Was a rebel ever quite so conservative?
01 May 2009
In two days’ time, the extraordinary life and career of the daddy of all roots music, the papa of the protest song, will be celebrated. Pete Seeger will be 90. A concert in his honour will be held at Madison Square Gardens, with an all-star line-up which includes Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Kris Krist-offerson. There will be hootenannies across America, in Australia and in Britain. All round the world, people will be thumping away on guitars and singing along to “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn Turn Turn” and other old Seeger favourites.
The songs and politics of Pete Seeger run like a bright red thread through the grey years of American conservatism, uniting a great tradition of left-wing musicians from Woody Guthrie to Springsteen. As an activist for trades unions, civil rights and internationalism, he has been a thorn in the flesh of presidents from Roosevelt to George W Bush, but played triumphantly at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert. He has been blacklisted, persecuted and sneered at. Long before it was voguish, he was an impassioned environmental campaigner. Musically, he has overseen a huge revival of interest in the folk tradition and can justifiably claim to have influenced generations of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Springsteen and Steve Earle.
So why is it that Pete Seeger gives me the creeps? In spite of his long list of personality credits – authenticity, courage, a refusal to play the celebrity game or to compromise his way of life in any way – I find it impossible to warm to him. If he were to play in a Suffolk village hall, as his sister Peggy did not so long ago, I would attend out of duty and curiosity but also with a small sense of weariness. There would be the smile, the banjo, the inevitable bloody singalong.
There is something cold about Seeger. He is too certain of his own rightness, altogether too comfortable in his own shining virtue. It was brave to declare his communist beliefs, to praise Russia and North Vietnam but the idea that his heroes had more dubious civil rights records than America never percolated through to his songs. He was not one for qualification or complexity. Under different historical circumstances, it is easy to imagine him as a smiling judge for a totalitarian regime, regretfully handing down jail sentences to non-believers.
The musical generation which preceded him provided a raw energy; those that followed did something interesting and self-questioning with their radicalism. Between them, in the middle of the century, Seeger sang with the passion of a sincere primary school teacher. For him, art was not for exploration but for propaganda. There was something hard-line about his uncompromising purity, and also something fundamentally conservative. It is not surprising to hear that, when Bob Dylan first played loudly and electronically at the Newport Festival, Seeger became involved in a weird brawl with Dylan’s manager.
In fact, the kind of songs that were first played in the 1960s and still resonate in today’s music were as much a protest against the world of Pete Seeger as against the so-called straight establishment. To this day, surely, Seeger’s oppressive sweetness, his way of reducing every song to the level of a jaunty, three-chord anthem, is likely to quicken rage not so much against injustice, big business, or the military-industrial complex – but against the bearded, saintly, smiling singer himself.
Time to spread the wealth around a bit, Zara
It is startling news that Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Phillips has become a highly-paid pin-up for the advertising industry.
The distinguished three-day-eventer is said to be coining it, having posed on behalf of a betting firm, a sports clothing firm and Rolex. She is also sponsored to the hilt, receiving for example £90,000 a year for being a “brand ambassador” to that well-heeled organisation, the Royal Bank of Scotland. Zara Phillips became famous by being part of a family which receives millions every year from the taxpayer. Now that she is reaping the benefit, would a small system of repayments be in order?
Politicians who don’t know what’s funny
An academic with too much time on his hands has been researching how we laugh. Apparently, 12 laughs a day represent a healthy average for most people. The findings showed that those who live in Aberystwyth are most likely to laugh, with 56 laughs a week, while Norwich, rather surprisingly, trails in as Britain’s least amused city, with a mere 27 laughs a week.
This data raises rather more question than it answers. Are the people of Aberystwyth laughing more out of desperation at their fate than joy? What, indeed, is a joke? George Bush often caused gales of laughter without actually meaning to be funny.
At the other end of the scale, there are comedy routines at which no sane person could laugh. When last week, the shadow minister Alan Duncan, commenting on an American beauty queen with whose views he disagreed, joked about murdering her, he embarrassed everyone, most of all himself. More recently his fellow-MP Sion Simon sent this Twitter message referring to the unlikely star of Britain’s Got Talent: “I’m not saying Susan Boyle causes swine flu. I’m just saying nobody had swine flu, she sang on TV, people got swine flu.”
Does that technically count as a joke? Almost certainly not. In a desperate attempt to be accessible to ordinary people, politicians are developing a grim line in elephantine facetiousness. Bad jokes ought to cost them votes.