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Unfunny Man

Music | A lack of real humor characterizes Pete Seeger's legacy

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

The folksinger Pete Seeger turned 90 in May, an occasion marked by a Madison Square Garden birthday party at which dozens of his legatees feted him-Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bruce Cockburn among them-and that made Seeger front-page news for the first time in decades.

Most of the stories disinterestedly recounted such highlights of Seeger's career as his having written or popularized, solo or as a member of the Weavers, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had a Hammer," "Wimoweh," and "Kumbaya," leaving it to the conservative gadfly Mark Steyn to point out that the essential childishness of "Flowers" and "Hammer" deserve the opprobrium of all thoughtful people for infecting several generations of left-wing social protesters with an apparently permanent case of arrested development.

Steyn also pointed out that it took Seeger half a century to denounce Stalin (whom Seeger, as a former card-carrying Communist, had enthusiastically supported for a time) and only then under duress. What no one pointed out was that, in retrospect, the most obvious element of Seeger's legacy-and ­perhaps that of the Left in general-is his humorlessness. (Not for nothing did Orwell include the "silly" among the "obvious" and the "true" as those things that must always be defended.)

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Not that Seeger couldn't be a little funny. Indeed, "Little Boxes," a Malvina Reynolds-composed send-up of mass middle-class conformity that Seeger made popular, is nothing if not a little funny. But what keeps it from being funnier (and therefore more satirically effective) is that it refuses to laugh at itself.

It never dawns on the singer of "Little Boxes," in other words, that the Left might also be susceptible to mindless conformity, or that it might be a "little box," itself.


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