Pete Seeger, Folk Music Legend, Dies at 94

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking folk music legend, passed away at 94 on January 27th, one of the last remaining remnants of the folk music revival movement that led circuitously from early 20th century rough-cut folk singers to the fit and finish of his one time protegé, Bob Dylan.

Seeger DylanIf you didn’t grow up with the folk music revival, it’s impossible for you to understand how important Pete Seeger was, as musician, a performer, a historian and an activist. Without Pete Seeger, we might never have heard of Bob Dylan, because it was Seeger who brought Dylan to the attention of John Hammond and urged him to produce the young singer-songwriter’s first album for Columbia records, but Seeger’s accomplishments were far greater than being Bob Dylan’s earliest advocate.

A descendant of a Revolutionary War period immigrant, Seeger was part of a culturally eminent family that included his father, Charles Lewis Seeger, an eminent musicologist, and his mother, Constance de Clyver, a world-class violinist and teacher at the Julliard School of Music. His family tree included pacifists (his father refused to serve in World War I as a contentious objector), war heroes (his uncle, Alan Seeger, was a noted poet who was one of the first Americans killed during World War I, shortly after writing the world-famous poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,”)  four siblings who were all noted folk singers, and a collection of children and grandchildren, all of whom have made their marks in the arts.

But it was as an activist, rather than a musician, that Pete Seeger earned his everlasting renown. As a World War II veteran, he famously stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, thumbing his nose at Senator Joe McCarthy but, unlike other victims of McCarthy’s rage, he was never really blacklisted. They simply could not blacklist Pete Seeger because he went wherever he wanted and, unlike other folk singers of the same era, lived solely off his own work as a performer. He just wasn’t beholden to anyone. (The Wikipedia article about Seeger says that the members of The Weavers, including Seeger, were blacklisted, but the blacklist was ineffective against singers like Seeger, who would play like a busker anywhere he could find a crowd.)

Never the best of pickers nor, honestly, the best singer, Seeger remained the guiding light for generations of singer-songwriters who looked up to him as a beacon of rationality, a stand-up guy who stood up for what the majority of Americans believed to be the right stuff: economic equality, civil rights, an end to the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, and just about every other movement that spread across the social landscape during the 20th century.

A confidant to performers as diverse as Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Seeger bridged several generations of protesters, advocates, and social critics, just as he bridged the gaps between jazz, blues, folk and rock through his extensive network of friendships and working partnerships. He was, in a word, a one-man conglomerate of the musical arts.

I cannot remember how many times I heard Seeger play in person, because he had the odd habit of showing up in places where no one would expect him to be, demonstrations, workshops, rallies, conventions. He always seemed to be around somewhere and, unlike most other performers, because he traveled with such a small footprint, without an entourage, he was more accessible than most. I remember one occasion, however, at CCNY during the mid sixties, when I was taking a course in Indian Music from Ravi Shankar, when Pete Seeger dropped in to jam with the sitar master. Unannounced. No one else on the campus even knew he was there. He showed up, played some licks with Shankar, and went on about his business. As he was leaving, he nodded to me – I was sitting on the floor by the door – and said, “Pretty cool stuff, right?”

I replied, “The coolest.”

There is a thread of consciousness that extends from the early protest singers to Woody Guthrie, and thence to Pete Seeger, who went around playing Guthrie’s songs when Guthrie was no longer able to sing or play. When Dylan showed up, Seeger passed that mantle on to him, and Dylan became, in a sense, the co-creator of the songs Guthrie could have and would have written, if he could still write songs, but Seeger went on playing Guthrie’s songs, and his own, and Dylan’s as well, becoming a virtual walking encyclopedia of folk music.

Here’s one example of Seeger’s influence. His classic song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” adapted from a section of Ecclesiastes reportedly written by King Solomon,  has been recorded so many times by so many different artists that Seeger could have retired on the proceeds from that one song, if he were of a retiring nature, which he wasn’t. A number one hit in the U.S., more that 40 covers have been logged for it, including renditions by The Byrds, Judy Collins, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Bacharach, Dolly Parton (no, really), and Bruce Springsteen.  Dylan, who has covered many other songs in his career, has never recorded it (although I am sure there are bootlegs of him doing so,) but he has drawn much of his early inspiration from Seeger’s work.

In the 1960s, during the heydays of the civil rights and anti-war movements, the twin anthems of those movements were Pete Seeger’s rendering of “We Shall Overcome,” which he adapted from a Negro spiritual, and Bob Dylan’s equally classic “Blowin’ in the Wind.” They often sang the two songs one after the other, standing side by side during the protest period.

But those days are long gone, probably forever. Modern media have killed off the cafes and clubs where folk singers used to ply their trade. New music distribution systems make it all but impossible for politically conscious singer-songwriters to find their audience, or for the audience to find them. Pete Seeger was a living artifact of a time when people used to say things like, “And what a time it was,” but they’re gone too, one way or the other.

It is impossible not to miss Pete Seeger, if you ever knew him, or just saw him in concert, on television or at a rally. It’s also impossible to miss him because his songs will be around as long as the English language is, and perhaps longer, recorded, imperishable, inspirational, evidence of a life well lived by a man who lived it well.

In all likelihood, Seeger, an honestly modest man, would have been embarrassed by an eulogy like this, which is why such eulogies are only written after the subjects are unable to object.

Adios, hermano.


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