Pete Seeger: critique and defense

Pete Seeger described himself last year on NPR as a Luxembourgian Communist and told a story about Rosa going to scold (if I recall this correctly, it's been just over a year since I heard this) Lenin about being out of touch with the people. There are, therefore, at least some who wear that badge.

James N. Stewart

Yes, and Pete Seeger censored both "Irene, Goodnight" and "This Land is Your Land" in his recordings of them, sneered at U.S. workers in his song, "Little Boxes," and was the favorite singer of Phil Och's "Love me, I'm a liberal," said liberal ending up with, "And that's why I'm turning you in."

As I have said, I admire Luxemburg tremendously as both a revolutionary and a revolutionary theorist. (Before his death Lenin had planned to order the printing of the collected works of Luxemburg in Russian.) Her exchanges with Lenin are important and principled marxist writing. But this news about Seeger only increases my intense suspicion of the *bona fides* of anyone calling him/herself a "Luxemburgist."

Carrol Cox

1. I'm not clear on the history of Irene Goodnight. Versions are variable, apparently.

2. Seeger publishes six or seven verses of "This Land Is Your Land" where Guthrie (Ludlow Music) for some reason published only three and those three are the ones he recorded at least twice. I do not know if he recorded the others anywhere.

3. "Little Boxes" is by Malvina Reynolds, not Pete Seeger. It is not a commentary on the working stiff, but on the conformity of the fifties analogous to "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit."

4. While he received a reference in Och's song ("I go to Pete Seeger concerts") which might reasonably be seen as a reference to the audiance rather than the singer.

He also was the man who composed "If I had a Hammer" (oh yes, that hammer) for a Communist Party Rally in 1947. He freely admits that the song never caught on until PP&M altered the melody some fourteen years later. He is also the man who was called up before Senator McCarthy's committee to be questioned (in part) about his writing of that song and he is the man who had sufficient integrity to refuse to answer. He was imprisoned and black listed. I think he deserves some credit.

James N. Stewart

Please don't put down Pete Seeger. He's been in struggle for a long, long time. He stood up to HUAC. His music has contributed to radicalizing a lot of people. He had a lot to do with the growth of interest in American and world folk music. He also happens to be a great musician. Nobody's perfect.

Jim Blaut

Your mostly right, and I won't. I was irritated, even at the time, though by "Little Boxes," sung though not written by Seeger. Someone tried to tie it to the "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" etc, but was around in the '50s, and the people living in those little boxes were in fact mostly factory workers, so I won't retreat on that. The Men in the Gray Flannel Suits could and did afford more varied housing.

Carrol Cox


Little boxes on the hill side, little boxes made of ticky tacky.
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow
And they're all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just
the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they were put in boxes, little boxes, all the same.
And there's doctors and there's lawyers, and there's business
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just
the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university
Where they all get put in boxes and they all come out the same.

And the boys to into business and marry and raise a family
In boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just
the same.

When you're right you're right . . .

By Malvina Reynolds

But this is a lie. I left a word out in my preceding post. *I* was around in the fifties and I *saw* the houses people lived in, and *factory workers* lived in ticky tacky, doctors and lawyers lived in varied dwellings, not ticky tacky at all. I specifically remember commenting to my wife in the early 60s as we drove along the tri-state, these are the slums of 20 years from now. You need to read up on the effects of the interstate system, of which these ticky tacky houses all looking the same were the product, and which, to repeat, held working class overwhelmingly. Perhaps a few managers just out of college and straining at the bit to get out of them. My brother, who ended up assistant finance manager for Checker in Kalamazoo, only lived in ticky tacky (all just the same) at a time when he was working two jobs (the second a clothing sales clerk evenings) to pay off his college loans. All his other houses were quite different from the houses around him, and no ticky tacky. The song stinks, and stinks badly.

Carrol Cox

I recall the era well. I have seen the tri-state. I don't know what ticky-tacky is supposed to mean exactly, but I can see the suburban sprawl of nearly identical big houses. Look at the developments at the corner of I-57 and I-72 in Champaign, fields I roamed as a boy. No two are alike but they all end up the same. So what if they're expensive. Go to California, where Malvina Reynolds writes, and look at the endless repetition of forms in gated housing developments. But still, this is literary criticism.

The point is that the song was popular on the folk scene and was taken to be a criticism of the Grey Flannel world. That it does not necessarily stand up to rigorous analysis is interesting to not--and I have never heard your analysis before--but I believe that it is not in keeping with the way the song was understood at the time, therefore, Pete Seeger's inclusion of the song in his repertoire is significant of the attitudes assumed to be expressed at that time.

This no more deflates Seeger than Phil Och's song lauding Kennedy necessarily deflates him as a critic of Seeger (see my previous post on the subject).

To call it a lie is unfair, although your complaint that the identical housing is more relevant to the working man has merit. The old lyric, "We have fed you all for a thousand years/ And you find us still unfed. . . " is, upon close analysis, nonsense. Nobody has been fed more than a hundred and a few odd years and clearly the workers were fed or they would have died. In both, cases, however, the lyric makes poetic sense.

If you allow no poetic license, must we discard that beautiful line in the International, "thus ends the age of cant. .." That song is over a century old and there is plenty of cant still around last time I checked.

James N. Stewart