A banjo player dies at 94 and, for a moment, millions of graying Americans are young and idealistic again.
Pete Seeger was a tall man, and he left a long shadow. He was born in 1919, in a nation that was born in 1776. That made him one-third as old as the United States, a span of time which suited the timelessness of his music and the eternal optimism of his character.
Wait. The analyst in me rebels at the imprecision of that last paragraph. Pete wasn’t “one-third” as old as this country. He was precisely 39.495798319 percent as old – 40 percent, if you want to round up. But Pete Seeger knew that what comes first is the poetic reality, the musical reality, the realities of the heart.
The hard work – whether it’s crunching numbers, challenging lies, telling hard truths, or marching in the streets – comes later. First the heart must be inspired toward the work by the beauty of the dream. And the beauty of the dream is the cadence of the song.
So one-third it is. And for now we’ll let “round up” mean a musical meet-up, not a mathematical maneuver. (Here’s a clip of Pete appearing on the 1946 radio show “Dinner Bell Round-Up Time” with Chill Wills.)
It hurts to lose anybody that good. It also hurts to losing a radical cultural icon, when that sort of rara avis becomes rarer with every passing year.
For some of us, especially those of us who grew up in New York and environs, the main thing about Pete was this: He was always around. His voice and banjo and guitar were always available when needed to do battle for a good cause. And they were needed a lot. His “Rainbow Quest” television show brought legendary folk musicians from the land of myth into our New York living rooms. (The Atlantic has some clips here.) Bessie Jones, Roscoe Holcomb, Rev. Gary Davis (with Donovan – and a sitar player, no less!) And all in glorious black-and-white.
Then Pete decided to clean up the Hudson River by buying a sloop and sailing it from town to town, holding concerts and rallies along the way. We idealistic high school kids pitched in when he came to Nyack, an experience which taught us two things: first, that political activism is hard work, and second, that you don’t approach Pete Seeger when he doesn’t feel like being approached.
Yes, Pete could be prickly. But his core was made up of love and generosity. You could see that in his music.
Those of us who became musicians in the late ’60s learned a lot from Pete Seeger. Some of us also had a problem with him. Young and proud, we set about using music for selfish and vain interests. We learned electric guitar and bass licks, wrote psychedelic or punky songs, studied with avant-garde jazz musicians – all noble endeavors when done in the right spirit.
Ours was not the right spirit. We were desperately trying to make musicianship feel like an inaccessible act of genius. That seemed like a better way to meet girls, or whomever we wanted to meet, and impress strangers. But there was Pete, earnestly telling the world that anybody could be a musician.
That embarrassed us, truth be told. Here we were using music to seem revolutionary, and brilliant, and strange, and there was Pete telling the entire world: anybody can do it, and everybody should. And on top of that, he was a great musician. Discovering that was like finding out that your parents had sex. It threatened to take the fun and magic out of it.
But Pete was right, of course. Music does belong to the people. It’s in our human DNA. Thank God music hasn’t become some kind of hipster priesthood. Pete Seeger inspired me to do at least one thing right: For a while I taught music to teenagers – poor kids, rich kids, kids who thought they had talent and kids who didn’t.
I hope they got something out of the experience. I know I did. Thanks, Pete.
He was a true son of the folk tradition, where music is a part of daily life, like cooking, or hunting, or handicrafts. He made it seem so wholesome, even when he was singing a left-wing anthem like “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”
Politics belongs to the people, too. That was also part of Pete Seeger’s legacy. Yes, Pete was a radical. What’s wrong with that? And yes, he was a Red for a while too. (“Small-‘c’ communist,” is how he described himself in his later years.) The politicians and pundits who would ostracize him for that are the same people who worship at the altar of Ayn Rand, the most extreme, sacrilegious and undemocratic ideology in modern American life.
As much as it pains the Randians to be reminded of it, a certain kind of socialism is as American as quilting bees. That was Pete’s kind. There’s a straight line from Tom Paine writing “Common Sense” to Pete Seeger leading a crowd in “This Land Is Your Land” (including the “banned” verse about private property). A similar line runs from the Diggers in Old England reclaiming the Commons for the people, to farmers organizing in the Midwest, and then to Pete Seeger reclaiming a river in the name of the communities that lined it.
Most of all, there were the songs. Pete wrote songs that were as folksy and sincere as he was – and yet which sometimes, somehow became hits. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” took on new meaning for me when a group of Vietnamese refugees asked me to sing it. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became a great rock ‘n roll record in the hands of the Byrds. Pete used words from the book of Ecclesiastes for that one, making him the only songwriter in history to share a Number One credit with King Solomon.
Pete built songs, too, the way the tradespeople he admired built furniture or sold clothing. He was a genius at choosing a beautiful poem and then finding a folk melody that suited it perfectly. That’s how we got “Guantánamera,” when Pete added a verse by Cuban national hero José Martí to a song that was popular there in the 1930s.
Craftsmanship is also how Pete created “I Come and Stand at Every Door.” He set a Turkish poem, which was written in the voice of a seven-year-old girl killed at Hiroshima, to a haunting minor-key melody written by an MIT graduate student. Before there was “mashup culture,” there was Pete Seeger.
It should also be noted that before there was blogging there was folk singing. That’s what Pete’s “People’s Songs” venture was all about.
A couple of years after I left New York, I found myself stranded in a little town in Mexico, way down the Baja Peninsula, many years before the big highway was built through there. I had a guitar, and I thought I had a friend with a car. But my friend had disappeared, and I was getting hungry. Some children saw the guitar case and waved for me to follow them. We climbed up a small hill on the outskirts of town. A church steeple was visible at the top.
The sun was setting red and long shadows were falling across the cobblestones. As we got closer to the church I heard music echoing through the empty streets. A chorus of children’s voices from inside was singing “Guantánamera,” with the words Pete put to it. It was enough to make a grown man cry, and I was no grown man.
Somewhere, right now, somebody is singing a Pete Seeger song. You see, that’s the thing about real folk singers: They can’t really die. They can only move on. So long, Pete. It’s been good to know you.