Like most young people, I spent my teenage and young adult days restlessly tasting the different music that popular culture was serving me. By my mid-teens I was sick of the mindless lyrics of 1950s rock 'n' roll. I explored the jazz scene, even hearing the great Satchmo at the old Stadium at Rushcutters Bay. I found the classics and pounded my poor families' ears with the constant re-playing of Ravel's Bolero – as if it was not sufficiently repetitive itself! And then I discovered folk music; a place where the lyrics of protest and morality could find voice. It was not just the polished commercial performers like Peter, Paul and Mary (whom I also saw at the Stadium) but behind them the deeper thinking of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
This week, at 94 Pete Seeger has died. The mention of his name brought back memories of the hours I spent listening to his music and imbibing his moral outrage. He articulated so many of my social concerns and Christian values. He sang of the ‘ticky-tacky’ Little Boxes of bland materialism. He gave voice to the civil rights movement with the haunting anthem: We Shall Overcome. He sang of the ‘hammer of justice’, the ‘bell of freedom’ and the ‘love between the brothers and sisters’. He challenged the killers of Norma Jean (Marilyn Monroe); rhetorically questioning whether it was the fans, or the lover, the manager, the tourist or the press who were responsible.
For a Christian young man, Pete Seeger was powerfully asking the questions of our society that I wanted asked; that needed to be asked. I had no idea at the time that he also sang that monotonous 1950 song: "Good night Irene". Even as a child I had wished Irene would go to bed and put the radio audience out of misery. More significantly, I had no idea at the time that Pete Seeger was a Communist!
Communism flourished in places where hardship and injustice were married. The impoverished could easily be aroused to want more of the world's resources. The disenfranchised and alienated could easily be aroused to feel the righteousness of their claims and the morality of their cause. However, the Marxist philosophy that lay behind communism often escaped the ‘progressives’ as they love to call themselves today. The motivating force was the intuition of justice and morality, not the historical economic or philosophical concepts. Communists often worked with fellow travelers, giving support to any cause that attacked the status quo. They were the ideal demonstration 'rent-a-crowd’.
However, communists like Pete Seeger were more than a rent-a-crowd. He understood communism and was a political activist. To his credit, he put his ideas into practice. He stood for his conscience before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and was held in contempt of Congress. He left his band, The Weavers, when they started advertising tobacco products. His integrity was part of his attraction.
Unfortunately though, he supported the Party. We all make mistakes in life – his was to support Joseph Stalin. Eventually he was disillusioned, not with communism, but with Soviet communism. But that party spirit saw him oppose the Second World War until Hitler attacked Russia. This was a common pattern amongst Communists. Similar things happened in Sydney where Communists did not support the war until Russia was attacked. Then and only then did they become fervent supporters of the war. So Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers, sang anti-war songs and produced anti-war records until the Soviets were joined in the conflict – then they scrapped their anti-war stance and started singing patriotic war songs. They changed their tune from: "you ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea" to "give a gun so we can hurry up and get the job done!"
This is the problem with trying to institutionalize truth. No one party, no one side, no one organization, no one nation has all the truth nor has the truth perfectly. In his old age Pete Seeger recognized the difference between communism and Russian communism and the difference between Christianity and what churches have made of it. But sadly for Pete Seeger and his colleagues, communism, like all humanistic atheism, assumes and uses this sense of justice but fails to provide a basis for it or understand Christianity’s intellectual basis for their morality.
Lee Hays, his friend, fellow band member, and Communist colleague with whom he wrote: "If I Had a Hammer", died back in 1981. Just before his death he wrote a poem entitled: "In Dead Earnest". It shows the ultimate emptiness of atheistic optimism and morality. It confirms that existential pessimism and amorality are a better fit for the atheist. His ashes were mixed in with his compost heap.
In Dead Earnest
If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take:
Put them in the compost pile
To decompose a little while.
Sun, rain, and worms will have their way,
Reducing me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishes in the seas.
When corn and radishes you munch,
You may be having me for lunch.
Then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, "There goes Lee again!"
Twill be my happiest destiny
To die and live eternally.
As a Christian youth, I heard Pete Seeger's appeal to justice and morality and found myself in strong agreement with the communist. But in the gospel I was given a rational basis for the intuition of justice. For all humans created in God’s image know intuitively the justice of God. Justice, righteousness, mercy are the things the prophets of Israel appealed to, and we do not need revelation to recognize them. The Old Testament doesn't differentiate between the laws that are lighter or weightier – but Jesus’ contemporaries should have known the difference, for it is plain for all to see. The Pharisees did not see the obvious and Jesus rebuked them saying: "the weightier matters of the law: Justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done" (Matthew 23:23).