PETE SEEGER, 1919 – 2014: THE CULTURAL WARRIOR IN RETROSPECT
Obituary by John Pietaro
Photo: Pete Seeger performing with the Ray Korona Band (John Pietaro, percussion, left), Martin Luther King Jr Labor Center, NYC, Nov 1999
As a child growing up in the later 1960s, aware of the tumult in the streets as well as the reactionary responses to this at home in blue-collar Brooklyn, the voice of Pete Seeger mysteriously rang through. I don’t quite know how or why, but I cannot recall a time when Pete’s warm vibrato-heavy split-tenor wasn’t there. He was still a victim of the Blacklist at that time and didn’t get back on television until ’68, but I seemed to know this voice from my earliest memory. There wasn’t any interest in folk songs in my parents’ home, where the sounds of Sinatra and easy listening WPAT radio was as much music as one could expect to hear. And no, my Republican father, hurling loud pejoratives to the TV whenever long-haired young protesters were seen on Eyewitness News, wouldn’t have frequented radical bookstores to pick up any Seeger records. And surely no, the family never attended a rally. But somehow this sound was implanted and I always associated Pete’s voice with a gentleness that was visceral.
As I grew my own musical journey took me—for the most part—in a different direction, but the topical folk music stayed in my heart and my politics moved boldly Leftward. The issues ingrained in protest song brought it all back for me even as I delved deeper and deeper into radical jazz and new music. The relevance in Pete’s songs and the causes he championed stood out profoundly. As a percussionist and cultural activist (and sometime banjo player), bridging revolutionary struggle to the arts, I had the opportunity to share the stage with Pete a number of times. Surely the first stands out as a moment of great pride, November of 1999, playing drums with the Ray Korona Band as it accompanied Pete for a NYC concert presentation he dubbed ‘Music in the History of Struggle’, the occasion of his 80th birthday. Later, my association grew further when, from 2005 through 2010, I lived in Beacon NY where Pete has lived nearby since the late 1940s. I came to see some of his intensity close-up and also some of his rarely discussed temper and hard-core traditionalism; he offered little patience to this non-traditionalist who included improvisation and daring arrangements of the older topical songs! Though it’s hard to think back to being chewed out by this larger-than-life figure, Pete’s mission was on over-drive even while he was in his 90s. The music he modeled for us all was in his every fiber…
Pete was so much to so many: an ideal, a vision, an expectation. Transference of our own hopes, most certainly. The product of a Communist composer father and a concert violinist mother, Pete Seeger was introduced to the 5-string banjo as a teenager during the 1930s and came to bring it to international prominence. He introduced its application as a fiercely American instrument, one derived from African origins and developed by the sweat and blood of the oppressed. In his wake, the banjo – or at least his banjo – became a symbol of the power of song and an icon of more than one "folk revival".
During the depth of the Great Depression, Seeger took to collecting folk songs with his father, Charles Lewis Seeger, a member of the Composers Collective of New York who sought the dissolution of the Modernist, experimental music collective once he became convinced of the revolutionary potential of traditional song. In the 1930s, Daily Worker arts columnist Mike Gold wrote of the need for “a Communist Joe Hill”, to offer musical organizing on the front lines: a few years later Woody Guthrie came to prominence in the political left. Guthrie, a firestorm of creative energy and radical philosophy was introduced, in 1940, to a young Pete Seeger by folk archivist Alan Lomax and the two became inseparable. Once Woody had taken up Pete’s offer to join him in the Almanac Singers, they wrote and performed music together and Seeger, through musical and political osmosis, rapidly morphed into a new kind of cultural force.
Early on Pete developed a strong kinship with the political left and quickly became a first-call performing artist for May Day parades in New York City and radical labor unions around the country. Seeger became a prominent part of progressive cultural organizations, anti-fascist collectives and American Labor Party rallies throughout the 1940s and into the ‘50s, even as the specter of HUAC haunted his musical groups, the Almanacs and then the Weavers, as well as his organization, People’s Songs. By 1961, he too would be subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee which riddled him with questions not only about his “patriotism” but that of many he’d been associated with. To his credit, Seeger refused to name names, but he did offer to sing for the HUAC inquisitors. They refused his offer and called it contempt of Congress.
A victim of the same tenacious Blacklist that had torn apart Hollywood and the CIO in the post-war period, Pete sang for college students and children, when no one else cared to listen ... or, rather, when no one else could hear. And when he could not sing for them, he sang for the trees and forest life about him. Seeger was hell-bent on allowing music to touch deep, whether as a weapon or as a healing force. Uniquely, he almost always achieved both in tandem.
While it is true that Pete became a beloved figure with the passage of time--one given Kennedy Center honors by the 1990s and celebrated at Madison Square Garden a few years ago--his radical heart remained integral to his spirit. Performing for President Obama’s inaugural celebration, Pete sang Woody’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land” along with Bruce Springsteen and happily led the crowd on some of Guthrie’s lesser-known, revolutionary verses including the one about that damned symbol of the high wall tagged “Private Property”. In his lifetime, Pete stood onstage with Paul Robeson during "The Peekskill Riot" and marched with Dr. King through the bloodiest of Civil Rights battles. He was a loud opponent of the Vietnam War and a prime voice of the environmental movement. In more recent years, Seeger could be found, during the entire sickening debacle of the Bush administration as an active part of protest actions, and stood most every week at a peace vigil in New York’s Hudson Valley, through broiling heat and frozen winds.
Pete's songs are truly the story of 'the folk', and so they tell the people's story. Long before Howard Zinn wrote his 'A People's History of the United States', Pete Seeger sang it. He stood as the very model of the cultural worker. Taking the distant advice of Joe Hill, he recognized long ago that more can be said in one topical song than in a hundred pamphlets. But, even in silence, Pete's philosophy can be understood by anyone who recalls what he long ago adorned on his banjo head: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender'.
The cultural warrior shall not be forgotten for his voice remains in us all…