Ballad of a Nonagenarian
Happy birthday, Pete Seeger.
By Sam Anderson
Published Apr 26, 2009
It would be easy, these days, not to know who Pete Seeger is. If
there is a mainstream of American pop culture, down which our capital
and attention tend inexorably to flowwith its flotilla of rappers
and actors and superstar politiciansSeeger is off on a tributary
somewhere, paddling a hand-carved canoe. His prime, in terms of
cultural visibility, was almost 60 years ago, when "Goodnight Irene,"
a song he sang wholesomely with his wholesome band, the Weavers, went
to No. 1. Even then, Seeger was mainly trying to be culturally
invisible. Although he's been fluent in music since childhood (by age
6 he could play the organ, piano, marimba, and squeezebox), he has
always resisted stardom, preferring to be a conduit, a curator, an
organizer, and a collaborator. It was almost a blessing, then, that
on the brink of serious commercial success, Seeger was forced to drop
off the map: He was accused of being a Communist, then blackballed
after his politely defiant testimony in front of the House
Un-American Activities Committee. ("I can only infer from your lack
of interest in my songs," he said, "that you are actually scared to
know what these songs are like.") He didn't return to network TV for
seventeen years, which guaranteed that his career would play out
exactly as he wanted it to: deep in the grassroots, untroubled by the
pressures of staying pure or selling out. (He quit the Weavers after
they agreed to do a cigarette ad.)
Over the decades, Seeger has made no effort to cash in on his
longevity, to adjust his brand or repackage the old highlights as
fresh commodities. "I always hated the word career," he has said. "It
implies that fame and fortune are what you're trying to get. I have a
life's purpose." He turns 90 this week, the same age as women's
suffrage, the Green Bay Packers, and Grand Canyon National Park. As
he prepares to be fêted at Madison Square Garden by a lineup of
musical megastarsSpringsteen, Vedder, Matthews, Baez, et al.Seeger
remains arguably America's most celebrated anti-celebrity.
I know who Seeger is for two reasonsreasons that, taken together,
suggest my life is playing out in some kind of subconscious Oedipal
psychodrama with him. First, my father (whose name is also Peter)
admires Seeger so deeply he's even come to resemble him. He has the
same beard and hairline, the same attitude of cheerful straitlaced
lefty idealism, and the same faith in the transformative power of
folk music: He plays his guitar every Sunday at church, agitates
musically against global warming, and subscribes to Sing Out!
magazine. Some of the most memorable nights of my childhood were
spent listening to my father harmonize around campfires, on church
retreats or at backwoods Oregon hippie festivals amid topless women
and clouds of marijuana smoke, playing talking blues or Lutheran
hymns or protest songs or (to me, as I drifted off) an old German lullaby.
As the son of a Seegerite, I am not myself a full proponent of
Seegerism. Like sons everywhere, I assembled my own taste-set in
careful, loving counterpoint to my father's. I practice a kind of
inverted Seegerism. I've held on to all my hair but cannot, for the
life of me, grow a decent beard. I love the acoustic guitar but
prefer its wielders to be skilled in the kind of anti-folk postures
(irony, sarcasm, hip indirection) that ward off, rather than attract,
earnest crowds. I've always favored Dylan over Seeger, since his
melodies and rhymes are unexpected and hard to convert into voting
platforms. I even have a deep and guilty aversion to singing with
crowds; when a performer asks me to hum or wave my arms, or to chant
"Ay-yippie yo-yi, yippie yippie yay-yo" at every third offbeat before
the bridge, I tend to just sit there, silently, enduring it like a
terrible gas pain. Seeger, for me, is the hub around which a bunch of
difficult existential issues pivot: irony versus earnestness,
cleverness versus vulnerable honesty, isolation versus community,
keeping quiet versus singing out.
Seeger is, quite literally, a folk heroin the sense that he
collected, wrote, and popularized many of America's essential songs:
"Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," "This Land Is Your Land,"
"We Shall Overcome." (It was originally "We Will Overcome"; Seeger
thought the vowel in "shall" made it sound more dramatic.) But he is
also a folk hero in the sense that Paul Bunyan is a folk hero. His
nine decades seem almost mythic, complete with a perfect origin
story, trials, dangers, and big quixotic inspirational victoriesall
of which are recounted engagingly in Alec Wilkinson's new book-length
essay, The Protest Singer. (Wilkinson wrote the book, as Seeger
requested, to be read in one sitting; he calls it "a factual novella.")
It's not hard to see where Seeger got his obsessions. His father was
a composer who "thought the great symphonies would save the human
race" but who later became a political radical obsessed with the
power of folk music. When Pete was a baby, his dad took the family on
a disastrous trip down the East Coast, towing a homemade trailer full
of instruments in an effort to bring music to good country people.
(The trip was called off when baby Pete almost walked into a fire.)
The son inherited the father's impractical sense of mission. As a
young man, he dropped out of Harvard, played with Woody Guthrie, and
rode in open boxcars around the country, living off his banjo.
Eventually, he saved enough to buy a patch of forest on a riverside
mountain, cleared two acres of it himself, and built his own cabin
out of the logs. In 1949, after Seeger played a concert with the
African-American singer Paul Robeson, his car was ambushed by vandals
throwing baseball-size stones from point-blank range. (Seeger kept
two of the stones and built them into his fireplace.) In the late
sixties, a Vietnam veteran, angry about Seeger's pacifism, showed up
at a concert and told him, "I think I should tell you, I came here
this afternoon to kill you." Instead, the man listened to the
concertapparently hearing Seeger's music for the first timeand said
afterward that his anger had been "cleansed."
Through it all, Seeger remained the idealist's idealist. After the
blackballing let up, he refused a steady TV job because the network
asked him to sign a loyalty oath. Instead, he took his family on a
shoestring trip around the world to hear native cultures play their
native music. Back in America, he protested wars and marched to
Montgomery, Alabama. He coordinated the building of a ship called the
Clearwater, a replica nineteenth-century sloop that gives educational
rides on the Hudsona campaign that has helped make the formerly
poisonous river swimmable for most of its length.
The second reason I know who Pete Seeger is is that a few years ago I
ended up moving, totally by accident, all the way across the country
from my father to the little town on the Hudson where Seeger has
lived for 60 years. I am writing this article, in fact, in an office
at the old high school where Seeger once played a controversial
concert at the height of the Vietnam War. I see him occasionally
around town: tall, rail-thin (he was encouraged to play the banjo
because, the musicologist John Lomax said, "he just looked like a
banjo"), wearing his knit cap, picking up trash. Every June he serves
strawberry shortcake at a festival at our riverfront park, which
natives tell me was some kind of flaming toxic waste dump before the
Clearwater came around. He's visited my daughter's preschool class.
I've even overcome my crowd-singing aversion, temporarily, to sing
Christmas carols with him on Main Street.
One night last fall, before the election, Seeger was scheduled to
sing at a local fund-raiser. Instead, at the last minute, he went on
Late Night With David Letterman. As a child of the MTV era, I've been
conditioned to think of celebrity in cynical terms, and Seeger's
choice that night made me doubt, momentarily, the order of the
universe. Was the most earnest, community-based man in America really
going to blow off a political event with his small-town mates to
promote a record on possibly the most ironic show in the history of
network television? Was the Seeger legend, after all, too good to be true?
After the fund-raiser, my wife and I sat down and watched Letterman.
As soon as Seeger appeared, with his white hair and his jeans and his
button-down shirt, I knew order had been restored. His presence was a
category error. He went on to give one of the weirdest and most
powerful TV performances I've ever seen, whisper-singing a springy,
earnest tune about the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. in the
post-9/11 world. He asked the crowd to sing along. They were
reluctant. He didn't care, and eventually they gave in. He treated
them not like the background setting for his televised conquest of
the promotional universe but like what they actually were: a room
full of real, individual, aware, responsible, potentially political
humans. He transformed a TV audience into a group of men and women.
Even though he was 60 miles downriver, in midtown Manhattan, he might
as well have been in our living room. That's the power of Pete
Seeger: No matter what he's doing, no matter what your level of
resistance, he always finds a way to make you join in.
Pete Seeger's Guide to Surviving the Recession
By Steven Kurutz
Published Apr 26, 2009
Professional spartan Pete Seeger lives an unencumbered life with wife
Toshi in a house on seventeen acres in Beacon, New York (bought for
$1,700 in 1949). As a veteran of the Great Depression, he knows how
to live within any means. Seeger spoke with Steven Kurutz.
Marry a Bohemian
"My wife is truly one of the more extraordinary people I've met,"
says Seeger. "Her father was an artist in Woodstock. Her mother was a
World War I hippiethey called them bohemians. Toshi had to scrap to
stay alive, so she was used to skimping. When I was on tour, she'd
get a pail of water out of the brook with one kid on her hip and the
other nipping at her skirt."
Nothing Is Garbage
Back in 1949, "the streets between 14th and 23rd on the West Side
were known as the Importing District; there were wooden boxes left on
the sidewalk. I was singing in a nightclub with the Weavers, driving
a Jeep, and on the way home I'd look for scrap wood. For a while, our
ceiling read, 'Made in Occupied Japan,' " says Seeger of the log
cabin he built.
One Is Enough
He owns one banjo, drives a used, electric-powered truck (bought from
Electric Vehicles of America twelve years ago), powers his house and
truck with solar collectors, and chops his own firewood: "It's one
reason I'm alive that I still like to split wood. That's my idea of a
Grow Your Own
"My father-in-law put in a vegetable garden and sometimes I help. I
collect maple syrup, too. I wrote one of my better songs about it,
'Maple Syrup Time.' [Sings] 'First we get the buckets ready / Clean
the pans and gather firewood / Late in the winter / It's maple-syrup
time.' We eat it and we give it away to friends.' "
Indulge in the Occasional Rich-Guy Perk
"When I became successful my wife put the money in a bank account for
our grandchildren's education. Then I stole about $140,000 because I
felt we should have a sailboat. We take the children out sailing on
the Hudson now for free."
Pete Seeger and our Progressive Culture
The culture provides a way for people in all different places,
engaged in all different parts of the mass movement, to experience a
common sense of themselves and what they share with others.
By Harry Targ
26 April 2009
Social movements are defined in several ways; their leadership, their
membership, their vision, their strategies, their resources, and
their successes and failures. We often forget, however, that each of
these elements are woven together by a culture. This culture can be
poetic, dramatic, pictorial, or musical, or some of each. The culture
provides a way for people in all different places, engaged in all
different parts of the mass movement, to experience a common sense of
themselves and what they share with others. It may be the case that a
movement without a culture is a movement without a sense of vision,
of shared purpose, of passion.
It is these thoughts that come to mind this week as we gear up to
celebrate the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, a man who has brought
song to our hearts and minds for 70 years. Pete and those musicians
who were inspired by him helped influence many of us to join the
great twentieth century movements for social change: labor, civil
rights, feminist, ecology. It was through his practice, getting
sometimes thousands of fans to sing together in unison about building
a better world, that people learned that working together is how change occurs.
And when progressives look back at the twentieth century and see a
very mixed record of successes and failures, glorious victories and
tragic defeats, it is the culture that reminds people of the nobility
of the goals that social movements pursued and what still needs to be
achieved. And no greater symbol of redemption of twentieth century
progressive movements and cultures was evidenced than Pete's leading
500,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial two days before the
inauguration of President Barack Obama in singing Woody Guthrie's
"This Land is Your Land." Pete included the verses that delegitimized
private property and celebrated the continued struggle for
fundamental social change.
That performance reminded older people of the fundamental justice of
the old movements and the need to create new movements with new
cultures in the 21st century. Vital to that brief sing out also was
the message that the old political culture should not be forgotten
even as new politics and culture is created. The old and the new are
like links in a chain.
Let's all celebrate the life and work of Pete Seeger as he turns 90
and celebrate ourselves as well.
A few additional words:
Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of
various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a
world body -- a universal body -- of folk music based upon a
universal pentatonic [five tone] scale. Interested as I am in the
universality of [hu]mankind-in the fundamental relationship of all
peoples to one another-this idea of a universal body of music
intrigued me, and I pursued it along many fascinating paths.
I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate
a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to
lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old
or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too
that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your
bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very
last breath of air and my last drop of blood. . .
Imagine a big see-saw, with a basketful of rocks sitting on one end.
That end is down on the ground. At the other end, up in the air, is a
basket half full of sand. Some of us are trying to fill it, using
teaspoons. Most folks laugh at us: "Don't you know the sand is
leaking out even as you put it in?" We say that's true, but we're
getting more people with more teaspoons all the time. One of these
days that basket of sand will be full and you'll see this whole
see-saw just tip the opposite way. People will say, "Gee how did it
happen so suddenly?" Us, and our goddam teaspoons.
[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West
Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]