Sunday, February 16, 2014


Some illusions are shattered more gently than others.

When I was young my musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In my high school days I would often daydream about sitting around a hobo campfire with a cigarette dangling from my mouth and a few down and out drifters sharing the warmth with me. Woody would be there, too, plunking away on that old guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” emblazoned on the soundboard. Even today I can occasionally hear the mournful strains of the old Goebel Reeves’ tune “Hobo’s Lullaby” well up within me:
“So go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin’
That’s a hobo’s lullaby”

Woody died in 1967. By that time I’d already served six years in the Air Force, including tours of duty in Newfoundland and Vietnam. I got out of the Air Force in ’69 and adopted Pete Seeger as my new hero. I was especially fond of his protest music. Every time I heard or saw something about Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, or Richard Nixon, I’d think of Pete’s rendition of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” The last words – “The big fool says to push on” – rang so true to me.

Pete Seeger died a few weeks ago. Another of my heroes has met his Maker. Since his passing, there’s been quite a bit written about his Stalinist and socialist ways. It’s as if a lightning bolt of revelation has struck the newsrooms of America. It’s funny. We who were his acolytes knew years ago that Pete was a “red.” And, so was Woody Guthrie. Neither Woody nor Pete hid that fact, except from congressional investigators. They were quite proud of their associations with the “Party.” Woody wrote columns for the Daily Worker and the Soviet press often lionized Pete as a “great hero of the people.”  Pete repented for his love of Stalin, but not for his love of communism. He maintained the party line.  Toward the end of his life, long after a million or so Kulaks had died in Stalin’s purges, he did admit he should have asked to see the gulags. But it was too late. By the time repentance came, the numbers didn’t seem so important. How did Stalin put it? “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is just a statistic.”

We knew, but we didn’t mind. We listened to them and loved them for their sentiments, not their myopic politics. They were roaring socialists, to be sure, but so were most of us in your younger days.  I never met many young people back in the sixties who weren’t ready to abolish the right to private property. We were especially keen on doing away with the other guy’s right to private property, while simultaneously clinging desperately to our own stuff. Our motto was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine.”

Like Pete, we weren’t troubled by our inconsistencies.

As it always does, times change and the seasons of life pass. We grow up.  When we do, the illusions of our youth are supplanted by the healthy kind of disillusionment that comes with adulthood. As Peter, Paul, and Mary once crooned, “painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.”

Woody and Pete are gone, and so are the illusions. My boyhood heroes seem less heroic to me now. I realize that they had feet of clay.

Those illusions were shattered, but they were shattered gently. That’s not always the case. I read a disturbing piece from the New York Times a few days ago. In a February 1st op-ed, Nicholas Kristof gave voice to the question of whether or not it was “appropriate to honor a man who is an artistic giant but also was accused years ago of child molestation.” The man accused is film maker Woody Allen. The accuser is his daughter, Dylan. Allen denies the allegations. Who do we believe? The artistic genius who gave us “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Midnight in Paris?” Or Dylan Farrow, the traumatized victim? What about the presumption of innocence? Does that mean that Dylan’s words carry no weight?

I’ve always loved Woody Allen’s films, but I’m finding another illusion shattered. Did he commit the crime and get away with it like the respected ophthalmologist in “Crimes and Misdemeanors?”  I don’t know. It’s all “she said” – “he said” now. But the thought of someone getting away with such a heinous crime makes my skin crawl.

Having illusions shattered can sometimes be a healthy thing. I rarely dream of life in the hobo camps these days, I don’t covet the other guy’s stuff, and I’ve sworn off Woody Allen films.  I’m disillusioned.  But, I’m also a bit wiser and a lot healthier.

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