(Pete Seeger, from hrcr.org)
If there were a community-building hall of fame, Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94, would be in it. Seeger, with a very average voice but a genuine way with people, began performing around 1940 with the Almanac Singers which also included Woody Guthrie. Even as a solo act, his concerts were never solo performances, but were built around teaching songs to the audience so they could be done together. The songs he brought--children's songs, work songs, early American songs, South American songs--had simple melodies and often powerful messages. Anyone could sing, he preached, and in fact everyone should sing. If you weren't hitting the same notes as your neighbor, well, that was harmony.
Seeger is also valued because he displayed public passion for things that matter, the things which enable us humans to live with each other: a clean environment, justice for the downtrodden, not taking ourselves too seriously. He lived for a long time in upstate New York, maintaining a connection to place that included a decades-long crusade to clean up the Hudson River. In his younger days he called himself a Communist, which in retrospect appears naive and silly. But he paid a disproportionate price for exercising his freedom of speech: he was barred from television and many public appearances for many years during the 1950s and early 1960s. It's also clear in retrospect that McCarthyist repression was far more of danger to America than Seeger-the-Communist was. He got some payback in 1994 when he was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton.
Much of Seeger's oeuvre is still available on Folkways Records. A good introduction to Seeger's music is "The Essential Pete Seeger" (Vanguard), which has 23 songs covering the period 1950-1974. Vanguard also has several collections by the Weavers, a quartet which featured Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hillerman. (Their 1980 reunion concert is depicted in the movie "Wasn't That a Time?") Some excellent contemporary versions of songs associated with Seeger are included in Bruce Springsteen's tribute "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" (Sony, 2006). The book How Can I Keep from Singing? by David King Dunaway (Villard/Random House, revised edition, 2008) thoroughly covers Seeger's life and career.
Here's a vivid passage from Dunaway (p. 263 to be exact) which represents Seeger at his best.
[In 1962 Seeger sang to five hundred schoolchildren at P.S. 84 in New York City.] Reaching these squirmy kids was a challenge; their music teacher had barely managed to finish "America the Beautiful" without being booed off stage.
"Seeger walked down the aisle," journalist Peter Lyon wrote, "wearing a fuzzy sweater, a shirt of firehouse red, rough worsted trousers and heavy thick-soled shoes." Until he started playing, he looked like a gaudy scarecrow: "But when he unlimbered his banjo and gave the children a warm, inclusive smile, something magical happened in the room. He sang:
Lou, Lou, skip to my Lou...
"At the second line, fifty voices were singing with him. At the third, a hundred had joined in, and scandalized teachers were shushing all over the hall. To no avail: Seeger and the children understood each other perfectly.... This routine miracle achieved, Seeger walked back up the aisle, submitted to an interview by three small shrewd reporters for the school paper, signed several autographs, rescued his instrument from a group of eager experimenters and made his way to the street."SEE ALSO
Jon Pareles, "Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94," New York Times, 29 January 2014, A20 [http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/arts/music/pete-seeger-songwriter-and-champion-of-folk-music-dies-at-94.html?_r=0]
Appleseed Recordings Pete Seeger site: http://www.peteseegermusic.com, text dated from 2007 or '08
- The Weavers singing "Tzena Tzena Tzena" in 1951, www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ5v651bQ1o
- "Union Maid," undated but looks like it's from the 1950s, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kz40LZHO0lI
- "Hard Travelin'" in 1966, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZKPyGXwuY4
- "This Land is Your Land" (with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Bruce Springsteen) at Obama inaugural: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnvCPQqQWds