There’s a pretty surprising and quite significant article today in the New York Sun, by Ron Radosh: Pete Seeger Speaks — and Sings — Against Stalin. Read it all, but here’s a few extracts: You need to know that Radosh had written an article earlier this year, in response to a new documentary on Seeger, in which he highlighted the old icon’s failure to ever come to terms with the crimes of communism — in particular his failure to write a song about the Gulag, in repentance for his longstanding support of the murderous Josef Stalin. Pete Seeger (who is now in his late 80s) responded to Ron Radosh with a letter.
Surely he was angry, or at the least peeved, by my article. I had been a banjo student of his in the 1950s and regarded Mr. Seeger as my childhood hero and mentor. But for decades since then, I have been publicly identified as an opponent of much of what he has believed — that the Rosenbergs were innocent, for example, or that Fidel Castro was a friend of the poor.
I almost fell off the chair when I read Mr. Seeger’s words: “I think you’re right — I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” For years, Mr. Seeger continued, he had been trying to get people to realize that any social change had to be nonviolent, in the fashion sought by Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Seeger had hoped, he explained, that both Khrushchev and later Gorbachev would “open things up.” He acknowledged that he underestimated, and perhaps still does, “how the majority of the human race has faith in violence.”
More importantly, Mr. Seeger attached the words and music for a song he had written, “thinking what Woody [Guthrie] might have written had he been around” to see the death of his old Communist dream. Called “The Big Joe Blues,” it’s a yodeling Jimmie Rodgers-type song, he said. It not only makes the point that Joe Stalin was far more dangerous and a threat than Joe McCarthy — a man Mr. Seeger and the old left view as the quintessential American demagogue — but emphasizes the horrors that Stalin brought.
“I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe,” the lyrics read. “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.”
Fifty-four years after Stalin’s death. Some things sure happen slowly. But it is what it is, and it’s much better than if it had never occurred.
Radosh, incidentally, met Bob Dylan when Bob stopped over in Madison, Wisconsin, where Radosh lived, on his great journey to New York to find Woody Guthrie. Radosh describes the encounter in his 2001 book, “Commies” (and he was one at the time). Dylan told him he was going to be “as big a star as Elvis Presley.”