Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919–2014)

It had to happen eventually. Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94 after a long and very full life. (His wife Toshi died last year; they had been married 70 years.) Pete was a great and highly influential musician, and an even better human being. His contributions to folk music were colossal, and it's striking to see how many protest songs he wrote or popularized, most famously, "We Shall Overcome," which became central to the Civil Rights Movement. He also introduced music to several generations of kids. Bruce Springsteen put it well a few years back when said Pete Seeger was:

…a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism.

If you haven't seen it, the PBS American Masters documentary on Pete Seeger, The Power of Song, is excellent (for now, at least, it can be viewed online). Meanwhile, the 90th Birthday Concert has quite the lineup, and the 1982 documentary, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time has some great footage.

Pete had a generous soul. It was impossible not to feel that, and the joy he felt in playing music and in communal singing. He just beamed on stage. As I wrote in an post several years back:

I saw Pete and Arlo Guthrie perform about six times in the 80s and 90s, mostly together, in one case a solo performance by Arlo at the Smithsonian. Going to see them was a family outing. During that period, Arlo played "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" again for the 20th anniversary, adding some funny stuff about Nixon. By the 90s, Pete was bringing his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger out more often to help him sing, and Pete would just lie down on the stage between songs, propping himself up with his elbows. He and Arlo would trade off songs, bantering about what to sing next. They'd include some familiar favorites and add some new pieces, and always insisted on plenty of audience participation. They were very friendly, cheerful events.

Many people in this country probably have an informal list in the back of their minds of Americans they admire, of people past and present they think exemplify the best of the country and its potential, despite any flaws. Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most obvious choice for many. I'd add a number of activists, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Dorothea Dix. I'd probably add a couple of dozen artists at least. And on my list, I'd definitely include Pete Seeger. He was authentic. He was caring. He was often selfless. His faults, such as they were, grew from a good place. It might sound hokey, but I find it encouraging that America could produce a person like him… and that so many other Americans (and other people around the world) also valued Pete Seeger and what he did.

John Holbo of Crooked Timber has a good, playful post titled, "Conservative Taken Aback At President’s Reaction To Death Of Seeger." As Holbo points out (and others in the comments thread do), it's no surprise that the conservatives at National Review would excoriate Pete Seeger for once belonging to the communist party. As The New York Times obituary reports, he had left the party/organized movement by 1950, even though he never considered "communist" a dirty word. Additionally, t's well worth remembering how different the world looked leading up to, during, and after WWII. (John Fund at National Review claims Pete was "an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995." I'm guessing Fund's justifying adding at least 45 years to the timeline through some weaseling about what constitutes "repentance" to his satisfaction, as if he would ever be truly satisfied.) If Pete was a communist, he was a great American communist. He was always pro-labor, pro-diversity, pro-music, pro-arts, and pro-human. For me, there's never been any question that Pete's heart was in the right place, even if his judgment of Stalin in particular was faulty. National Review was arguing for segregation in the South and the inherent racial inferiority of blacks in the 1950s. It was denouncing the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. for "rabble-rousing demagoguery" in the 1960s. Pete Seeger was on the wrong side of National Review on all of that, and on the right side of history. Answering the question "Which Side Are You On?" ain't too hard.

I've featured Pete Seeger's House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) testimony in 1955 before, and it's worth reading in full. But some highlights:

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. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.

Differing views on "contributions" to society:

MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

On inclusiveness:

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line. . . .

"These features": what do you mean? Except for the answer I have already given you, I have no answer. The answer I gave you you have, don't you? That is, that I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

This bit's more subtle, but it's probably my favorite (emphasis mine):

MR. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled "Town Talk" there is found this statement: The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will he given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. . . .Among those on hand for the singing will be . . . Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays—and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance?

MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.

MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

I imagine Pete saying that with his characteristic warm smile, and it makes me smile in turn. Talk about cross-purposes – his inquisitors wanted to lock up Americans for thoughtcrime; Pete wanted to talk about music. You either hear the music and appreciate it, or you don't. You either get what Pete's saying here, or you don't. (Not coincidentally, one of my favorite Zen stories hits the same basic point about what has value in this life.) As a wise colleague used to say to me, for those moments when you've given it a solid effort and just can't get through to someone, "There are some people who just don't get it, and if they don't get it, you can't tell 'em." That's certainly true of HUAC and their contemporary descendants, and it's their loss. It's also a loss they're determined to inflict on other people. It's an impulse consistently points out about conservatives, how they try to appropriate the arts and pop culture for propaganda purposes instead of just enjoying them, thus obstinately denying themselves one of the beautiful experiences possible in life.)

There's much to admire about Pete Seeger, but it's Pete the musician and the human being that stick with me the most. As for him as a political activist, you could put it this way: Pete never completely gave up on anyone... but he also didn't stand still waiting for them to figure it out.

I'll only post a few songs here, since the possibilities are vast, and several of the posts linked further below feature good selections.


NPR: "Sing Out: A Concert Celebration Of Pete Seeger" (2005)

The New York Times obituary.

The Associated Press obituary.

Arlo Guthrie remembers Pete, one and two.

Sister Peggy Seeger's home page.

Bruce Springsteen.

Roy Edroso.

Charlie Pierce.

The Pete Seeger appreciation page.

Time: "Songs of Peace and Protest: 6 Essential Cuts From Pete Seeger" and "Why Pete Seeger Mattered: The Pied Piper of the People’s Music."

NPR: " Folk Musician Pete Seeger, As Remembered By His Goddaughter."

John Nichols, The Nation: "Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender."

The Atlantic: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.'

New York magazine: "Jody Rosen: There Was No ‘I’ in Pete Seeger."

Jesse Wegman, New York Times: "Pete Seeger, Neil Young and the Importance of Letting Go."

Corey Robin, Crooked Timber: "The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger."

The Atlantic: "Pete Seeger's All-American Communism."

Bhaskar Sunkara, Al Jazeera: "In defense of Pete Seeger, American communist."

Michael O'Hare.

Billboard: "Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 94."

USAToday obituary.

MTV: Folk Legend Pete Seeger Dead At 94: Here's 12 Reasons Why He Ruled."

National Catholic Reporter "Pete Seeger: a man of faith."

The Balloon Juice thread.

The Crooks and Liars thread.

The LGM thread.

The Crooked Timber thread.

Fretboard Journal: "Pete Seeger's Last Letter."

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