A beloved American, Pete Seeger, is no longer with us and I thought I would devote my first post of 2014 to this great American. He embodied what it was to be a true American and as a Harvard dropout, a onetime communist (with a small ‘c’ he liked to add) and a Christian (with a capital ‘C’), his songs symbolized the American conscience and the anti-capitalism movement of the Vietnam war era. His music embraced the ideals and spirit of post-WWII America and many people say he sparked the Folk Music Revival which reached its culmination in the 1960’s. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land” became demonstration songs which inspired the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 60’s.
He wrote his song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” in 1955 after reading a novel by Mikhail Sholokhov entitled And Quiet Flows The Don (1934) which included the words to a traditional Cossacks folk song “Tovchu, tovchu mak”. He was inspired by these words at a time when the USA was living in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and was beginning to become involved in conflicts all over the world spreading its hegemony. As a communist (with a little ‘c’ he liked to say), he was very outspoken and used the 1st amendment of the US constitution assuring “Freedom of Speech” a pass card to make his voice heard. He inspired not only engaged singers (Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Peter (Yarrow), Paul (Stookey), and Mary (Travers) to name just a few) but also social activists all around the world. In 2010 Britain’s current affairs and politics tabloid New Statesman listed it as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” of all time. Here he is in Germany singing it:
In the following video clip taken from a tribute concert organized for Harold Leventhal a great folk music manager (he was instrumental in getting Joan Baez’s and Woody Guthrie’s music to the public), Pete Seeger joins the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in their rendition of his signature song. The late Mary Travers expresses how important this song had become for the American psyche crossing all generations and unifying them in a common spirit of social equality.
In “The Hammer Song” which he wrote more 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays of the Weavers, he laid out his road map for social activism and the progressive political movement in the world.
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land/ I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.
Popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s, the song expresses more than any other the heart of Seeger: his musicality, his activism, his optimism and his lifelong belief that songs could and should be used to build a sense of community to make the world a better place. He used to say: “I’d really rather put songs on people’s lips than in their ears,”
Seeger’s past was filled with chance encounters which shaped the singer/activist he was to become. An brilliant student, he half-heartedly enrolled at Harvard University to please his parents but later dropped out in 1938 after discovering “folk” music at an Appalachian song and dance festival in Asheville, N.C., with his father. It was a revelation. He discovered “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner, who was “picking a banjo and singing old ballads and having so much fun,” he would later reminisce. The first string instrument he laid hands on was an old-fashioned five-string banjo. In an interview he explained what attracted him to this down home “hillbilly” fiddle: “I liked the rhythms and I liked the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers.” And more than anything he liked the words. “Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs, the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them,” Seeger said. “They sang of heroes, outlaws, murderers, fools. They weren’t afraid of being tragic instead of just sentimental…. Above all, they seemed frank, straightforward, honest.” Later on March 3, 1940 he would meet Woody Guthrie, a singer/activist who was defending the rights of the migrant workers in California after reading about them in John Steinbeck’s novel (published in 1039) “The Grapes of Wrath”. Many music historians trace the roots of the American folk song revival back to that chance meeting.
Because of his love for social causes, Seeger edited and adapted songs “from half-remembered hymns and renewable folk tunes, Bible verses and poets’ words, traditional songs that need a little tinkering.” Pete was one of the few who divulged his sources so willingly and honestly probably with the desire to give more credence and depth to the songs he was singing. He founded the folk quartet The Weavers in November 1948 with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. They sang mostly traditional American folk songs such as “On Top of Old Smokey”, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, “The Wreck of the John B” (aka “Sloop John B”), “Rock Island Line“, “The Midnight Special”, “Pay Me My Money Down”, and “Darling Corey“. As a first effort to get closer to the people, The Weavers encouraged sing-alongs in their concerts, and Seeger would sometimes shout out the lyrics in advance of each line so that everyone could sing the words (“lining out style”).
As a student he joined the Communist Party but left in disgust after discovering Stalinism. Later he would not apologize for his earlier idealism stating in 1993: “I’d like to see a world without millionaires.” Because of his communist and socialist leanings, the US was late in commemorating Seeger’s accomplishments. In 1994 Pete was awarded the National Medal of Arts and honored at the mecca of the American arts the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. At the age of 85 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won a Grammy Award for his album “Pete” which was a compilation of folk songs which culminated his singing career.His last project called The Storm King: Stories, Narratives, Poems: Spoken Word Set to a World of Music was to gather 40 world class musicians and to record his voice recounting snippets of his life and other stories. One reviewer said that his CD brought chills up her spine and recommended everyone owning a copy…young or old. During his life he recorded numerous albums and records and authored a series of instructional songbooks used I’m sure by a lot of budding folk singers and rangers who make people sing during campfire programs in American national parks.
After enduring so many challenges in his life, people would ask him if he ever lost hope. He would reply: “I say ‘the hell with it’ every night around 9:30 then get up the next morning. Besides, if you sing for children, you can’t really say there’s no hope.”
Here he is with Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land Is Your Land” to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bruce explained later what he felt upon meeting Pete Seeger: “I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness.”
Here is the PBS series American Masters entitled The Power of Song which I would like to share with you. It was recorded in 2008 and tells the story of the musical journey of Pete Seeger. I hope you take the watch it and travel a few miles with Pete so that his legacy may live on through your appreciation of what he achieved.