Thursday, January 30, 2014
Remembering Pete Seeger (Part 2)
Pete Seeger died at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital on Monday. He was 94. The singer-songwriter and folk-song collector was not just a championing of folk music, he fervently believed that it could be a powerful catalyst for social change, that if used right, music could help save the planet. He saw himself as a member of an enduring folk tradition, continuing to play and sing songs that had been honed by others for generations.
His long career extended over 70 years. He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 50s, for civil rights marches and anti-War rallies in the 1960s, and for the environment and his beloved Hudson River to the day he died.
He first met Woody Guthrie in 1940, when they were performing at a benefit concert for migrant workers in California. The two of them traveled across the United States, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains, learning and trading songs with one another.
When Pete returned to New York, he helped formed the Almanac Singers with Millard Lampell and Lee Hays, performing labor union and antiwar songs until Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It wasn’t long before Guthrie joined the group.
In 1942 Pete was drafted and assigned to a unit of performers. While he was on furlough in 1943 he married Toshi-Aline Ohta. They remained married one day short of 70 years until Toshi death last July. During an interview shortly after her death, Pete called her “the brains of the family”, saying that it was she who figured out how to turn his artistic concepts into commercial successes.
When he returned from the war he and Toshi bought 17 acres of land for $1,700, overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. There, in the late 1940s, he began building a log cabin. The two of them lived in Beacon for the rest of their lives.
He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. In 1948, along with Paul Robeson, Pete campaign and toured with Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate.
During the 1950s and 60s, he was a leader in the folk revival that transformed popular music. In 1959, he was one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival.
The list of musical artists and groups who were influenced by his life and career is vast and varied – from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, from Phil Ochs to Holly Near, from Peter, Paul and Mary to the Byrds, from Don McLean to Joan Baez, from Joni Mitchell to Gordon Lightfoot. The list goes on and on.
In 1962 the Kingston Trio’s version of Pete’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40. Shortly thereafter, Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Pete’s “If I Had a Hammer,” climbed to the Top 10.
I first heard his voice back in 1950 on a jukebox at the Norris Community Building when he was a member of the Greenwich Village-based folk quartet, the Weavers – made up of Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete. The group was singing an old folk standard – Goodnight Irene.
By the early 1950s the group had become a commercial success, selling millions of records under the Decca label, with hit singles that included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long – It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” The Weavers version of “Goodnight Irene” was on the Billboard Best Seller chart for 25 weeks, peaking at number 1 for 13 of those weeks.
The American blues musician Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly") had been singing a version of the song as far back as 1908. By the 1930s he had made the song his own, rewriting most of the lyrics. Despite the song’s popularity within the New York City blues community, it never was a commercial success until 1950 when the Weavers recorded their version of the song, six months after "Lead Belly" had died.
Unfortunately, during the McCarthy era and the Red Scare, an FBI informant (who later recanted his testimony) denounced Pete Seeger and Lee Hays as Communist Party members. Eventually, both Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hays took the Fifth Amendment while Seeger refused to answer on grounds of the First Amendment.
Seeger was found guilty of contempt by the Committee and placed under restrictions by the court pending an appeal. Finally, in 1961 his conviction was overturned. Nevertheless, Seeger was blacklisted by the entertainment industry and prevented from performing on television and radio throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s. All of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance.
Late in 1953 Decca Records terminated The Weavers' recording contract and deleted their songs from its catalog. The group’s records were also denied airplay, which greatly limited their income from royalties. With their economic viability on the wane they disbanded.
However, in December 1955 the group reunited to play a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. A recording of the concert was produced and distributed by Vanguard Records. Despite a surge in popularity of folk music and a backlash against McCarthyism, the group never really recovered from the witch-hunt. It was not until September 1967 that Pete Seeger was finally able to appear on a nationally syndicated television show – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
During a taping of the show Pete performed an antiwar protest song he had written, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” But, the song was cut before the show was aired. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, the network relented and Pete returned in February 1968 to perform the song on the show.
During the late 1960s Pete began a crusade for cleaning up the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he began to raise funds to build a 106-foot sloop, the Clearwater. It was launched in June of 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying cry for environmental education.
Over the years he has received numerous awards and recognition for his life and work. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. In 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. He received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Clinton in 1994 and the National Medal of Arts, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his humanitarian and artistic defense of the environment and his leadership against racial discrimination.
In the 1980s and 90s Pete began touring off and on with Ronnie Gilbert, Holly Near and Arlo Guthrie, performing benefit concerts and leading sing-alongs. I first met Mr. Seeger in the late 1980s. He had come to Nashville with Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near to perform at the old War Memorial Building near the Capitol. At the time I was still working at Cumberland House School. Don Creech (a teacher-counselor with the Keystyones, the only girls group on campus) and I decided to take the group to see the folk trio perform.
When we arrived, there was no one in the auditorium. We immediately went to the front row, center. When the three of them walked out on stage, the large auditorium was completely empty except for us – eight girls (ranging in age from 7 to 13) and three adults. Within moments Holly, Ronnie and Pete decided to come down and introduce themselves to the group. For the next hour they sat there with us, telling stories, talking with the group and leading us in song. It was truly an unforgettable and magical evening.
Several years later (in 1990) while visiting a singer-songwriter friend of mine, Lydia Adams Davis, in Cornwall-on-Hudson, I met Pete again. He, Lydia and several other performers were singing in Donahue Memorial Park.
The last time I met him was at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. All three times I was impressed with his modesty, his unassuming attitude and behavior. As Peter Yarbrough said of him, “Pete lived his ethic.” Although he recorded dozens of albums, he never seemed comfortable with the idea of stardom or commercialism. He consistently used his celebrity to generate funds and draw attention to the causes that inspired him.