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Understanding Pete Seeger's Legacy

I write this in July 2014 as I prepare to make my first trip to the Newport Folk Festival, where I have been invited to perform as part of a tribute to Pete Seeger. I was mowing the lawn and thinking a lot about Pete, and what he meant to me. I am not planning to say much on stage about him, but will probably play one of his songs. So I wrote this as a way of channeling my feelings. This pic is my wife and infant son as we all watched Pete from backstage at Merlefest in Wilkesboro NC when we performed there in 2006.

Watching Pete

Pete Seeger was a towering figure in American music, and though his music was mostly gentle and thoughtful, his flame burned hot, more like a punk-rock musician. I have been aware of Pete Seeger for my entire musical life, and now that he has passed I am just beginning to understand his influence over me. In the tumultuous time of my teenage years when I first began to play music and devour whatever I could from the huge pile of music I could find to listen to, Pete was one of the names that whizzed past my windshield, and the sound of his voice and banjo were put in my mental catalog along with everything else. My mother had a few dozen folk records, and I am pretty sure there was a Pete Seeger cut or two on one of the "Hootenanny" compilations we had in our house. I heard people singing at parties and campfires, and I had a bit of an idea who "roots" artists like Flatt & Scruggs, the Carter Family and Bill Monroe were, and had listened to some of their music. I also listened to country radio as a young teen (on WDON Radio in Laurel, Md, with DJ "Tomcat" Reader) and knew who George Jones, Hank Williams, Buck Owens Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and other country singers of the day were, as well as pop artists that everyone knew about.

I was too young to really ride the wave of folk-revival music (like the Kingston Trio and other pop-folk groups) and no one in my family was involved or interested. There was nothing about Pete Seeger at that time that really attracted my musical attention– though I did see a couple long-neck Pete Seeger banjos in high school and wondered what the heck they were. After an initial period of playing popular songs at parties, I gradually discovered more acoustic artists like Paul Simon or Gordon Lightfoot whose music made it to me through the din of pop & rock music. I discovered old time and bluegrass music, as well as American guitar fingerpicking and flatpicking at about the age of 17, and started going to the first bluegrass festivals in Maryland and Virginia around 1972. I basically dove headfirst into a vast trove of American music, and have never looked back. Pete Seeger's voice, songs and banjo were not really "on my radar" back then in my formative years, and the little money I used to buy records never went to a Pete Seeger record. I saw his banjo book around, and noticed people playing his type of banjos, and I knew he had been kicked off the Smothers Brothers TV show for being politically radical. That happened when I was about 14, and was just beginning to play guitar. I don't think you could have circulated with a guitar in 1968 without being somewhat aware of Pete Seeger, and anyone playing guitar at that time probably knew that he had written iconic songs like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "If I Had A Hammer," and "Turn Turn Turn." I learned those, but not from Seeger himself, and I also learned hundreds of other songs.

Pete's battles with Congress, and his blacklisting and testimony when confronted for being a communist all happened when I was in diapers, and I knew nothing of his long history, struggles, and deep involvement with American music. His work with the Almanac Singers and The Weavers happened before I was born. That music sounded corny to me in the late 60's, though all of us learned "Goodnight Irene" and "Midnight Special" because they were prominent songs of that time that everyone seemed to know. I had no idea until very recently just how dramatic his 1955 appearance was before the House Committee On Un-American Activities, and I am stunned by the eloquence of his testimony, and the sharp arguments he had the with total jerks who hauled him in for questioning as a "radical terrorist" folksinger during the zenith of the age of McCarthyism. The complete transcript can be found online. (If they take this link down I can send you a text file of it.) At age 36 he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for contempt of Congress, though he never served any jail time it was many years before his legal troubles ended. This photo was taken that day as he entered the courtroom.

seeger quote

My personal musical journey has always involved learning to play serious instrumental music as well as singing and writing songs, and the artists who beckoned me were mostly guitar heroes like Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Leo Kottke, and John Fahey, along with my songwriter heroes like John Prine, Bob Dylan, Lightfoot, Eric Andersen and others I found along the way. I ingested as much as I could of American guitar music, which included bluegrass, blues and even classical guitar recordings, but not Pete Seeger. I knew he was a genius at getting people to sing along, but I wasn't really interested in that kind of thing. I do remember being a little surprised when my guitar hero Leo Kottke recorded a Pete Seeger 12-string guitar instrumental in the early 1970's called "Living in the Country" because I never thought of Pete as a guy who played instrumentals. I didn't find out until 40 years later that Pete had a lot to do with introducing the 12-string guitar to mainstream America, and that without his efforts, it's doubtful any of us would play one.

It is only now, decades later, as I am re-educating myself about the roots of American roots music, trying to deconstruct myself and understand why I spent my life playing music, that I am coming to understand how big Pete Seeger's inflluence has been over my own music and American music in general. Pete was an artist, but he was even more of a cheerleader, facilitator, communicator and activist. Without Pete Seeger we probably would not have any idea who Woody Guthrie, Molly Jackson, Ola Belle Reed, or Leadbelly were. With one foot in the Library of Congress, his family connections in music education and folklore, and a deep, abiding love of unschooled American music, Pete did a lot of work in the basement of the house of American folk music.

I read in the Alan Lomax biography a story of how Lomax was given huge numbers of 78 records by a record company that was planning to incinerate them very soon, and he and Seeger pulled several all-nighters, listening and screening thousands of records as fast as they could, trying to save as many as possible of what they were able to hastily determine as "the good ones." This sounds fictional, or like a scene from a Disney movie, but apparently it happened in 1939, when Seeger was 20 years old and Lomax was only 24! Pete and Alan made split-second, personal decisions that affect the existence of recordings that we think of as part of our heritage. What did they throw away? Has it ever been found anywhere else? Back then a 78 or acetate was often a unique thing, made at a recording session, and was not easily copied or archived.

It's also difficult to understand that Seeger's passion for a good song caused him to find and propagate songs that we now take for granted, like "We Shall Overcome," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimiweh)," or "How Can I Keep From Singing." But Pete was more than just a guy who loved a good song. He mantained a life-long belief in the sacredness of what he saw as "the people's music," in the beauty and power of humble "unschooled" music, and in the capacity of that music to change lives. This is not a small thing. As a lifelong musician, I confess to struggling to remind myself that music can be a force of change, as I slog through various gigs where I am sometimes ignored and seemingly powerless. When I talk with my musician friends, we all know that feeling of having our music bouncing off people like rubber bullets, seemingly unable to reach certain audiences. It's kind of staggering to imagine doing all 6000 gigs I have done with a Pete Seeger-like focus on the over-reaching sacred power of American folk music.

It may be beyond the scope of this essay, but the impact of Pete Seeger's father on our musical world is also something I am just beginning to understand. Charles Seeger was for a time the head of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, and together with his wife Ruth Crawford Seeger, John, Alan and Bess Lomax and a few other people, they actually made a significant effort to organize and propagate a body of what they saw as typical and excellent American folk music. They decided, probably correctly, that American children were being taught too much European music, and they wanted to teach people, and especially school children, some genuine American music. Much of what we think of as "American folk songs," such as "Shenandoah," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," "Home on the Range," "Clementine" and those songs we have all seen in every folk song book and every instructional video– for the most part these are not songs that survived "in the wild," being magically passed on to each generation like good folk music is supposed to.

In essence, most of that we think of as American folk songs were "artificially inseminated" into our culture, largely by highly-motivated and influential folklorists, with Charles and Ruth Seeger at the helm of the ship. They put these songs into books and magazines, made recordings and shared them, and the songs swirled into the air and went everywhere when 60's folk artists performed and recorded them. (You could argue that the insemination experiment failed, because children today don't know these songs, since no one is singing them, but it's not even clear that children are learning nursery rhymes anymore.) Seeger's step-mother was the most "literate" of the crew, and apparently she used her classical piano, composing and and ear-training skills to personally transcribe the words and music to hundreds of folk songs. She created the lead sheets we see in all the books with the melodies and lyrics, and reportedly would listen to an old blues 78 over and over and over trying to decipher the lyrics or capture a slur or melodic phrase the best way she could. Imagining those scenes also reminds me of corny movie scenes, but apparently she spent long hours trying to decipher obscure blues lyrics.

All the mothers in America were not singing "Hush Little Baby" to their children at bedtime in the 1930's, but when the Lomax/Seeger cartel found songs like that, they put them in their folk song books. It says right in the intro to my copy of the 1906 "Cowboy Songs" book by John Lomax that he got "Home on the Range" from a Negro cook in Texas, and decided it was an epic and important song. If you know that song, it's because of the Lomaxes and Seegers, not by some mysterious folk-song transmission method. Pete Seeger grew up surrounded by American folk music because his parents were scholars, librarians and collectors of it, and Pete absorbed the music, along with an unshakable belief that it was good, sacred and nearly all-powerful.

It's quite daunting to contemplate Pete Seeger's deep conviction that singing songs could make people change their racial prejudices, or perhaps make them more loving, tolerant and accepting of other people. In today's climate of apathy and indifference, Seeger's passion and commitment to his ideals shine like a lighthouse, and it is nearly impossible to imagine a new, young Pete Seeger emerging in today's music world. What fueled Pete's lifelong passion for folk music, and where can you go and get some of that fuel if you are running low?

Pete really did not have significant music skills, and his voice and instrument playing ability were not extraordinary. But his powers of leadership and communication were staggering. It could be argued that he pioneered the idea of "punk" music, where attitude is all-important, and skills are not the central thing, like they are in classical music. It's almost amusing to envision early Pete Seeger as "early punk music," but it makes some sense. You could criticize his singing or banjo playing, but his energy and his fervent beliefs in the power of music are unassailable.

We all owe Pete Seeger a huge debt, and and should all lift a glass and perhaps sing a few folk songs in honor of his life's work, and tireless devotion to "the people's music." We can only hope that someone else will appear to lead us on and try to fill his immense shoes, armed with his kind of intensity, energy, humility and conviction.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the life of modern troubadours... Thank you if you made it this far, and please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics. 

Chordally yours,

HARVEY REID

 ©2014

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