Travelling back from our BC cabin with my son Rob, I popped in a Pete Seeger CD. Actually, it was a double CD that I picked up at the local independent record store, but had never listened to. We listened to both discs, Robin and I…and I got thinking about old Pete.
I knew some things about him, of course. What old folkie (that’s folkie, not fogey) from the sixties does not? I knew that he started his musical career in the 1940’s, that he was a charter member of the Almanac Singers and then The Weaver’s, a seminal folk group (famous for recording “Goodnight Irene”, a chart topping single in 1950), that several of his several also contributed to the pantheon of folk music in their own right (Peggy, who married and performed with Ewan McColl, and Mike, who was a member of the New Lost City Ramblers), that he was a social activist until his death at 92 (January 27, 2014), that he was black-listed by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era, that he had some connection with Elizabeth Cotton, who wrote “Freight Train”. I suspected that there was more, much more, to know about Pete. For now, here are some of the thoughts that percolated in my mind as we drifted through the Rockies, supplemented by a little bit of research.
Born May 3, 1919, he was only 18 months old when he embarked on a journey through the south with his father, a university professor and founder of the discipline now known as ethnomusicology, and mother, in a homemade trailer to “…bring musical uplift to the working people in the American South”. (Thanks, Wikipedia.). The seeds were sown early, it seems. He remarks on one of his live recordings that his home of origin was filled with musicians and singers of the day – Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Allan and John Lomax, and so on. And as he was saying that, I remembered a video I once saw of Bob Dylan performing Mr. Tambourine Man at the first Newport Folk Festival. There, in the background, is Pete, who, having introduced him, looks on with an interested but bemused expression.
Elizabeth Cotton was the family’s maid. She became a fixture in the Seeger household when she returned Peggy, lost in a department store, to her parents. She hadn’t played a guitar in 40 years, but in the Seeger home, music was everywhere, and Pete’s brother Mike began to record her after finding her strumming away in the kitchen. Freight Train is only one of many songs she wrote, interpreted, and recorded. (In the video, note that she plays the guitar upside down.) The song became a big skiffle hit in Britain, with authorship claimed by another group; typically, the Seeger family supported her in getting her authorship acknowledged.
Seeger’s own catalogue included some very well known songs. He was, of course, an interpreter as well as a song writer. Consider the following list, and his contributions to folk music and music in general. He wrote and interpreted hundreds of songs, including many from other lands, bringing them all into the public eye. In no particular order
- Goodnight Irene – a Leadbelly song, recorded by The Weavers, 13 weeks at number 1 in 1950
- Tzena Tzena Tzena – an Israeli song
- Wim-oh- weh – later popularized by the Tokens as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
- Where Have all the Flowers Gone -written by Pete
- If I Had a Hammer – written by Pete and Lee Hays of the Weavers
- Turn Turn Turn (To Everything There is a Season) – From Ecclesiastes, long before The Byrds recorded it
- The Bells of Rhymney
- This Land is Your Land
- Little Boxes
- Guantanamera – Cuban, but brought by Seeger to American audiences
- We Shall Overcome – an spritual in which he changed “will” to “shall” to make it more compelling and more singable
- and a great many more.
In 1955 Pete was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was the only person called who refused to plead the Fifth Amendment. Here is how he responded: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Wikipedia). “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers”, he said, but he refused to sing for HUAC. The transcript of his testimony makes for interesting reading. He was convicted, and sentenced to ten 1 year terms in prison (simultaneous), though an appeals court overturned his convictions.
He never lost his personal convictions, and remained an activist throughout his life – a vocal supporter of international disarmament, unions, civil rights, counter-culture, and environmental causes such as the Hudson River cleanup. Regarding the Hudson, Robert Kennedy (quoted in The Guardian) pointed out that “…his genius was in recognising that the salvation of the river could come from grassroots activism…he didn’t go to Albany and lobby. He didn’t go to Washington, and he didn’t go to court. He used his guitar and his voice and his joyful manner to summon people”.
That’s Pete Seeger. What a man! The real deal, as Robin said.
You deserve your rest, Pete…but you should know that we could use you down here on earth these days.
Feb. 21, 2018