Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.
In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.
Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.
Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.
When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.