The story of the Almanac Singers, a folk group of the early 1940s that included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as numerous other famous folk and blues artists, continues to fascinate me. The story of the Almanacs is, in many respects, the story of the American Left, both at its least impressive and at its most impressive.
The Almanacs was a band of left-wing fellow travelers, attracted to activism because of some of the great moral issues of the time (depression, war, racism), but also unreflective enough to allow their actions to be directed by purveyors of ideological nonsense. We remember many of the people in this band as being basically decent people because, in the end, they made the right choices and stuck with their essentially moral commitment to fight injustice. However, they had a few years of ideological nonsense to wade through first before they got there.
The Almanac Singers was formed as a group in 1940, when many American leftists, particularly those in the Communist Party, would have told you (with a straight face) that World War II was an imperialist war that Americans should not get involved in. This was during the short-lived period when Stalin’s USSR had managed to negotiate a “non-aggression pact” with Hitler. The Almanacs believed that rubbish, and sang pointed “peace” songs directed at President Roosevelt, whom they believed wanted to get involved in the war. Check out some of the lyrics from the band’s “Washington Breakdown”, written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays and from the band’s first album “Songs for John Doe”, to get some of the political tone here:
“Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea,
‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea, You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea.
You may say it’s for defense,
But that kinda talk that I’m against.
I’m against, I’m against,
That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.”
This is “you ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea” to fight Adolf Hitler, mind you. Granted, genuine pacifists who hate violence so much they could never counsel war for any reason could tap their toes to this, so you might think I’m being unreasonable to chastise the group just for singing out against war. But stay with me here, it gets more fun after that.
In June of 1941, Hitler attacks the Soviet Union. The “non-aggression pact” with Stalin is now over. How quickly do the Almanac Singers change their tune? Well, pretty quickly. “Songs for John Doe” was pulled from distribution, and by 1942, the Almanacs put out an album called “Dear Mr. President”, which also contained a song by that name written by Pete Seeger:
“Now, Mr. President
We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know
But that ain’t at all important now.
What is important is what we got to do,
We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do,
Other things can wait.
So, Mr. President,
We got this one big job to do
That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through,
Let no one else ever take his place
To trample down the human race.
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done”
Wow, that’s going from pacifism to war-boosterism pretty darn fast, isn’t it?
If you think my point in bringing all this up is to lampoon the Almanacs for having been fellow-travelers with Communist Party USA, though, that’s not really what I’m trying to do here. There’s more going on here than that. If you look more closely at the things people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were thinking at this time, it reflects some attitudes you may recognise from today’s politics. Take Bess Lomax Hawes’ comments about left-wing changes in attitudes about the war:
“Every day, it seemed, another once-stable European political reality would fall to the rapidly expanding Nazi armies, and the agonies of the death camps were beginning to reach our ears. The Almanacs, as self-defined commentators, were inevitably affected by the intense national debate between the ‘warmongers’ and the ‘isolationists’ (and the points between). Before every booking we had to decide: were we going to sing some of our hardest-hitting and most eloquent songs, all of which were antiwar, and if we weren’t, what would we sing anyway? … We hoped the next headline would not challenge our entire roster of poetic ideas. Woody Guthrie wrote a song that mournfully stated: ‘I started out to write a song to the entire population / But no sooner than I got the words down, here come a brand new situation.'”
That’s not the response of someone cynically trying to manipulate people to support the Soviet line. That’s the response of someone unschooled in politics who got something important wrong but who wanted to remain true to the causes he got involved in politics in the first place to defend.
Even Pete Seeger’s other lines from “Dear Mr. President” convey that sense of recognising that he had gotten something wrong but not being willing to back down on what he got right:
“Now, as I think of our great land . . .
I know it ain’t perfect, but it will be someday,
Just give us a little time.
This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not ’cause everything’s perfect, or everything’s right.
No, it’s just the opposite: I’m fightin’ because
I want a better America, and better laws,
And better homes, and jobs, and schools,
And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like
‘You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,’
‘You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew,”
‘You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.'”
I think today there are lots of left-wingers who were initially attracted by a need to pursue a moral cause, to fight economic and social injustice and stand by those hurt by that injustice…but many of them are bewitched by some of the same dumb ideas, particularly where war and peace are concerned. They are today’s Almanac Singer types. I hope that, in the future, we will remember them as we remember Guthrie and Seeger – as decent people who may have made some wrong turns, but who figured it out in the end.
Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of things now, during the period where such individuals are pursuing their own fantasies about “anti-imperialism”. For people like this, the enemy may be economic and social injustice, but the enemy is also, for some reason, Israel, and the “imperialist war” we don’t want to get into is with Iran.
Even Pete Seeger, who typically always managed to end up where the moral people are, spent most of the late 1940s and early 1950s singing the Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” to people and introducing it as a song from “the new country of Israel”.
Seeger, who was himself actually a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, described himself as having “drifted away” from the party later on, presumably because of the obvious oppressiveness of the Stalin regime. If you look at Seeger’s political commitments since, he has long displayed a habit of not criticising fellow leftists (possibly because he could so easily be criticised himself), but also a habit of “drifting away” from those leftists heading in oppressive directions. The reason I still trust Seeger, both politically and morally, is because the man knows when to drift. He stands tall against injustice, and when he perceives injustice on his own “side”, he also makes a positive choice not to participate in it. He has been naive, but he also has learned and grown.
At a time when American leftists are starting to become enamoured of Black Bloc tactics and contemptous of electoral democracy, it might be interesting to see if we are witnessing any of this silent drifting. People like me won’t be so silent about it, of course.
Right now our modern-day Almanackers blast “Barack” the way they used to blast “Franklin D”. What will it take for them to realise they’re on Obama’s side?
Possibly the answer to that is “The Arab Spring”. Today’s leftists are happy so long as Arabs can bring down their oppressive governments without external aid, but they go back into their isolationist caves when US forces help the Libyans bring down theirs. About Syria they go into apoplectic shock…they instinctively side with the protesters, but dimly recognise that the protesters are not winning by themselves, and at some point will probably also require aid from outside. During the Iraq War, today’s Almanackers “started out to write a song to the entire population”, but no sooner than they got the words down, “here come a brand new situation”.
Some people on the Left don’t do “situations” well. They do morality well, but they don’t grasp strategy and tactics well, and get wrapped up in misunderstandings. The real question is, do they find the strength to extricate themselves from those misunderstandings and move on to express their commitment to social justice in a better way?
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger went on to do that. I hope some of today’s leftists will follow their examples.
- US – Yeah, That And The Munchies – 4 May 2014
- US – $15 An Hour Needs To Be Proven Thinkable – The End Of The World Is Not Nigh – 4 May 2014
- Israel – US – Israeli “Apartheid” – Secretary Kerry, The Debate Is Really More Constrained By Poor Metaphors, Don’t You Think? – 3 May 2014
- US – Gun Politics – Kennesaw Creates Its Own Crime Wave – 1 May 2014
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