Leni Riefenstahl was the world’s first notable female filmmaker, and the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century. She created innovations in the technique and aesthetics of film still used not only in cinema, but in the filming of crowds and athletic events; some of the techniques you see at the Super Bowl are evolutions of techniques Riefenstahl pioneered in filming the 1936 Olympics.
But it’s not considered polite to applaud Riefenstahl in public with out an emphatic verbal “asterisk”, because of her association with the Nazi Party. Her best-known work, Triumph Des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is an epic documentary and one of the world’s best known and most influential pieces of propaganda.
And so Riefenstahl was ostracized for the rest of her long life (she died at age 101 in 2002) as a Nazi impresario, for her association with a regime that killed 11 million people directly and triggered a war that swallowed tens of millions.
I write a fair amount about music in this blog. And when a major musical figure passes away, I often try to write something.
And in his way, Pete Seeger was one of the most important figures in popular entertainment, ever.
Not necessarily because of his music. Oh, he had a few classics of American folks music, to be sure. And dozens of forgettable songs – but that’s true for any songwriter, or any artist in any genre for that matter.
Many conservatives writing about Seeger’s passing note that he was a committed Communist. It’s true – he was, and in a way that seems straight out of Orwell, as during this episode after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in 1939:
In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”…The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.
For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?
It’s impolite in polite society to laud Riefenstahl after her association with a regime that murdered over 10 million people. Fair enough.
So why does Seeger escape any questioning for doing so much to support a regime that may have killed five times as many?
But as Howard Husock noted in his classic essay on Seeger, his most lasting impact on American culture may have had little to do with music.
Because there was a time when Hollywood’s political ideals weren’t all that different than the rest of the country’s. Seeger was a vital part of a movement that changed all that:
Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser… Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.
This led to the creation of the “Popular Front”, whose mission was not so much to assault capitalism as to co-opt it. And one of the institutions it marked for co-option was the entertainment industry.
And Seeger was a key cog in that machine:
It took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.
It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.
Seeger did not, himself, “make Hollywood leftist”. But he was a key part of that transition.
Forget his music. That was his real legacy.