Terence Blacker: Was a rebel ever quite so conservative?

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Prime Minister David Cameron says his party must not ‘remain neutral’ in the EU membership referendum  

Greece might just have gifted David Cameron with EU referendum success

John Mullin
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most