I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.|
Last Monday, January 27, the world lost the indomitable Pete Seeger, one of the forefathers of twentieth century folk and protest music. He was 94, and vital until his last days. According to his grandson, Pete was chopping wood just ten days before his death.
Response and reaction to Pete’s death quickly poured in. Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger's passing, "I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger", before performing "We Shall Overcome" while on tour in South Africa.
President Barack Obama called him "America's tuning fork" who believed in "the power of song" to bring social change. "Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers' rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete's family and all those who loved him."
Pete Seeger was a prolific songwriter who either wrote, co-wrote or adapted many of the anthems of the ‘60s, like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn! and We Shall Overcome.
He came by his musical talent and activism organically, as the son of a Harvard-trained composer and concert violinist.
His father was hired to establish the music department at the University of California, Berkely in 1912 but was forced to resign in 1918 because of his outspoken pacifism during World War 1. Pete’s mother was trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music as a concert violinist and later became a teacher at the famed Julliard School.
The Early Years
In 1938 Pete took a job in Washington, D.C., assisting Alan Lomax, a friend of his father's, at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Pete’s job was to help Lomax sift through commercial "race" and "hillbilly" music and select recordings that best represented American folk music. Lomax also encouraged his folk singing vocation, and Pete was soon appearing as a regular performer on the weekly Columbia Broadcasting show Back Where I Come From (1940–41) alongside of Josh White, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie (whom he had first met at Will Geer's Grapes of Wrath benefit concert for migrant workers on March 3, 1940).
In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Pete Seeger performed as a member of The Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. The Almanacs cut several albums of 78s: Songs for John Doe (released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea chanteys and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, "It wouldn't be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil," that were sharply critical of Roosevelt's unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940).
In 1950, the Almanacs were reconstituted as The Weavers, named after the title of an 1892 play about a workers' strike (which contained the lines, "We'll stand it no more, come what may!"). Besides Pete Seeger, members of the Weavers included charter Almanac member Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman; later Frank Hamilton, Erik Darling and Bernie Krause serially took Pete’s place.
The Weavers' performing career was abruptly derailed in 1953 at the peak of their popularity when blacklisting prompted radio stations to refuse to play their records and all their bookings were canceled. They briefly returned to the stage at a sold-out reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and in a subsequent reunion tour.
In the documentary film Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007), Pete states that he resigned from the Weavers when the three other band members agreed to perform a jingle for a cigarette commercial.
We can’t talk about Pete Seeger without referencing the McCarthy witch trials. On August 18, 1955, Pete was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, he refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Pete Seeger's refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.
By the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, Pete was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival centered in Greenwich Village, as a longtime columnist in Sing Out!, and as a founder of the topical Broadside magazine. To describe the new crop of politically committed folk singers, he coined the phrase "Woody's children", alluding to his associate and traveling companion, Woody Guthrie, who by this time had become a legendary figure. This urban folk-revival movement, a continuation of the activist tradition of the 1930s and 1940s, used adaptations of traditional tunes and lyrics to effect social change.
The long television blacklist of Seeger began to end in the mid-1960s, when he hosted a regionally broadcast, educational, folk-music television show, Rainbow Quest. Among his guests were Johnny Cash, June Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Donovan, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Mamou Cajun Band, 39 hour-long programs were recorded in 1965 and 1966, produced by Seeger and his wife Toshi, with Sholom Rubinstein. The Smothers Brothers ended Seeger's national blacklisting by broadcasting him singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on their CBS variety show on February 25, 1968, after his similar performance in September 1967 was censored by CBS.
Pete Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919 and died there 94 years later, having come full circle. Toshi, his beloved wife of more than 70 years, preceded Pete in death just six months ago.
Throughout his life, Pete continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism, and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals.
Inspired by Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was labeled "This machine kills fascists," Pete Seeger's banjo was emblazoned with the motto "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender."
We close with Pete’s view of God: “According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God."
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