What It Means to Lose Pete Seeger
I met Pete Seeger about 40 years ago on the Clearwater, a refurbished 19th century sloop which had begun its then seemingly hopeless task of cleaning up the shores and waters of the Hudson River. Like a lot of the things that Pete got involved in, it was a hopeless task until it turned out to be common sense.
That day, we cruised Long Island Sound, if I remember right, from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay, which is not very far, and back, which is still not very far. It was worth every minute, and would have been if only for the chance to spend time aboard the 106 foot, single-masted Clearwater, a gorgeous vessel, stable even in Long Island Sound’s considerable chop and carrying as cargo volumes of lore and lessons about the costs of environmental neglect.
You could say that those early Clearwater voyages were the precursors of the present-day celebrity cruise, but with fewer celebrities. No more were needed. Pete Seeger was not only the enduring star of American folk music, he was its leading evangelist and one of the greatest singer/musicians this part of the planet has produced. I remember Pete singing though not what songs, and some lectures about the important work of the ship and the ecology of the Sound and the Hudson River region, though not their specific content. The presentation did its best to be as folkie as a much-darned pair of wool socks, and unmistakably also an event with a star and a crew and an audience, never exactly commingled. It was also a strong, healthy political event, by which I mean that each of us left with a sense of mission and some ideas about how to execute it.
I wasn’t there to clean up the Sound, though I was glad to be part of the movement, or to hear Pete perform, though I knew the importance of his music. I was there to write a story for Newsday, the Long Island daily. I did what you do in those situations, where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, which mostly means I watched and listened and took mostly the kind of sensory notes that you don’t write down on the spot.
When we docked everyone headed for the parking lot. Pete and his wife Toshi had several bags. I introduced myself, not only because we were meant to talk for a few minutes, but as a prelude to asking if I could help carry their stuff.
I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Dave Marsh from Newsday,” before Pete turned to me and snapped—and I mean snapped, like he was already booking me for malingering—“Grab a couple of those bags. It’s good for white collar workers to do physical labor.” Thus spoke the Harvard gentleman to the brakeman’s son who’d never owned a necktie. And no, I didn’t come up with my usual smartass retort. He was Pete Seeger, who had changed not only my life but the world, and the alternative to silence was insulting him as much as he’d just insulted me, and…well, for once it was not in me.
That incident was one of the best lessons I ever had several times over. I learned lessons I’d chew on for, apparently, the rest of my life: The relation between stardom and shyness, between changing the world and retaining your self, and between trusting your perceptions and remembering not to suppose anything until you’ve made sure the person about whom you’ve just supposed it is not a cartoon. And I mean it, I’ve always been grateful because that dressing down has saved me all manner of grief, and not only in things about celebrity. The most important lesson, you see, was about recognizing a difference between loving something and liking something, even when that something is someone. A great teacher may or may not inspire great affection, and he or she may not even teach the best lessons deliberately. So it turned out that Pete and I were in many social and professional situations over the next 40 years without ever getting to know one another much and that isn’t surprising. Mainly because I didn’t learn my lesson all at once. Though I think I did learn, finally. I’ll tell you about it later.
I respected Pete Seeger so much that my teenage self forgave him writing “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” which to my ears was sheer bathos, and for deriding Bob Dylan’s beautiful electric music, which to my ears was the absolute poetry of a world in chaos.
One side of what he did was somewhat foreign to me. Years later my friend Jon Landau and I were talking about folk music one day, which inevitably came around to talking about Pete. Jon told me a story about Pete appearing at his left-wing summer camp or maybe it was Earl Robinson’s music school. I said something I thought was appreciative and Jon stopped me cold. “You don’t understand,” he said. “He was Elvis.”
To me, he was more like a father figure or anyhow that’s the way I made sense of him after I understood that he had many metaphoric children and was glad of it, though not always of the way that they behaved, musically or socially. (Hmmm, that is like Elvis, isn’t it?) He could be amazingly contradictory—a sign of humanity not deity. In his 1972 anthology, The Compleat Folksinger, which collects among other things many of his columns for Sing Out!, Pete wrote about a tour of Czechoslovakia he made in 1964. He was especially thrilled to go to a particular club and hear the groups playing guitars, which happened to be electric.
Back home, Pete was not only immune to Beatlemania but hostile to folk-rock. Maybe it was because, as Pete said, he couldn’t hear the words due to the high volume but he should have known more about music than to use that to justify attacks on the songs themselves. I’m more inclined to think that he didn’t like “Maggie’s Farm” with the Butterfield Blues Band because of the loud absence of explicit social commentary and Pete’s acknowledged absence of feeling for post-war blues.
I am trying to reckon with the complexity of Pete Seeger as man and artist. It is not an easy road to travel, especially not today. But it never has been.
Ten years ago, more or less, there was a panel discussion at a Folk Alliance conference that wound up in a tangle when Nora Guthrie said that Pete had refused to allow Madonna to issue a recording of “If I Had a Hammer” because she’d changed the lyric to “If I had a hammer / I’d smash your fucking head in.” (I don’t know if that’s funny. Depends on how she sang it, doesn’t it?)
Another complex folk music elder, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, also on the panel, thought that Nora was responsible for the rejection and scolded her for not asking Pete to make the decision, since he would surely have supported free speech. I was the moderator and tried to help out by asking Nora if what she meant was that she had communicated a decision made by Pete himself. She said yes. Chris began to sputter, well past the point of coherence for few seconds, and finally a single sentence burst out: “WELL…well…well…then Pete’s not God anymore!”
He never was. He never needed to be. Like everybody else, Pete Seeger set examples good and bad. We might pause here to take notice that, though his feet were of clay, he had a remarkable ability to keep them shod. By which I mean, his transgressions may have been personal but they were very rarely public and he knew how to back down. In 1967 or so, he made a record using electric guitar—not played by him–and somewhat heavier beats. And then returned to doing what he did, as he should have.
Pete Seeger was such a prodigious talent, so young, that the godlike was expected of him. Born in 1919, the son of the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, he grew up in a left-wing household. It was the mandarin left wing: Like his father before him, Pete went to Harvard. He began his prominent performing career in 1940 on CBS Radio, alongside Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Josh White (the show was heard only in New York because the cast was integrated) and a year later was a founder of the first important left-wing folk group, The Almanac Singers, which defined protest singing. Pete Bowers, he called himself then—he had to, as his father was currently a government employee who had been blacklisted during World War I for espousing pacifism.
After the war, Pete formed the Weavers with Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. Their songs were not always topical, because McCarthyism had begun, but the political songs were always there and they had big hits. Thus “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” though the Weavers also rearranged Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” into one of the most important hits of 1950. Seeger and Hayes were a formidable songwriting team. Because of them, the Weavers also produced some of the most enduring post-war protest songs, notably “If I Had a Hammer.” By 1953, they were blacklisted by broadcasters. “If you had seen us coming down the street,” Toshi Seeger, Pete’s wife, told me once, “you’d have crossed over to the other side of the block.” I looked dubious. “That’s exactly what people did,” she said.
Toshi, at least as formidable and complicated as her husband, allowed herself the bitterness Pete never expressed. They had a lot to be bitter about. After being smeared as a Red, Pete became an unusually uncooperative witness before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. HUAC had caused the Hollywood Ten to be imprisoned for contempt of Congress in1950. The Ten lost for standing on the First Amendment as the basis for their refusal to testify. Since then, it had become the practice to stand on the Fifth—the non-incrimination clause–rather than freedom of speech and association. Pete returned to the fundamental issue: “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.”
This was not god-like. It was human– stubborn, flouting all sound advice, courageous. It was also not quite as futile as it immediately seemed. In 1957, he was charged with contempt of Congress. In 1961, Pete was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. In 1962, he won his appeal, a landmark case in ending the blacklist. But the consequences rolled on: The Weavers reformed in 1955, but mainly as a live act. They recorded for small labels but their music could not be broadcast. Nevertheless, they played the major role in popularizing “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “Sixteen Tons” and “Kumbaya.”
Pete was never idle. In the Fifties, he wrote How to Play the 5 String Banjo, invented the Longneck Banjo (three additional frets made it longer than a bass guitar), popularized the 12 string guitar (he’d learned from Lead Belly), and created the brilliant “Goofing-Off Suite,” using classical themes by Bach, Beethoven, Stockhausen and Grieg alongside Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and a batch of folk tunes. When John Hammond at Columbia finally got him a major label record deal, one of the first results was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” probably the most beautiful antiwar melody ever composed. Pete championed the burgeoning topical song movement in the best possible way: He crammed the songs into his albums and concerts. He also took up world music, not as a stylistic synthesis, but as a collection of pieces that taken on their own terms resonated with one another, from Africa (“Wimoweh”) to Cuba (“Guantanamera”), even Europe. It was Pete who suggested that SNCC needed a singing group, and it was Toshi and Pete who befriended and cared for Bernice Johnson Reagon when the SNCC Freedom Singers broke up. He made children’s albums and live albums and thematic albums and mere collections of songs. He was instrumental in starting the Newport Folk Festival. He was on the editorial committee of Sing Out!, the Rolling Stone of the folk revival. And he played a major role (if not the central one—that credit he always gave to Guy Carawan and rightly so) in adapting and popularizing the most important song of the twentieth century, “We Shall Overcome.”
Pete made a live album called We Shall Overcome, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1963. It was extremely well-edited, I don’t know by whom. The running order of the album–13 songs of the 40 performed–has absolutely nothing to do with the order of the concert, but it’s more focused, gets to the point more directly and clearly than the show did. Alas, the digital version is the whole thing. (It’s easy to make a playlist of the original running order—the original track listing is at the Wikipedia entry for the album.)
I heard the We Shall Overcome album at age 14, when I was the son of budding George Wallace supporters, living in an Up South town full of Ku Klux Klansmen and packs of freelance racists, and going to quietly but adamantly all-white schools. The headlines had been filled every day for the past year with Freedom Riders, pre-teens slaughtered by bombs placed in churches, nonviolent demonstrators attacked by dogs and high pressure hoses. And that was just in the South. Racial turmoil was a constant presence in southeastern Michigan, not just Detroit. The one true thing I was being told about this was that it meant the world, or a world, was coming to an end. The one set of contrary facts I held in my head was almost entirely musical, not the early songs of Bob Dylan but Motown and early soul music that insisted, obliquely but powerfully, that freedom meant everybody or it didn’t mean anything.
Buying We Shall Overcome was more the product of exploration than rebellion. What it inspired was rebellion’s necessary partner, conviction. Most important, the conviction that there really must be a better world, somewhere, and that it was open to the likes of myself. Pete Seeger’s version of a protest album offered a vision, and the core of that vision was not so much any particular songs but the gentle persuasiveness with which he introduced them, the passion with which he laid out their origin or history or contemporary relevance and the power with which he encouraged all present to sing them. What transformed We Shall Overcome from a powerful collection to something with deep historical significance was the presence of the SNCC Freedom Singers. They lent not so much authenticity as boldness and authority to “Oh Freedom,” “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” and particularly “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” They made struggling for equal rights seem like something even a blossoming but isolated teenager could do.
As Daniel Wolff pointed out to me the afternoon that we learned of Pete’s passing, he did this kind of teaching all the time. Seeger believed in singing, he believed it was good for you in all sorts of ways. He was, I recall, fond of reciting his father’s dictum that a country’s cultural health could best be ascertained by how many of its citizens sang and made music. I was just one among who knows how many—a number surely in the hundreds of thousands, maybe the tens of millions, over the sixty years or so that Pete performed—who had their lives turned if not upside down at least askew by the power of his conviction, by the contagion of his vision.
If nothing else, Pete Seeger made me understand how far behind enemy lines I was living—he showed me the road that had to be traveled, if I really wanted to live. He did this the same way that James Baldwin and Elvis Presley and John Coltrane did it: by example, and with the same generosity and the same sense that the world was packed with a load of insurmountable cruelty and that, nevertheless, the truth was that something better had managed to survive within it. Which meant, for each of us, a choice and a chance.
It may even be that Seeger, whose rectitude often communicated, at least to me, a whiff of the Puritanism he inherited, offered a more direct route to this not-at-all specious salvation of spirit and society than anybody else, and for the oddest reason: He thought smaller. He genuinely believed that one more singer, one more non-violent resister, one more example of gumption and love, one more song, one more guitar, was an important thing. And, this I am sure about, he genuinely believed that that was mainly what he, himself, was: One more.
That, and nothing more meek, was why Pete Seeger eschewed the celebrity path. (Ask yourself this: If Burl Ives could become a big star looking like that, what could the young Pete Seeger have become if he’d just given over a few names?) Pete could seem innocent but you’d be a fool to believe it. He paid the price and he had seen the bill coming, too.
If all you know about Pete Seeger is a protest singer, a rag-tag Red, a spinner of false hope, a doddering old man walking that hopeless line (but never by himself, you may have noticed), then you missed it. If all you know is the famous songs – most of which I haven’t even mentioned—you might even then not see it whole. Pete Seeger lived his life every day in the possession of what he envisioned.
There is one song that to me expresses this vision almost perfectly, maybe the greatest of all the lyrics he wrote and in the performance on his mini-box set, A Link in the Chain, possibly his greatest recorded vocal performance. It is called “O, Had I A Golden Thread.” It’s sweet in a way the hard boys, left and right, fear, as they ought to. “Far over the waters I’d reach my magic band / To every human being so they would understand.” He makes it true. He makes those who hear him want to make it truer.
Without such a vision, the folk process that we talk about (or used to, before the scene shifted to singer-songwriters meditating on their inner lives—alas, almost never about the banality of them—and the preening cultists they attracted) isn’t worth much. But there is another question, which is whether Pete’s vision of freedom carries forward, whether it stands, whether it can be nurtured and sustained.
I am sure it will be and my conviction came, perhaps predictably, on the last night of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s magnificent Woody Guthrie tribute in 1996. Pete already wasn’t singing very much—Arlo led the night’s final song, which you knew was going to be “This Land Is Your Land” before you ever saw a ticket. But you didn’t know that the whole cast, including many of the conference’s speakers, would be on stage leading the singing.
It had been a night of triumphs: For Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, for Dave Pirner and Jimmy LaFave, Billy Bragg and Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen and Pete too. But the most powerful triumph was that group sing—above all for the spirit still embedded in a potential national anthem yearning for a country to become worthy of it. It floored me and really, it seemed like the moment caught everyone. John Wesley Harding and I, old friends, walked into the communal dressing room afterward, arms around each other’s shoulders, tears in our eyes. And there was Pete, with tears in his eyes.
I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.
That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.
We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.
Got any bags you need carried?
(Thanks to Craig Werner, Danny Alexander, Daniel Wolff and Lee Ballinger, without whom grief might have overwhelmed coherence.)