American folk singer Pete Seeger has the Joe Stalin blues.
Decades after drifting away from the Communist Party, the 88-year-old banjo-picker has written a song about the Soviet leader that is as scathing as any protest tune in the folk legend's long career.
"I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe. He ruled with an iron hand. He put an end to the dreams of so many in every land," Seeger wrote in "The Big Joe Blues."
Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and he apologized years ago for not recognizing that Stalin was a "very cruel misleader." But he told The Associated Press on Friday that the long-gestating song he finally finished this year is a first for him, despite three visits to the Soviet Union beginning in the '60s.
"It's the first overt song about the Soviet Union," Seeger said during a telephone interview from his Hudson River Valley home in Beacon, New York. "I think I should have though, when I was in the Soviet Union — I should have asked 'Can I see one of the old gulags?"'
Seeger calls it a yodeling blues song, and he sings the chorus so it sounds like "I got the Big Joe Bloo-ew-ew-ews!" He said it is the sort of song his old buddy Woody Guthrie might have written in the '50s.
The song's existence also touches on a sensitive political issue: the view by critics on the right that the left recognized Stalin's tyranny only belatedly. Partial lyrics of the song were cited Friday by author Ron Radosh in a New York Sun column. Radosh, an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, accused Seeger in the newspaper two months ago of failing to criticize the communist regimes he once backed.
Radosh took banjo lessons from Seeger in the '50s — two dollars for three hours — though Radosh took a very different political path from his childhood hero. In a follow-up column Friday, Radosh said he was tickled to receive a warm letter last week from his old idol with a copy of the song attached. He provided a copy of the song to the AP on Friday, and said he still admires Seeger.
"I think he is a man of principle," Radosh said. "He's often wrong."
Seeger said he hopes to publish the song in the folk music magazine Sing Out. Though Seeger's voice has been reduced to a throaty croak, he said he has performed the Stalin song for friends.
Seeger is still politically active, still concerned about the fate of humanity and still puckish. He agreed to answer questions on the phone from an AP reporter only if the story included lines from a song he wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks about Martin Luther King Jr. It goes like this: "Don't say it can't be done, the battle's just begun, take it from Dr. King, you too can learn to sing. So drop the gun!"
"I get the whole crowd singing on it," Seeger said. "I've never failed to get an audience singing, whether they're eight years old or 80 years old."