America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #7 and #8

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Continuing our series of great military musicians, here are entries 7 and 8. What did you think of #9 and 10? Who is left on the list?

 

8. Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has a place in American songwriting history for the singular most successful act of plagiarism in the history of music: He simply added three words to a biblical verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and it became a legendary hit: Turn, Turn Turn.

This one song is frequently associated with the Peace Movement of the 1960s, but that’s because The Byrds covered it in 1966 as the U.S. was just ramping up its involvement in the Vietnam War. But Turn, Turn, Turn was much older than that; Seeger wrote it in in the late 1950s and first recorded it in 1962.

That song alone would put Seeger in the pantheon of legendary writers. But he didn’t stop there: He also co-wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer, but his history is far more interesting. Seeger, still living in New York at the age of 94 at press time, was a friend and contemporary of Woody Guthrie’s in the 1930s.

Pete Seeger has become closely associated, for good or for ill, with left-wing, ‘progressive’ politics in the United States. He joined the Young Communist League in 1936, when Seeger was 17, though he did eventually part company with the Communist Party later in life.

In the 1930s and the early years of World War Two, Communists and progressives tended to oppose American involvement in the war, believing it to be a corporatist plot to secure opportunities for war profiteering. Seeger was a staunch pacifist, of course, like most American communists at the time. The Communist Party was receiving significant funding from the Soviet Union to further the argument. Until Hitler invaded Russia, that is – which caused American communists to change their tune. 

Shortly after Hitler invaded Russia, the Soviet Union directed American communists to support the draft and told them not to strike until the war was won.

Seeger’s band, the Almanacs, dutifully recorded a song in support of the American War Effort, Dear Mr. President.

Once the war broke out, Seeger was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 – the same year he formally joined the Communist Party. While the Roosevelt Administration was rounding up Japanese Americans and sending them to internment camps, Seeger went on leave from the Army in 1943 and married a young Japanese-American activist named Toshi Ohta.

They remained married for nearly 70 years – until her death in July of 2013.

While in the Army, Seeger was deployed to the Pacific Theater. He was originally assigned as an aircraft mechanic, but the Army had another use for him: They flew him around the theatre to perform for U.S. troops.

After the war, Seeger remained connected to a wide variety of progressive causes, including pacifism during the Cold War. During the height of anti-communist sentiment in the 1950s, a mob of anti-communists  – many from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, attacked a show he was playing at in Peekskill, New York. They targeted both performers and spectators, and attacked Seeger’s car as he tried to escape with his family. Toshi and Seeger’s three-year-old son were both injured in the attack. The mob left behind a burning cross.

As someone who was personally in a mixed-race marriage when it was very uncommon, Seeger supported Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement and marched alongside Dr. King.

In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his association with the Communist Party. Most other individuals who were subpoenaed by the HUAC chose to plead the 5th Amendment. Seeger refused and counterattacked, refusing to explain or discuss his own personal politics because the HUAC’s efforts to get him to defend his personal political beliefs were a violation of the 1st Amendment.

Seeger was found in Contempt of Congress, and sentenced to ten years in jail. He appealed the sentence, however, and won his appeal, finally, after a long series of court battles, in 1962.

The testimony he gave before the House Un-American Activities Committee is riveting. A transcript is available here.

He left the Communist Party itself in the 50s, as well, though he has continued to call himself a small “c” communist. He was excoriated as “Stalin’s Songbird” for his appearances at Communist-party affiliated events and fundraisers, but late in life, responding to criticism that he wrote songs about the Nazi death camps, he never wrote any about Stalin’s Gulags, Seeger wrote, “I think you’re right. I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in the USSR.” Seeger, in his late 80s, soundly rejected Stalin and Stalinism, along with Nazism, though remained a pacifist.

The author of the piece linked to above concluded:

I was deeply moved that Mr. Seeger, now in his late 80s, had decided to acknowledge what had been his major blind spot – opposing social injustice in America while supporting the most tyrannical of regimes abroad. Mr. Seeger rarely performs anymore. But if he does, and if he sings this song, I suspect that few in the audience would have any idea of what it is about. And I doubt that any other singer today would cover it. Only an audience composed entirely of the now-aging old left veterans would understand it instantly. Undoubtedly, many of them would be shocked.

I phoned Mr. Seeger at his home in Beacon, NY, and thanked him for his letter and its warm and supportive tone. We spent some time reminiscing about the old days and people we knew and things we had experienced together. Turning to a discussion of the community he lives in, Mr. Seeger told me he’s a friend of the Republican mayor of his town, who sponsors community events and welcomes him as a participant. Mr. Seeger, it is clear, believes in bringing people together for good works, and in reconciliation.

Mr. Seeger is still a man of the political left, and I’m certain we disagree about much. But I never thought I would hear him acknowledge the realities of Stalinism. I honor and admire him for doing so now.

 

7. Gene Autry

Gene Autry isn’t well known to the younger generation; But their grandparents sure know who he was. Autry was among the most important singers and songwriters in country music. Already an established singer, Autry was one of the biggest-earning celebrities in the country by the time World War Two broke out. He was already a private pilot, but when the war began, Autry sought lessons in larger, multi-engine aircraft at his own expense, in preparation for joining the Army Air Corps.

He was inducted into the Army live and on the air during his radio broadcast, Melody Ranch, in 1942, and served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the 555th Army Air Base Unit, Air Transport Command, and eventually assigned to fly the treacherous Hump run, flying over the Himalayas to supply Chinese troops and American Army Air Corps units fighting the Japanese.

During his time with the Air Force – and between flying supply missions – Autry performed a number of shows for American troops, mostly around Texas.

When the war ended, Autry transferred to a Special Services unit and led a USO troupe on a tour of the South Pacific, performing for US soldiers, sailors and marines there. He received the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. 

While hosting his weekly radio show, Melody Ranch, which he continued to do even while in the Air Force, Autry also developed the “cowboy code,” a sort of guide for living for his many young fans.

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

As a songwriter, Autry leaves behind over 300 songs, including Here Comes Santa Claus, I Hang My Head and Cry, Ridin the Range and You’re the Only Star (In My Blue Heaven).

He cut over 600 records during his career, and appeared in over 100 movies, in addition to his radio show. He was named to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His prolific recording and songwriting and many successful investments propelled him to become one of the wealthiest individual in the country – worth an estimated $320 million by the end of his life.

Autry died on October 2nd, 1998, of lymphoma.

 

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