It’s been “all Pete Seeger, all the time” on my local PBS stations during their current fund-raising drives. Paeans to the man, the musician, the legend. And it’s all a bunch of crap.
Pete Seeger was a Stalinist stooge. He apologized for that a while back, which is just fine. But apologies don’t change the past. Watching bits and pieces of the documentaries and concerts on PBS, I noticed that while much attention was paid to criticisms of the musician, none at all was paid to the substance of those criticisms. Evil conservatives were apparently intent on silencing Pete Seeger, man of the people, simply because he spoke for the “little guy.”
But was he ever a man of the people? Here’s some of the lyric to one of his most popular songs, Little Boxes*:
And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
If that sounds like the scion of a wealthy family sneering at anyone who doesn’t live in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, that’s because it is. Pete Seeger, you see, attended private boarding schools in Connecticut before attending Harvard University.
Okay, so he despises middle class enclaves like Levittown but, like all good Communists, he has genuine sympathy for poor and oppressed people, right?
Not on your life. Seeger’s most lucrative song, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, was written and first performed by some of the poorest, most oppressed people he could have found, as described by Mark Steyn and quoted by blogger The Bovian Bloviator:
[The Lion Sleeps Tonight] is a tune that has reaped many millions for many people save for the song’s creator, a black South African named Solomon Linda who recorded it in Johannesburg in 1939. The song, “Mbube” (“The Lion”) was a hit but alas, Linda sold the rights to his publisher, Gallo Music, for the equivalent of 87 cents and aside from whatever one-time recording fee he received, that’s all the money he ever made on that ditty. He died in 1962 in Soweto after a grinding life of menial labor and poverty.
[From Mark Steyn’s “Song of the Week” column:]
“A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more authentic traditional vernacular folk music for the Weavers. He misheard “Mbube” and transcribed it as “Wimoweh”. That’s a great insight into the “authenticity” of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951. Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank . . .
“The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to “Mbube” cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to “Wimoweh”. And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn’t in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. Not everyone can plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order.
So, ladies and gentleman, I give you the real Pete Seeger, patron saint of leftists and other hypocrites.
*UPDATE/CORRECTION: While Pete Seeger’s version of “Little Boxes” popularized the song, it was actually written by Malvina Reynolds, a California commie. While Seeger attended Harvard, Reynolds had to settle for a doctorate from UC Berkley. She also played the character “Kate” on Sesame Street. (Thanks again, PBS!)
Thank you to Ron Radosh, for pointing out my error. Mr. Radosh has written several fine books, including A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth, and Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left.