PETE SEEGER’S COMMITMENT to folk music as an ongoing oral tradition, changing and changed by the ordinary people who sing the songs, remained unbending throughout his life, which ended yesterday at the age of 94. A child of privilege, of sorts – his father Charles was a music professor and Pete attended Harvard, before dropping out – he swopped a comfortable background for a life on the road, at union meetings and civil rights rallies, and in front of the House Committee On Unamerican Activities – generally with a 5-string banjo in his hand.
American Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton was a role model. “I tell people I became a Communist at age seven because of his stories of how the American Indians shared whatever they had,” Seeger told MOJO’s Phil Sutcliffe in 2006. “I decided that's the way people should live.”
“Probably the most important job I ever did in my life was carry on the music of Woody Guthrie.’
The symbiosis of folk song and popular politics became his life’s work, and musicologist Alan Lomax dated “the renaissance of American folk song” to the first meeting between Seeger and Woody Guthrie, at a "Grapes Of Wrath" benefit in New York on March 3, 1940. With Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampel, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, aligning with the pro-Communist Popular Front movement and urging non-intervention in the war in Europe, until the demise of the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop pact brought Hitler and Soviet Russia into conflict.
“[Woody] taught me to speak bad grammar," Seeger recalled of their close friendship. “And he told me, ‘Pete, if you go in a bar, sling the banjo on your back, buy a nickel beer and sip it as slow as you can. Sooner or later somebody'll say, Kid, can you play that thing?’”
In the late ’40s, as folk music reached the modern media stage, Seeger joined Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert in The Weavers, an improbable New York pop-folk supergroup who would top the charts for 13 weeks in 1950 with a version of Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene. However, it was never Seeger’s intention to draw attention to himself. To him, the songs of working people and their struggles – including those who sought civil rights – were the stars, and participation was always his mantra. It’s no accident that one of his first solo recordings, for Folkways in 1954, was a banjo instructional record. In his later gigs, with his voice failing, he saw himself more as a cheerleader to a singalong, but in truth that’s all he ever claimed himself to be.
Like many children of the ’60s, I grew up with the legacy of the folk revival, and among the Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott albums that littered my parents’ house there was a special place for We Shall Overcome, the Seeger concert album recorded live at Carnegie Hall on June 8, 1963. Marking the big bang of ’60s protest song, it brought together spirituals (Oh Freedom), kids songs (Tom Paxton’s What Did You Learn In School Today and Malvina Reynolds Little Boxes), Spanish-American songs, Bob Dylan and Guthrie covers. Before Lyndon Johnson began his talk of the Great Society, Seeger had his own big tent.
Seeger tended to denigrate his own songwriting contribution, but even here his voice was strong. If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song), a co-write with Lee Hays, debuted in 1949 and soon felt like an American standard (it was a hit in 1962 for Peter, Paul & Mary), while 1955’s anti-war classic Where Have All The Flowers Gone? gave new words to the Russian folk song Koloda Duda.
His role in the development of We Shall Overcome into the semi-official hymn of the civil rights movement and, subsequently, the lingua franca of protest movements worldwide, was pivotal. Though its origins are muddy the song was taught to Seeger by the educator and folklorist Zilphia Horton. He added verses, but, more importantly changed “We will overcome” to “shall overcome”. “I think I liked a more open sound,” he wrote in 1993.
“In his later gigs, with his voice failing, he saw himself more as a cheerleader to a singalong.”
Turn! Turn! Turn!, his resonant musical adaptation of words from Ecclesiastes 3:1 made Number 1 on the Billboard singles chart in autumn 1965 via a chiming rock version by The Byrds. And the American moptops also covered Seeger’s The Bells Of Rhymney, another of his inspired syntheses, this time employing the words of Welsh poet Idris Davies.
Notoriously, Seeger took against Dylan’s electric performance at Newport in 1965 (“I wanted to hear the words,” he reasoned) but remained a godfatherly figure to the ’60s and ’70s folk diehards. “I sang from college to college, summer camp to summer camp,” he told MOJO. “Probably the most important job I ever did in my life was carry on the music of Woody Guthrie like that. A lot of talented new songwriters came along to pick up where he left off.”
Seeger’s gentle, avuncular tones and ever-beatific smile bespoke a genuine humanity acknowledged even by those who failed to share his political convictions. It’s doubtful that socialism in America ever had a better ad man. But anyone who believes in music’s capacity to kindle something noble in humans is among today’s bereaved.
PHOTO: Getty Images
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