Remembering Pete Seeger
A critic recalls his concerts here, and his enduring impact on America.
In high school and college, while picking up pocket money by folk-singing at parties and conventions from Oklahoma to New York City, I was an unabashed Pete Seeger groupie. I blatantly stole from his songbook and banjo picking and used his Folkways Records research to dig further into American spirituals, Appalachian ballads and work-songs.
Naïve me, at that age it was his celebrity that impressed me most. Sure I was admiring of his causes, associating him with Walt Whitman more than Karl Marx. I embraced his support of unions as typical of the left influence that took my parents in after the Nazis. I reveled as most adolescents would at his middle-aged defiance of establishment norms.
If America meant bravery and independence, it was Seeger more than the politicians that proved that to me. Here was a Top 10 recording artist as a member of The Weavers –“Goodnight Irene” went No. 1 — yet refusing to be cowed by the House Un-American Activities witch-hunt in the 1950s, admitting he had been a Communist in the 1930s and probably waiting too long to leave a movement that many Americans, high and low, supported until it was co-opted by the Soviet Union.
I knew of his stirring defense before HUAC, but obituaries surrounding his death at age 94 on January 27 allow me now to quote verbatim: “I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
Equally influential on young followers was his refusal to bend to wealth, his decision to leave the Weavers when the group signed up to do a Lucky Strikes cigarette commercial, knowing he was accepting going penniless amid the blacklist.
Only as a reviewer covering him in concert at Milwaukee halls a decade later did I realize his commitment was not to the left but to the center of America as he knew it – not just the working man but the fellow man, the idea of neighbors and independence. Labor strikes and pickets were the closest he saw to the community he believed in – how individual voices, speaking together, can be heard above the din and the big money.
It was true on the several occasions I covered him at Milwaukee events, particularly in those dark days when television ignored him and only unions and colleges opened their arms or bought out concerts. There were no formal media conference, not even press tickets. Seeger was normally crushed by well-wishers who interrupted an interview or stepped on reminiscences.
He never stood on formality. In 1987 he just grabbed a banjo and sang in front of the workers’ hall during a Patrick Cudahy strike. I remember a concert at the old Plankinton Hall, I think, where he invited fans to sprawl around him on the stage. At the Pabst and Oriental, he was beardless, wearing a sweater for the 12-string guitar and then stripping off into rolled shirtsleeves for banjo-strumming and, at one amazing concert, wielding an ax as he sang a slave song he learned from Leadbelly. Always he acted more as ringmaster than celebrity name, though everyone knew who they wanted to listen to.
His celebrity, I began to see, was an unsought accident, a prestige Seeger never succumbed to but cheerfully took advantage of to publicize his causes. He could have made a fortune rather than living in the backwater he and his wife built in the 1940s, chopping wood regularly and sharing licks and meals around the fireplace with friends. He wouldn’t.
His simple decision to change “will” to “shall” made “We Shall Overcome” take over the US as the dominant civil-rights theme of the 1960s and 1970s. But all the proceeds from his copyright went to scholarships for black students. “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” stemmed in part or full from him as did promotion of the powerful social songs of others (“Little Boxes,” “Listen Mr. Bilbo,” “Black and White”). CBS initially banned his anti-Vietnam song, “”Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (with that memorable kicker: “And the big fool said to push on”) only to make it more popular.
But while political agitation made Seeger prominent, his devotion to seemingly lost causes set him apart even as it made him one of the common people — from signing up voters in the South before it was popular to peace activism and Occupy protests even when no longer chic.
Seeger influenced generations because he was genuinely a communicator, not a performer. Oh, he could sing and play like the dickens! That high baritone and finger skills – self-taught after a stint at Harvard and years as a student of American folklore, plus wandering with the likes of Woody Guthrie – made him an artist and quite a performer in the public’s eyes, but never in his. Everyone was supposed to sing along. Music was to lead. His anger erupted when amps muddied the words or even admirers such as Bruce Springsteen emphasized the foot-tapping over the meaning.
If the poets are right – if Margaret Mead had it exact when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” – Pete Seeger was the embodiment.
When Seeger died, America was preoccupied by severe winter blasts sweeping the nation north and south, and preparations for a State of the Union speech in D.C. The only one who wouldn’t have felt ignored was Seeger. Not only did he think too much attention was paid him over the decades, he would have welcomed being upstaged by Mother Nature.
Even today we regard climate change as too big a problem to tackle, so imagine what they told Seeger in 1969 when he set out to clean the entire Hudson River. But with the Clearwater sloop and festivals, and self-help advocacy and populist efforts spreading into statehouses and politics, he coaxed GE to clean out sediments and communities to clean up along the banks.
Today the waters of much of the Hudson are testimony to Seeger’s “we the people” beliefs. In 2007 he put it honestly and bluntly: “Even the disasters may teach us. The oceans rising may be the wakeup call for the whole human race. There may be good stories told how we saved this little stream, how we saved this mountain. If so, we’ve got a 50-50 chance of having a human race a hundred years from now. So I’m a sort of an optimist.”
But an optimist always pushing. In 2009 when invited with Springsteen to participate in a President Obama pre-inaugural concert, it was Seeger who insisted on restoring to America’s real national anthem, “This Land Is Your Land,” the original Woody Guthrie verses that recording labels had removed as too controversial:
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
The sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.”
You never heard that in the versions popularized in school assemblies or by Peter Paul and Mary or even Bob Dylan on their labels. Nor the concluding:
“Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.”
Even in death, Pete Seeger is singing to America.
In the 1970s the author was film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal.