Seeger turns on Uncle Joe

Observations on Folk Music

After more than 50 years of obstinate ambiguity, Pete Seeger, one-time member of the Weavers, banjo-playing sidekick of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, and the man who almost single-handedly invented the protest song and inspired the young Bob Dylan, has finally admitted he was wrong to keep quiet for so long about the horrors of Stalin's Russia.

Now aged 88 and living a frugal life in Dutchess Junction in Fishkill, upstate New York, the man once dubbed "Stalin's Songbird" has penned an extraordinary, if belated, recantation of his days as an apologist for Soviet communism and Castro's Cuba.

"The Big Joe Blues" is a touching act of candour. The words may not have the haunting lyricism of his "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary, nor the strident call to arms of his "If I Had a Hammer". They may not have the eternal appeal of his adaptation of the Old Testament mantra "Turn, Turn, Turn", best remembered in its jingle-jangle version by the California folk rock band the Byrds, nor the powerful simplicity of his civil rights movement anthem "We Shall Overcome".

But "The Big Joe Blues" remains a painful landmark for a defiant member of the American Communist Party, who preferred to spend a year in jail rather than betray his red friends to the witchfinder-general Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities.

There is no ambiguity about the words of Seeger's final judgement on Stalin's murderous reign. "I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./ He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so many in every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./ (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./ (Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues."

Seeger admitted to an old banjo pupil of his, Ron Radosh, who had criticised his long silence on the horrors of Marxism-Leninism, that when writing the song he had been "thinking what Woody might have written had he been around" to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to Radosh's complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin's death camps, he wrote: "I think you're right - I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR."

Old age appears to have mellowed the once stern songsmith, who threatened to cut through Dylan's microphone cables with an axe when the younger man shocked audiences by playing electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Seeger now acknowledges that "if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail".

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This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies