I come from an old left-wing family. My grandparents on my father's side were self-proclaimed "reds" though neither they nor my father nor his brother were actually members of "The Party": the CPUSA. My father especially was too loose a cannon to be allowed into what was, essentially, an organization that was subject to strong ideological discipline. CPUSA, though, was one of the few official organizations, in the first half of the 20th century, to take strong stands for racial equality and for the unity of workers through unions. The Party also favored "folk music" as the "music of the people." All of us -- our family and friends of the family --- had old 78 recordings of Paul Robeson, the Lincoln Brigade (the American contingent in the Spanish Civil War), and Woody Guthrie. (I still own a few, though I can't play them on my audio equipment any more.) At some time a new voice appeared: Pete Seeger.
His first group, the Almanac Singers (with Millard Lampell, Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie) was a bit before my time, but his most famous and extensively recorded group, the Weavers (with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman), was formed in 1943 when I was already alive -- at least technically. They were a part of my music listening thereafter (and remained so long after they disbanded in 1952 when I was in elementary school). The Weavers and Pete were red-baited off the stage and the airways for most of two decades -- until folk music became popular again in the 60s. (You can read about this history HERE, for example, or in any of the recent obits -- for example, HERE.)
For many years Pete was also a fixture at events that weren't subject to red-baiting: "hootenannies" or singing parties. These events took place frequently in the 50s and 60s in New York where I grew up. Sometimes they were for a particular cause: to pay someone's legal expenses or rent, or to protest some particular outrage (of which, of course, there were many). They often were at seedy auditoriums downtown. My relatives took me to a bunch of these when I was pretty little. I still remember Pete saying, at one "hoot", that he appreciated the turnout, since everyone there was in danger of coming in contact with [mock terror]: "Communists..." He would sing the songs we all knew and loved: "Which Side Are You On", "The Reuben James", oldies like "Joe Hill", and satires like the Wobbly versions of "Casey Jones." and "Long-haired Preachers"; "Talking Union" in a more didactic tone. We all sang on the choruses -- even I did, in my little kid's off-key voice, since I had heard most of the songs around the house, sung in my father's grown-up off-key voice. I was taken to hoots, more than a few times, by my father's cousins, who were real card-carrying Commies (and possibly spies even). Pete's voice, and banjo (and occasional guitar and recorder) were distinctive, and he always -- always -- could get people to sing along with him. He'd teach the words, melody and even harmony, on the spot, and as he was singing. He had the timing down perfectly to anticipate the cues and musical reminders, and he always could get you worked up about the meaning and importance of what he was singing about.
Pete and his songs were as much a part of my life as anything I did in school. I knew very little about him at the time -- his personal and political history I picked up later. By the time I was hearing him he had already severed his official connections with CPUSA (I don't remember exactly what they were); of course, he never severed his ties to the ideals which had brought him (and my relatives) to the Party in the early and middle years of last century. Stalin and the Soviet Union which he created, when their true nature was revealed, were impossible to accommodate (except by my father's parents, but that's another story). Pete renounced the CPUSA, but remained, as he put it, a "small c communist".
Part III next time...