Hermits Rock

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William Hogeland has (I know, I know: it was published last May) an excellent essay in the Boston Review comparing the mythologies that have been constructed about Pete Seeger and William F. Buckley Jr.. What is excellent about it is that the comparison has little to do with either man: their records are publicly available to anyone willing to look. Rather, the comparison is about how each man is now perceived, how Seeger is lionized as a great American liberal and musician (he is both) without recognizing his days taking orders from the international communist party in support of Stalin, and how Buckley is lionized as a great American intellectual and conservative (he is both) without recognizing that his characteristic elitism was in large part the reason for his rank racism. Hogeland concludes:

Seeger and Buckley were romantics. When they were young, and without regard for consequence, they brought charisma, energy, and creativity to dreaming up worlds they wanted—possibly needed—to live in. Because they made those worlds seem so real and beautiful that other people wanted to live in them too, they became larger-than-life characters, instantly recognizable a long way off, not quite real close up, and never quite grown up even when old. Hence their decisive influence. Seeger gave American folk music a purism in no way essential to it, a function of New England abstemiousness in Seeger’s own makeup, which also connected him to Soviet communism. The Soviet Union is gone, but our music will never shake the purism. Seeger once said, with wit and accuracy, “I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” Those yearnings began in his father’s dreams for the future, but it was a dream about the past that made him Pete Seeger. In Buckley’s dream, somebody is going to live in the castle above the village—better for everybody that it be he.