Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tuesday Night at the Radio!

In the New York Sun today, ex-rad historian Ron Radosh notes how the new documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song left his criticism of the pioneering folkie's communism on the cutting-room floor:
Two years ago, [director Jim] Brown asked to interview me for the film. I was a former student and friend of Mr. Seeger's and have written critically about his life and politics. I asked Mr. Brown whether he would actually use what I said. Mr. Brown responded that Pete and his wife, Toshi, wanted a critical voice in the film and did not want just to paint him as a man without blemishes.
Unfortunately, Radosh says, Seeger came out looking like Scarlett Johansson:
Nowhere does this documentary describe [Seeger's early group] the Almanac Singers' very first album, "Songs for John Doe." As readers of this newspaper know [sic], in August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and became allies. Overnight the communists took a 180-degree turn and became advocates of peace, arguing that Nazi Germany, which the USSR had opposed before 1939, was a benign power, and that the only threat to the world came from imperial Britain and FDR's America, which was on the verge of fascism. Those who wanted to intervene against Hitler were servants of Republic Steel and the oil cartels. . . .

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.

That's where tonight's radio show comes in. Two months after Pearl Harbor the four major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC Red and Blue) hooked up to broadcast this remarkable home-front morale booster starring Lieutenant (and hubba-hubba movie star) Robert Montgomery. It's called "This is War" (2-14-42). Written as a (relatively) sprightly youth by radio grand old (old, old) man Norman Corwin, it's an amazing piece of all-American propaganda. Listen to the dozens of speaking and singing parts, the many sound effects, and the full orchestra, and try to remember that the whole thing was done live. Montgomery actually muffs a couple of words in crucial spots, but the show is amazingly smooth (and the sound, except for one enormous skip in the middle, is excellent). This is aural history.

Oh yeah, Pete Seeger. That's him and the Almanac Singers with the rousing (and no doubt Seeger-penned) last tune, 'Round and Round Hitler's Grave.

(via Bros Judd)

Update: Amazingly, the Pete Seeger Appreciation Page has two contemporary newspaper articles on the "This is War" show, both pointing out the Almanac Singers' sudden turn toward warmongering after Hitler (as readers of this blog know) attacked the Soviet Union. The New York Post: "'Peace' choir changes tune" (love the scare quotes); and the New York World Telegram: "Singers warbled for communists." His-toe-ree.

Update II: Here's a little more of Carl Joaquim Friedrich's June, 1941, Atlantic Monthly piece mentioned in the Post:
Probably some of [the Almanac Singers'] songs fall under the criminal provisions of the Selective Service Act, and to that extent it is a matter for the Attorney-General. But you never can handle situations of this kind democratically by mere suppression. Unless civic groups and individuals will make a determined effort to counteract such appeals by equally effective methods, democratic morale will decline.

Different world, folks, he said sententiously and for the billionth time.

Update III: A review in Time that doesn't mention the Warbling Commies.

Update IV: Ed Driscoll noticed Radosh's piece, too. Driscoll, in fact, has mentioned Seeger's tuneful Stalinism a number of times.

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