Pete Seeger est mort

January 28, 2014

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Pete Seeger was a folk singer, but a curious kind of folk singer. It isn’t his pleasant singing for which he is likely to be best remembered.

Pete Seeger in 1986

Pete Seeger in 1986

Seeger was a thin gray-bearded man in the denim work shirt and the Greek fisherman’s cap, the one with the banjo, leaning into the microphone with his eyes closed. If you’re kindly disposed toward Seeger and his brand of plain-spoken social activism, you might think of him as grandfatherly. (Others no doubt still see him as a pink-tinged fellow traveler, naive to the brutality of Stalinism.)

I think of him as the man with the axe, looking to cut the cable when Dylan went electric.

Perhaps it is that Seeger, the Pete Seeger of the early 1960s, that most people are most familiar with. He signed a recording deal with Columbia Records in 1961, and would stay with that label for more than a decade. He was also a major force as the promoter of the Newport Folk Festival, which became a major venue for up-and-coming talent and expanded to include blues and performances of new songs.

While Seeger’s own songs were often hits for others — Trini Lopez and Peter, Paul & Mary had hits with “If I Had a Hammer”; the Byrds reworked “Turn! Turn! Turn!” into jangly folk-rock — he also had some chart success on his own, with “We Shall Overcome,” “Guantanamera” and his cover of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes.”

Grant Seeger his due. Like Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter before him, Seeger was at least as much an editor and an adapter as a creator. Most of his songs were assembled from found objects, from old hymns and traditional songs and Bible verses, from newspaper headlines and jottings on cocktail napkins. It is instructive that few of his better-known songs are credited simply to “Pete Seeger.”

“My main purpose as a musician is to put songs on people’s lips, not just in their ear,” Seeger once said, and that is what he has done most successfully. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash; by Marlene Dietrich and Aretha Franklin. By Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco.

Seeger was born in New York in 1920 into one of the country’s most influential musical families. His mother, Constance, was a classical violinist; his father, Charles, was one of the most important American folklorists. Charles Seeger became interested in folk music after encountering Alan Lomax in Washington in the early 1930s. Almost immediately the two began collaborating on a series of field recordings for the Library of Congress.

Young Pete was introduced to American folk music at a festival in Asheville, N.C., in 1935, soon after his father began working with Lomax. While he had already begun playing the banjo and was adept at playing the popular music of the time, he has said that it was the lyrical content of the folk songs that attracted him.

“I sang by ear when I was 4 or 5 years old,” Seeger once told interviewer Craig Harris a couple of years ago. “Christmas carols or songs at school or pop songs. I could tell you the pop songs from 1927 to 1934. About that time was when I realized the shallowness of a lot of pop music — ‘June, Moon, Croon, Spoon’ and endless variations on that.”

Still, Seeger initially planned to be a journalist, and attended Harvard University for a couple of years before dropping out. He tried to get a job as a newspaper reporter but after a few months of looking for work and bumming around the country, he went to work for Lomax at the Library of Congress, a job that apparently consisted of little more than listening to and cataloging thousands of 78 rpm records.

About that same time, he became very interested in American communism, an interest that had been stirred by his father, who had joined the Communist Party in 1929.

With Aaron Copland, the elder Seeger had started a group called the Composer’s Collective, with the idea that they would compose songs for the proletariat to sing as they marched to the barricades. Seeger later attributed his father’s fascination with folk music to his experiences with the short-lived Collective, for it brought him — and not incidentally his son — into contact with the American folk singers whose music he grew to admire.

In 1940, Seeger met Woody Guthrie at a benefit concert for California migrant agricultural workers. Seeger went on early and performed a single song, but Guthrie — an unknown himself — made a huge impression on the crowd and nearly upstaged featured performers Burl Ives, Leadbelly and Josh White.

Inspired by his meeting with Guthrie, Seeger returned to New York and joined with song collector and bass vocalist Lee Hays, a Little Rock native, to form the Almanac Singers, an informal group that was really more a loose confederation of artists than a self-contained musical group. Guthrie occasionally sang with the group.

In April 1940, they released an album of pacifist songs that Seeger later admitted was in line with the Communist Party’s agenda.

“This was the period when the Communist Party said, ‘Keep America out of imperialist war,’ ” Seeger told Harris. “Then, on June 22, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the Communist Party’s line changed. The great flip-flop.”

That same year Seeger married, and he and his wife, Toshi, moved into the top floor of a big house in Greenwich Village owned by his in-laws. From the basement, Seeger began to publish a folk music magazine called People’s Songs which he envisioned as a vehicle to fight for social justice and unionization and against Jim Crow laws. It grew quickly and within a year had 2,000 subscribers. Pete Seeger was becoming well-known beyond folk circles.

In late 1948, he reunited with Hays to co-found the Weavers, who enjoyed commercial success with a bowdlerized version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” Band leader Gordon Jenkins steered the group to Decca Records and eventually recorded them, using members of his big band as backing musicians. The lefties were suddenly pop stars.

But even if the public didn’t automatically perceive the politics behind the music, other people did. In the early 1950s, Seeger and the other Weavers were blacklisted — kept off TV and out of the bigger nightclubs and reduced to working small bars or not at all. Eventually the band went on a extended sabbatical.

In 1955, Seeger refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with playwright Arthur Miller and others, Seeger had decided to take the Fifth Amendment when the committee asked him about his association with the Communist Party. Six years later, Seeger was charged with contempt of Congress for failing to answer the committee’s questions — he spent four hours in jail before being released on bail.

A year later, the charges against him were dismissed on appeal. Ironically, the judge who threw out the charges was Irving Kaufman, who had sentenced the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair.

While Seeger actually drifted away from the Party in the mid-1950s (his father had left in 1938), he remained stubborn about the ideology.

“I still call myself a communist,” Seeger told The New York Times 20 years ago, “because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail. As my father used to say: ‘The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. All you can do is circle around and say it’s somewhere in there.’ ”

And the truth about Seeger is that without him it is unlikely there would have ever been a Dylan or a Springsteen. We might not know about Guthrie; Leadbelly might be forgotten.


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