The amazing thing about my friend Pete Seeger was how naïve he was. For all his years at the edge of politics - and the center of folk culture - he really never thought very deeply about ideologies. And for all his lifetime of thinking enough about the world to write some wonderful songs, he was by no means an intellectual.
He once told me, over a lovely vegetarian meal he had cooked, that the reason he joined the Communist Party in the 1930s was that it was the only one that seemed to care about the poor, the black and the downtrodden - the very people he was traveling among and singing about. He knew nothing at all about Marxism, never inquired into the morass of Stalinism and had no concern about any of that - except that he didn't want to go along with the party when Stalin signed an alliance with Hitler in 1939.
But the American Communists were especially outspoken on behalf of blacks at a time when the major parties were quite indifferent to their cause and the majority of Democrats were openly racist. And that was one of Seeger's principal concerns, so it seemed only logical to join.
Years later, with America in the throes of McCarthyism, he paid for it. He was blacklisted and banned from the radio. In 1955 he was hauled up before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, but there he refused to testify or name names, claiming his First Amendment right to remain silent; he was then convicted of contempt of court but the verdict was overturned in 1962 and he never served time. He had a hard time getting his songs published until he began a small magazine with some like-minded people to publish them.
Seeger bounced back with the Weavers in the 1950s and then as the troubadour for the anti-war movement in the Vietnam War years in the 1960s. It was that decade that I met him for the first time, when he did some concerts in New York City. A few years later, when I moved upstate in the Hudson Valley, I lived just a few miles from his house in Beacon, N.Y., and met him several times at our mutual train station in Cold Spring.
In 1969, he began campaigning for clean water in the Hudson on the Clearwater, a sloop he had built in Maine. With feelings high about the war, when it first put in at the dock in Cold Spring, it was stoned by a group of young men, some who said they were from the Junior Chamber of Commerce (a group that subsequently was proved not to exist), who said no damn commie was welcome in their town. But when the war was over in 1963 the Clearwater established its first headquarters (outside of Pete's house) on Main Street, Cold Spring. Pete was (expertly) calling square dances for the townfolk and he was invited to sing at the annual street festival outside the local hospital.
Years later I visited Pete at his home (much of which he had built himself) to try to get his support for a cause of mine, secession in the United States. He laughed at the idea and said he thought the country was just fine as it was, though it was flawed and he didn't like George Bush. But you needed a big powerful country, he said, to get rid of Jim Crow laws and discrimination where they were well entrenched, and to force the nation to accept the advancement of black people.
Well, it hasn't done such a great job, even with all the National Guard and civil rights acts and courts for 50 years, I said, and I'm not convinced the states wouldn't have done a better job on their own had they been given the power. What the federal government has done since Lincoln is to emasculate the states so they can't solve problems on their own. That's why I'm pushing secession.
I have voted for every Democrat for President, he said - except [to support] Henry Wallace in 1948 - and I think that except for the Vietnam War they have done marvelous things for this country. I've always been for the little man, the poor, and so have the Democrats. I'm sticking with them.
Political differences didn't change our friendship, and the last time I saw him he came for lunch at my house in the woods outside Cold Spring on a beautiful summer day. I tried to turn the talk to politics - I particularly wanted to hear him talk about the riot at the concert for Paul Robeson just down the road in Peekskill in 1949 - but he was completely absorbed in himself and the songs he had been writing. He confessed that he had completely lost his voice but tried anyway to give me an idea of the tune, using his hand to indicate higher and lower, and though he forgot some of the words the effect was still powerful, as he always could be.
The last words I said to him that day were from an old and obscure labor-union album he had issued in the 1950s, "Talking Union Blues," from a Woody Guthrie song: "Take it easy - but take it." He was not surprised that I knew the line - he sort of expected everyone to.
I found that he tended to be mostly self-absorbed in those later years, looking back on and talking about such a long and distinguished career. And why not? Who had a better right?
Kirkpatrick Sale, a former resident of New York, now lives in Mount Pleasant. He is the author of a dozen books of history and politics.