Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger and the LCMS

A lot of people are rightly commending the life and music of American folk singer Peter ("Pete") Seeger, who died this past week at the age of 94. Already a popular singer on radio in the 1940s, he wrote and performed a number of hit songs in the 50s (as a member of the Weavers) and 60s, songs that influenced a whole host of other musicians. He popularized such classics as "We Shall Overcome" (MLK first heard it sung by Seeger) and "This Land Is Your Land" (written by fellow folk artist and friend, Woody Guthrie), and he wrote others, such as "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." 

Here's what USA Today wrote about him in the wake of his death:
"Seeger opposed McCarthyism, marched beside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and led environmental campaigns. In 1969, he helped build a 10-foot [sic! it is 106 feet]  sailing sloop called the Clearwater that continues to serve as a 'floating classroom' and rallying point for cleaning up the Hudson. 'Songs won't save the planet,' Seeger told his biographer David Dunaway, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? 'But, then, neither will books or speeches. ... Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons.' He liked to quote Plato: 'Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung.' Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. (He later said he quit the party in 1949 and 'should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to. ... I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.') In 1961, his conviction was overturned on appeal, but Seeger continued to be blacklisted by commercial TV networks until 1967. Even then, CBS censored parts of his anti-Vietnam War musical allegory, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, when he sang it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

There are American Lutherans of a certain vintage who knew and know the songs and influence of Seeger first hand. I was reminded earlier today by a few of those Lutherans that he once performed at a convention of the Walther League, a gathering of youth and young (and young-hearted) adults from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. That convention took place in Squaw Valley, Cal., back in August of 1965.

The LCMS met in convention that year, too, in Detroit, a few months before the LW convention. There were efforts at the Detroit convention to remove Seeger from the Squaw Valley program ("He's a Communist!"), but in the end the Detroit convention delegates commended the WL, and Seeger remained on the program. 

Despite its affirmation of the WL, the delegates to that Detroit synod convention also chose to reelect only one of the members of the synod's Board for Young People's Work (largely because of the criticism against the previous board for inviting Seeger).

For the history of this episode, which played a role in the disintegration of the WL, see John Pahl's Hopes and Dreams of All (Wheat Ridge Ministries, 1993), 266-72. (Seeger's picture appears on p. 267).

Pahl's thesis regarding the disintegration of the WL fits nicely with that of James Burkee regarding the disintegration of the LCMS: The LCMS at this time reflected the fractures in the larger American culture, a culture that was coming apart at the seams. Young people distrusted anyone over 30; adults distrusted most high-school and college-aged youth ("long-haired hippies and peaceniks!"). The youth wanted to talk about the pressing issues of the day (Vietnam, racism, sexism, poverty, civil rights, etc.), whereas the elderly wanted to escape from those irksome problems into a quiet, conservative, and stable enclave/church. Argument and counter-argument, the war of words--none of that was serene in the sixties and early seventies. That held true in the LCMS as well: youth and adults found themselves at odds and cross purposes.

According to Pahl, both Oliver Harms, then President of the synod, and another synodical official, VP W. Harry Krieger, later acknowledged that the concerns over Seeger's participation in that WL convention were entirely wrong-headed and unfounded. 

Here's what Krieger had to report: "Seeger spoke only to introduce himself and to introduce each of his songs. His repertoire included... We Shall Overcome; This Land is My Land; How Many Roads; Where Have All the Flowers Gone; ... O Mary Don't You Weep... Evidently Pete Seeger knew before he set foot in Squaw Valley that he was a man spoken against.... It appeared to me that he handled himself unusually well under the circumstances. The kids were 'with him' from the moment he began to strum his guitar.... I found in his words and works nothing to which one might take exception.... One could not have suspected from his performance that this man has been cited for contempt or had been accused of espousing Marxism. Certainly this did not 'come through' in the off-the-cuff remarks, studied comments, or choice of music... One wonders in retrospect why the publicized appearance of this man came to generate so much sound and fury" (quoted in Pahl, 270).

Harms admitted at a meeting of a laymen's organization just after the LW convention that "he had never been more wrong in his life than in the decisions he had made about Seeger" (Pahl, 270). 

Seeger made a great, positive impression on most all who attended the convention (as did Ann Landers, another of the invited participants).

That was the last regular convention of the Walther League.

RIP Pete Seeger.