“I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”
— Pete Seeger
Some folks will be thinking about President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight. I guess that’s important in the sense of current events. But great songs stick around longer, and create more positive change, than great speeches do. One of our greatest collectors and promoters of songs died yesterday aged 94.
You can read about the events of his life in The New York Times’ obituary, in Wikipedia, or in the new biography “Pete Seeger: In His Own Words”. I’m not going to waste your time with an attempted complete list of dates, or engage in facile arguments about whether Pete was more of a patriot, an activist, a gadfly or just a man with too much energy to sit still, one who believed music illustrates what’s best about humans. He lived long enough to be all of those things.
A life working in some area of music was inevitable. His father Charles was hired to establish the music department of the University of California, Berkeley, but was forced to resign because of his pacifism during WWI. His first mother Constance was a concert violinist, and his stepmother Ruth was a composer. At 17, Pete attended the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival near Asheville NC, saw performances on 5-string banjo, and got hooked. In religious terms, it was his “conversion experience”.
By the time he was 21, Pete had attended and dropped out of Harvard, hung out with famous painters in Greenwich Village, and toured New York as part of a puppet theatre, helping organize rural farmers. Then he assisted Alan Lomax, America’s foremost archivist of folk music, in selecting recordings for the Library of Congress and performed on the CBS radio show Back Where I Come From, alongside Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie.
Pete didn’t personally care about being famous, but he did want the songs he wrote and found and adapted to get well known. He thought it was perfectly all right to add new verses to old songs, including his own, if it fit the occasion to do it. He believed music changes hearts and minds, and to that end he helped create and popularize some of the most beloved, influential songs of advocacy including “We Shall Overcome“, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” He knew and sang hundreds of others that were less well known, but no less cared for.
Inspired by his pal Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was labeled “This machine kills fascists”, Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the motto “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”.
He was no saint, and he had the good sense to acknowledge his mistakes. Before World War II, Pete thought the Soviets were heroic and joined the Communist Party USA for a few years, drifting away from that alliance after the war. When the “Red Scare” and the blacklist restricted his career, and the House Un-American Activities Committee hauled him in for questioning in 1955, instead of refusing to testify by invoking the Fifth Amendment (against self-incrimination) as most did, he cited his rights under the First Amendment:
“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.”
He was convicted of “Contempt of Congress” and sentenced to 10 years, but it was reversed on appeal in 1962. We still have plenty of folks in Congress who wouldn’t mind putting people in jail for holding them in contempt. Some changes are a long time coming.
Pete Seeger, one of those most responsible for popularizing folk music in the 40s and 50s, mentored the Folk Revival of the early 1960s, supporting upcoming artists and acting on the board of the Newport Folk Festival. There’s an urban legend about him reacting with threats of violence when Bob Dylan went electric in 1965, but it’s not accurate if you accept his recall of the event:
“I couldn’t understand the words. I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, “Maggie’s Farm,” and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, “Fix the sound so you can hear the words.” He hollered back, “This is the way they want it.” I said “Damn it, if I had an axe, I’d cut the cable right now.” But I was at fault. I was the MC, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, “you didn’t boo Howlin’ Wolf yesterday. He was electric!” Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the twentieth century, to use my father’s old term.”
Though his early fame had come from activism in civil rights, pacifist and union causes, he spent most of his life working in support of environmentalism, and performing to benefit children’s education. For over 60 years he lived in a log cabin next to the Hudson River with his wife, Toshi. He raised funds to build the educational research vessel Clearwater and advocated on behalf of the Clean Water Act of 1972. This law, having been amended and expanded many times since its passage, remains one of the most successful environmental regulations ever adopted.