin had done, and, to his credit, apologized for his support – though he never renounced Soviet Communism itself.
None of this is to condemn Seeger. He did considerable good in his life, as the editorial pointed out. But to gloss over his support for Communism – and for decades, his blind support for Stalin – is to ignore one of the driving forces behind his music.