Friday, January 31, 2014

144.2 - RIP: Pete Seeger

RIP: Pete Seeger

We're going to spend a couple of minutes remembering someone who was probably as close to a living legend as we get these days: Pete Seeger, who died January 27 at the age of 94.

An article about his music in the San Jose Mercury News said it best: Pete Seeger was folk music. He was, very likely more than any other person or influence, responsible for much of America discovering - or, rather, rediscovering - its folk roots. The Weavers, a quartet started in 1948 consisting of Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, certainly set the stage with hits (yes, actual hits) such as “Goodnight Irene,” ”Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”

But Pete Seeger wasn't just about preserving the past in a glass jar. As an example, I remember hearing the story that one time, during the folk revival of the 1960s, he heard someone complain that people were writing new folk songs rather than preserving the old ones. He answered "Don't interfere with the folk process." He has been credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem of the civil rights movement, and he wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine."

He dropped out of Harvard in 1938 and hit the road, hitchhiking and hopping freights around the country, learning folk songs as he went. By 1940, he was part of a group performing benefits for disaster relief and other causes.

He and his friend Woody Guthrie toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he entertained soldiers in the South Pacific. As the years went on, he sang in support of workers and for peace and against racism, the death penalty, and nuclear power. He never stopped singing or performing in a career that spanned 70 years.

Perhaps one of his proudest moments - or at least it would be one of mine if it were me - came in August 1955 when he faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, a Congressional panel aimed at uncovering the commies they insisted were under every bed. The Committee kept demanding to know if he sang to this Communist Party group or that Communist Party gathering or at the other Community Party benefit. He simply refused to answer. Wait, the Committee said, are you pleading the Fifth Amendment? No, I'm not, he said. I just won't tell you. I'll tell you about my songs but I'm not going to tell you where I sang them or who I sang them to because you have no business asking. Finally, they gave up.

He was charged with 10 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction was overturned on appeal, but as a result of his defiance he was blackballed for TV and from recording contacts for over 10 years - until in 1967 the Smothers Brothers had him on. Controversy came along with his appearance: CBS deleted his Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” with what became its famous refrain, "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy; the big fool says to push on." Five months later, he came back on and did it, but even then at least one station censored the last verse.

In the late '60s, he founded the group Clearwater to support the sloop of the same name built by volunteers which sailed up and down the Hudson River, raising money and awareness for cleaning up the river.

By the 1990s, he was being heaped with honors. He performed at the Kennedy Center in 1994. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen did an album in his honor. In 2009, he was treated to - and performed in - a concert at Madison Square Garden to mark his 90th birthday.

He was an activist to the end: In 2011, at the age of 92, he walked two miles through Manhattan as part of an Occupy Movement march and protest. His ever-present banjo was actually not present as he had to use two canes to walk - but walk he did.

His wife Toshi, a remarkable woman in her own right, died in July at the age of 91, just 11 days short of their 70th anniversary.

And now this - as someone accurately dubbed him - "ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser" has rejoined her.

Personally, I never thought all that much of Pete Seeger as a singer, but his compassion, his conviction, and his conscience - to put that more picturesquely, his soul - more than made up for it. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said after the Occupy march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” On that basis, he did his part - more than his part.

RIP, Pete Seeger.


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