Monday, 3 March 2014

Pete Seeger ~ RIP

When Pete Seeger died recently at age 94 it obviously came as no surprise, he was 94 after all. The tributes were lengthy and well deserved, Pete Seeger was one of the truly towering figures of 20th century music.

On purely musical terms he was not especially note-worthy. His rather weedy voice and rudimentary guitar and banjo playing were not what made him important, it was his tireless work as a folklorist, civil rights leader and activist.

Born in Manhattan in 1919 of a middle-class family, his parents Charles and Constance were respected composers, musicologists and educators. Charles was also a pacifist who lost his job at University of California Berkley for his opposition to World War One, Pete's uncle Alan Seeger, a noted poet, died in that war. During the Roosevelt administration Charles got a job as an ethno-musicologist (a new discipline he helped pioneer) with the WPA as would John and Alan Lomax. Charles and Constance would divorce in 1932 and Charles would marry Ruth Crawford, a respected composer, and they would have four children, all of whom would become folk singers in their own lights.


In spite of this background young Pete did not immediately take to music as a career, although he did learn how to play guitar, banjo, ukulele, and harmonica, he instead trained as a journalist and painter. By 1938 however he had dropped out of college as he was spending too much time on political activities. He had become a supporter of left-wing causes; civil-rights, anti-war, pro-union, anti-facist, anti-racist and a supporter of the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He had also become a friend to left-wing folk singers like Woody Guthrie, Cisco Huston, Josh White, Harry McClintock and Leadbelly. Throughout the 1930's and 40's Seeger would play many rallies and benefits for various causes and in 1936 he joined the Communist Party. He would leave the party in the aftermath of World War Two (during which he enlisted in the Navy and spent the war entertaining the troops) differing over the party's slavish devotion to Stalin. In spite of this falling out, during the 1950's McCarthy Red Scare Seeger would steadfastly refuse to denounce his old comrades when called up to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955. His refusal to answer HUAC's questions earned him ten one year jail sentences for contempt of congress. After a long court battle this sentence was overturned on appeal in 1962, during this time his movements were greatly restricted and his passport was revoked. Worse he found himself largely banned from the radio and TV and had many shows cancelled.


By this time he had become a well known musical figure. He formed the Almanac Singers in 1941 with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell and a revolving cast that would include the likes of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Josh White. By 1950 the Almanacs had evolved into The Weavers including Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The Weavers would become the first successful folk group scoring several major hits with songs like "Goodnight Irene" (a cover of a Leadbelly song), "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" (by Guthrie), "Sixteen Tons" (by Merle Travis), "On Top Of Old Smokey", "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", "Turn, Turn, Turn" (later covered by The Byrds), "Kumbaya" and "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)", a cover of a South African song by Solomon Linda later redone as a doo-wop song by The Tokens. Their "Live At Carnegie Hall" album was one of the biggest sellers of the 1950's. However the bans and blacklists as a result of HUAC effectively made it impossible to continue and Seeger left the group. The Weavers would struggle on for some time with various replacements but their place on the charts would be taken by the non-controversial Kingston Trio.


In the late 1950's and early sixties the blacklisted Seeger made ends meet as a music teacher and writing a column for for "Sing Out!" magazine. But his lifeline came when Folkways Records signed him to a contract by which would record as many as five albums a year. Even with no radio airplay he would play the college and coffee house circuit as the early 60's folk revival led to a revival. Seeger would play a prominent role in the 60's folk scene and would champion such younger singers as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary and Ramblin Jack Elliot as well as lesser known figures like The Hillmen (featuring future Byrd Chris Hillmen) and The Town Criers with future Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin. Equally important were older singers now being rediscovered such as Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Skip James, Merle Travis, Roscoe Holcombe, Reverend Gary Davis, Cousin Emmy, Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers.


To promote folk music he started a new magazine, "Broadside" and hosted a syndicated TV show called "Rainbow Quest" which had most of the above singers as guests as well as younger singers like Johnny and June Cash, Donovan, Buffy St Marie, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins. Many of these shows are now available on DVD. He had earlier made a short documentary with Alan Lomax in 1947 which included Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and Texas Gladden.


Pete Seeger never gave up his commitment to civil rights and the anti-war movement. He would continue to play rallies and protest marches, sometimes getting arrested well into his 80's. He would popularize the old black hymn "We Shall Overcome" as a civil rights anthem. In 1967 he was famously banned from TV for playing the anti-war song "Waist Deep In Big Muddy" on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Comedy Hour". After wide protest the network allowed him back on the show a year later. By the 1980's he would add the environment, anti-apartheid and farm-relief to his causes and he in fact played a Farm Aid benefit just a few months before his death joined onstage by Neil Young and Willie Nelson. Earlier in the year he had played at Occupy Wall street rallies. By that time he had recorded at least fifty albums both solo and with The Weavers.


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