For pretty much anyone of my generation Pete Seeger was identified with a long, rich tradition of American protest music—of labor, civil rights, antiwar, and so on. I was fortunate to hear him play and sing on numerous occasions, including a small concert with his family and friends in Connecticut.
But it is also the case that the music of the Left was eventually reduced to folk music and excluded other important traditions, such as classical music. R. D. Davis, in an article published in the journal Rethinking Marxism back in 1988, considered this to be a problem.*
The form of most folk and almost all jazz/pop music does not (cannot) even reflect industrial social relations as we know them, much less make a comment on them. Classical music, or music organized by a trained composer, art music, is more likely to produce an instructional metaphor (and form) with which to examine the foundations of corporate society.
For Davis, Hanns Eisler and Charles Seeger (Pete’s father) represented two radically different approaches to making music for the Left in the 1930s: “intellectual composition versus the folk tradition.” Both were available, both were viable—but the Left (for reasons Davis explores in his article) rejected the former in favor of the latter.
Still, I experienced a moment of national pride when Seeger was joined by Bruce Springsteen to sing all the verses of “This Land Is Your Land,” the Woody Guthrie classic, at Obama’s first inauguration.
*R. D. Davis, “Music from the Left,” Rethinking Marxism 1 (Winter 1988): 7-25.