Saturday, 1 February 2014

PETE SEEGER, 1919-2014

PETE SEEGER, 1919-2014

By Phil Shannon

Pete Seeger, who passed away in January this year, discovered both socialism and banjo in the 1930s.  The result, for folk music and politics, was highly beneficial.  Not everyone welcomed the development, however.  Harvard’s most famous dropout would become the most-picketed, blacklisted music entertainer in American history as Seeger united in virulent enmity the militarists, anti-communists, racists and union-busters of the American right.

War veterans, the Ku Klux Klan, local police, amateur Red-hunters and the professional anti-communists of Hoover’s FBI and Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee variously rained stones at Seeger’s head, cancelled his bookings and kept him off TV and radio.  Denigrated as “Moscow’s trained canary”, Seeger fell back on grass-roots touring, singing at small venues where a beleagered American left nurtured renewal during the Cold War.

Always distrustful of commercial success, however, Seeger revelled in this environment as a performer with an extraordinary ability, through simple tunes, clear diction and magical banjo, to work a crowd through song, laughter and feeling.  He served lovely appetisers through traditional folk songs (Froggie Went a Courtin’), invigorated labour ballads and ditties (Which Side Are You On; Little Boxes), recast the Civil War Union song (Redwing) into a feminist class war union song (Union Maid), made the exotic African freedom song (Wimoweh) into a domestic standard, and took black spirituals like We Shall Overcome to goosebump-worthy heights at mass singings. 

Seeger’s original compositions also found a subversive measure of popular success.  Where Have All The Flowers Gone was inspired by a novel by Soviet author, Mikhail Sholokov.  If I Had A Hammer, which now serves as an all-purpose song for freedom and justice, was first written for eleven US Communist Party leaders facing jail under anti-communist legislation.  Waist Deep In The Big Muddy undermined the Vietnam War consensus by a man who found it impossible to hate (except in extremis, for which the war certainly qualified, doubly so because of Seeger’s Asian-American family).

Seeger’s life on the left also had its own internal challenges.  Rapid repertoire obsolescence afflicted Private Seeger’s first group (the Almanacs, with Woody Guthrie) as they juggled anti-war with anti-Nazi feelings and traded Talkin’ Union for wartime class unity).  Seeger’s sense of humour, and artistic independence, also kept at bay the cultural correct-liners in the US Communist Party who wanted to tamper with Seeger’s lyrics (Seeger was an arms-length member from 1941 to 1950), whilst Seeger also had to fend off some doctrinaire Marxist criticism of the emergent environmental movement.

Seeger’s major musical crisis (his distress at his protégé, Bob Dylan, going electric with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival) also resolved itself courtesy of Seeger’s 1980s tours with Arlo Guthrie’s amplified band.

It took arthritis, not rightwing reactionaries, to still Seeger’s banjo towards the end but whilst the left may have lost its share of political battles, it has wound up with the best songs because, as was inscribed on Pete Seeger’s banjo, ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’.

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