To lose both Pete Seeger and Shulamit Aloni in the same week: the world seems an especially cold and cruel place. Today, Pete Seeger died (NYT obituary and Performing Songwriter interview) at the age of 94. He was the Iron Man of American music. He outlasted almost all his contemporaries in longevity and his musical impact will certainly live into many future generations. Here is a tribute I wrote for his 90th birthday. Pete’s mind and creative spirit were incredibly fertile ground. He not only wrote some of the most memorable music and lyrics in the Americana songbook, he also developed extraordinary ideas like the Hudson River sloop, Clearwater, a project that arrived at the dawn of the age of environmentalism. Its mission was to take one of the dirtiest waterways in America, restore it to its pristine former condition, and educate the community about how to do it.
Though I came of age after the McCarthy era, Pete was, to progressives like my father, a hero because he resisted the anti-Communist witch hunt. He refused to name names at the hearings. He refused to buckle. And he suffered for it through the Blacklist when he couldn’t earn a living, after being part of one of the most popular acts in America. His steadfastness was another reason everyone in my social circle adored Pete.
Pete Seeger shaped my musical and political consciousness. He was more than a mentor, almost a father figure. I first heard him sing when I was around 12 or 13 years old. My father, who was born in his parent’s house in 1925 in Haverstraw and shared Pete’s almost mystical devotion to the Hudson River Valley, took me hear him sing at a local high school. The opening act was the African drummer, Babatunde Olatunji. This was around 1964 and African drums in the American context were totally “out there.” But that was Pete. He wanted you to hear new sounds, new ideas. He wanted to challenge you to go farther and do more.
I’ve heard Pete sing more times than any other performer (and I’ve heard a lot of concerts!). His songs are almost inscribed in my heart. I’ve devoted a number of posts to Pete as well, and deservedly so. One of the more memorable concerts was the summer 1968 Clearwater Festival featuring Pete, Richie Havens (pre-Woodstock), and Don McLean (just before he broke big with American Pie, when he was still Pete’s musical protegé). I was attending Camp Ramah in Nyack and we just walked down from the mountain into town to hear Pete. It was glorious.
The next summer I spent a week crewing on the Clearwater. There I met a vibrant young guitar player who impressed with me with musical skills and kind demeanor, just like Pete. The young man just loved to play. That was Mark Klempner, someone I wouldn’t have further contact with till one day when I came across him about seven or eight years ago in the midst of writing this blog. Mark had been inspired to become a professional musician by Pete’s example. Till Mark burned out from the session life and changed careers to become a writer. That’s how he came to write the wonderful Holocaust book, The Heart Has Reasons.
Back on the River, I remember we sailed from one river community to another inviting neighbors to learn about their beautiful river and how to save it from the devastating pollution from which it suffered. Keep in mind that in those days, no one had envisioned an environmental movement. No one, had devised a lawsuit that would take three decades to force General Electric to clear up the massive PCB spill that polluted the river so egregiously. Pete set all that in motion.
He didn’t do it with muscle or argument. He did it with suasion. He persuaded you to think differently. He persuaded you that you were part of a community and that together you had power you could never have alone.
Nor should we forget that amazing banjo with the immortal words carved around the outer edge: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger had taken Woody Guthrie’s original World War II-era concept, “This machine kills fascists,” and transformed it into a timeless statement of tolerance and humanity.
Some other memorable Pete Seeger performances: hearing him sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, as a big slap in the face to Lyndon Johnson on the Smother Brothers Show in 1968, was one of those moments you just never forget. In 1971, I attended the March on Washington where 1-million people sang We Shall Overcome with fingers raised in a “V” sign as tear gas wafted nearby. Goosebumps. Nixon was watching a Redskins game inside the White House.
The only aspect of Pete’s career for which I’m critical is that in several instances he didn’t acknowledge or pay the original songwriters who wrote music he made popular with the Weavers. Together with Gordon Jenkins, they made Tzena a number one hit in America. But Jenkins refused to acknowledge that Issachar Miron, the Israeli-American songwriter, wrote that song. In a landmark copyright case, Miron won back the musical rights Jenkins had stolen.
Another ironic aspect of this song is the complete obliviousness with which American folk singers sang about Israel’s great victory in 1948. There is only joy and celebration at the birth of a new nation in the Weavers performance featured above. No awareness of the suffering of the Palestinians driven from homes and land. It’s hard to blame musicians in 1952 for not anticipating the moral reversal that would come gradually around this issue (BDS, anyone?). But it does chart the transformation of Israel’s birth in the minds of American progressives from a blessing to something far more complicated. Though I haven’t read the post for years, you can probably chart some of the changes in my own thinking on the subject, since I don’t even recall the original post mentioned Nakba at all.
Similarly, when the Weavers produced the gorgeous Wimoweh, they appropriated a song first written as The Lion, by Solomon Linda, decades earlier. Though Seeger certainly adapted the song and changed it significantly (that, after all is what the folk tradition does), not until much later did he acknowledge his debt to Linda, who was long gone by then. Unfortunately, America is rife with cultural appropriation. Look what white performers did to the Blues. It has taken decades and some performers still linger unjustly in obscurity.
Pete is gone. We will never see his like again. And we will be the poorer for it. But we will always have his music and his example before us. To hear one of Pete’s most gorgeous, joyful, and less well-known melodies, give a listen to Living in the Country.