Saturday, December 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Protest Singer (2009)

BOOK REVIEW by John Pietaro:


Alec Wilkinson, 2009, NY: Knopf

The Protest Singer is a biography of Pete Seeger unlike most any other. Reading more as a recorded conversation than a biographical portrayal, Alec Wilkinson based most of his little book on a series of visits to the Beacon NY home of his subject. Pete’s recounting of important social justice battles, musical interactions and historic moments are, as always, fascinating and serve as an affirmation of Pete’s place as a legend of not only folk song but progressive political action.

What makes this account so unique, though, are Wilkinson’s descriptions of his time spent in the company of not only Pete but Toshi, his wife since 1942. To many, Toshi remains Pete’s heart, indeed his spirit, as she has been at his side throughout most of the intense periods he’s been a major part of. Laid out here are not only the stories as told by Pete and commentary by Toshi, but also the quiet moments that go on in their home daily: Toshi tells Pete that she is leaving a lunch and apple tarts in the oven for them and the writer and folksinger continue their discussion over lunch and desert; the reader feels almost as if they are a part of this meal. In this respect, the book’s subtitle remains true—this is about as intimate a portrait of Pete as one could get, as he’s often protective about his private life. Now, in his 90th year, Pete allows the reader not only facts and memories but a bit of the insider’s view. Seeger’s only requirement for agreeing to this biography is that it be a document that could be read in one sitting; this book comes very close to that as it tops out at just 119 pages, followed by two wonderful Appendix pieces.

This biography opens with some background info on Pete, good stuff for those less initiated, and then moves forward before returning to background info---at two separate points. But rather than serve as redundant filler, this device lays out the foundation for the conversational style herein. But admittedly, this historic information on the man is presented in a careful manner which could initially be off-putting to those on the Left. While the book’s title indicates that it is a view of Seeger’s more radical moments, in the opening section when Pete’s close ties to the Communist Party are first discussed, the author initially glosses over this in a parenthetic statement. Wilkinson writes “Seeger knew students at Harvard who were Communists, and, idealistically, he became one for several years too”. This is a curious choice as Seeger later speaks openly about his membership and many of the cultural actions he engaged in on behalf of the Party, including extended information about his battle with HUAC. As has been documented elsewhere, Pete refused to name names and did so without invoking the Fifth Amendment, bearing the weight of a Contempt of Congress charge. And for the sake of completion, Wilkinson includes the entire transcript of Seeger’s 1955 testimony in front of the Un-Americans, er, rather the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This is a welcome addition which gives but one example of the valiant fight progressives engaged in against those who attempted to quell our dissent and silence us with fear.

The Protest Singer offers today’s reader strong recollections of events, both legendary and infamous, including the Peekskill Riot, an array of civil rights marches, anti-war rallies and the fight for labor rights. Sadly, contemporary youth not raised in progressive households may have had no exposure to these pieces of embarrassing US history and this friendly, often first-person account is an excellent means to fill in the gaps left out of our educational system, one that is dangerously avoidant of such elements of our past.

But the author chose to write about Pete with apparently little prior knowledge and states in the body of the text that he saw him perform only once, when he was about five years old, and has no recollection of that performance. It seems odd that he would approach a subject without having investigated a little closer. Perhaps his intent was to sit down to write this study with a blank slate and this is notable, but the book comes across to the informed reader in a manner which reveals the writer’s lack of fore-knowledge. And while this allows for Pete’s conversational approach to shine, the historic sections Wilkinson includes feel sketchy, almost like he’s grasping. Facts are thrown out more as an outline, skipping from one part of Pete’s life to the next, and usually with little to thrive on.

Bringing it all back to the intimate portrait which this book has as its goal, Wilkinson’s description of Seeger’s actual responses and facial expressions in one-on-one conversations are dead-on:

“When he speaks at any length, he tends to look into the middle distance, as if addressing an audience there…His eyes are blue and heavily lidded and so small that he seems to be regarding a person from some remove. His gaze is surprisingly fleeting and indirect for someone whose manner is so straightforward.”

Happily, the author offers many such close-ups of Pete, who’s usually regarded as such a legendary figure that few look closely into the man, preferring to stand at distance enough to retain our own version whom we want him to be. Nearing a century old, Pete deserves to be seen up front and this book does offer us this important gaze---even if it is but a fleeting one.


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