Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Seeger, Mr Pete
He was a peace activist and environmentalist, a civil rights campaigner and union man. He collected the songs of America's poor and poorly treated. He made their melodies popular, conserving their truths for posterity. He provided the soundtrack to the civil rights movement and countless other struggles for justice. He was Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger was born on 3 May 1919 in New York, the youngest of three sons born to Charles Louis Seeger and Constance de Clyver Edson. Music and idealism were in the blood. His father's people were religious dissenters and abolitionists who migrated from Germany to New England during the American Revolution. Charles Seeger was a Harvard educated composer, widely regarded as the father of American musicology. Constance was an accomplished concert violinist and alumna of the Paris Conservatory of Music.
Seeger attended Avon Old Farms, an elite boarding school, where he shined shoes and worked in the kitchen to meet the fees. Like his father he attended Harvard, where he founded a radical paper and joined the Young Communist League. Disillusioned by Harvard's elitist atmosphere and narrow curriculum, he eventually left for the excitement and opportunity of New York City. But New York during the Depression offered little opportunity for Seeger, who wanted to be a journalist or painter. His dishevelled appearance thwarted his attempts at securing a job in journalism; his lack of talent, his artistic ambition. A teacher looking over his portfolio casually asked Seeger what else he did. 'Well, I play the banjo,' Seeger answered. 'I've never heard you play the banjo,' the teacher responded, 'but I'd suggest you stick to that.'
He took a job at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, where he immersed himself in American folk music. But his first break came as a member of the Almanac Singers, a five-piece group that included Woody Guthrie. Their album, Talking Union, remained a staple of the labour movement for decades. The group's links to the Popular Front and initial opposition to the Second World War brought the attention of the CIA. The group disbanded in 1942.
Seeger served in the US Army during World War II, entertaining troops in the Pacific. At war's end, he helped establish People's Songs, an artistic and political alliance created to 'make a singing labour movement'. But, as Roosevelt's New Deal unravelled and the Taft-Hartley act took effect, the music stopped for People's Songs. In 1948 Seeger joined a new group, The Weavers. A series of hit singles followed beginning with Goodnight Irene. But popularity brought scrutiny and Cold War questions lingered. The Weavers were blacklisted in 1953 and Seeger was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In August 1955 he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to answer any questions about himself or others. Responding to questions on his political associations, he said:
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 …
In 1961 Pete Seeger was found guilty of contempt of Congress and sentenced to 10 years jail—a sentence overturned on appeal. Undeterred, Seeger's activism continued. In 1965 he joined the thousands who marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of civil rights. But his lasting contribution to this cause was to popularise an anthem first sung by striking tobacco workers from North Carolina. The song was We Shall Overcome. It became the soundtrack of that struggle. In 1967 he again courted controversy with Waist Deep in the Big Muddya thinly veiled protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War. At the time his banjo carried the slogan 'this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender'—an ode to, and alteration of, Woody Guthrie's 'this machine kills fascists'. In the same period Seeger helped establish an environmental group focused on cleaning up his native Hudson River. The group dedicated itself to building a sloop—the Clearwaterto raise environmental awareness. At the time many were baffled by the idea, but to this day the Clearwater is used to educate the public on environmental issues.
Seeger was a controversial figure—called 'Khrushchev's songbird' by the John Birch Society; stoned for performing with Paul Robeson near his home in upstate New York; banned from textbooks in Texas; and slow to recognise the inevitable horrors of totalitarianism. He was often criticised for being un-American, but I suspect the opposite was true. True patriots are often a country's keenest critics
Tall, wiry, austere—some would say that he lent radical politics a certain dignity, a certain resolve and a respectability borne of his New England reserve.
Pete Seeger inspired generations of artists. Bob Dylan called him a saint. Bruce Springsteen said, 'He had a sense of the musician as a historical entity, of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others' voices.' Seeger was both an artist and an archivist—a producer and preserver of song. Rufus Wainwright wrote after his death, 'To hear him was to feel the world, to meet him was to touch it.'
Peter Seeger died on 27 January this year. He was 94.