Pete Seeger , Symbol of Justice at 85
by John Pietaro
Befittingly, just as the workers' commemoration of May Day winds down, Pete Seeger celebrates another birthday. Perhaps the only complaint is that Pete, the personificartion of radical politics in music, was not born but two days earlier!
Since 1940, Pete Seeger has been a tireless performer of the protest song, focusing his strongest efforts on that music which was created by, for and about, the so-called common man. The product of a Left-wing composer/musicologist father and a classical violinist mother, Pete almost singlehandedly resurrected, of all things, the 5- string banjo and its application as a fiercely American instrument derived from African origins and developed by the sweat and blood of workers: slaves, indentured servants, the poor. In his wake, the 5-string banjo developed into an icon during more than one "folk revival", first withstanding elite dogmatism from within the Left, and then the Right-wing assault of McCarthyism. Even Bob Dylan's decision to go electric. No matter what, Pete and his music were always there. Are always there.
Pete Seeger early on developed a strong kinship with the political Left, slowly moving in as progressives began to look about them and came to understand that a US radical art must reflect those its trying to reach. He began performing for various events of radical Labor unions, Communist-aligned cultural organizations, anti-fascist collectives, American Labor Party rallies and then later on in strong support of the civil rights, environmental , women's and peace movements. But it was at the dawn of the 1940s, that Seeger developed a partnership with Woody Guthrie in several ventures, including inviting the latter to join his group
The Almanac Singers. The Almanacs, credited with being the first urban folk-protest group, begat The Weavers, a more defined ensemble. The Weavers played to wider audiences but never lost their progressive vision or call for activism, even during such dangerous times as the reactionary 1950s. And then, Pete sang for college students and children, when no one else cared to listen...or, rather, when the Blacklist deprived others of his talents. And when he could not sing for them, he sang for the trees and forest life about him. Seeger was hell-bent on allowing music to touch deep, whether as a weapon or as a healing force. Uniquely, he almost always achieved both simultaneously.
By the time folk music became an area of commercial success for the record business during the 1960s, Seeger was seen as a founder, an elder, but still a contemporary. If the forces of reaction shut him out of broadcast television or commercial radio, his voice resounded loudly as a songwriter. Pete's songs "Turn, Turn, Turn", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had A Hammer", "The Bells of Rhymney", among others, were smashing successes for other artists, all of whom paid tribute to the composer (or co-composer, in some cases) during their performances. As has been widely reported, it was left to the Smothers Brothers and their silly, irreverant but cutting- edge television program, to break the Blacklist. When the networks refused to allow Seeger on to perform his "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy", a stinging anti-war song driven by Pete's grinding 12-string acoustic guitar, the Brothers fought back. It may have been a death-blow for their show, but they ultimately prevailed; Seeger was seen by millions on that historic night and the Blacklist, this terribly fascistic device used to silence so many, was effectively killed off.
During the course of his career, which will not be written of in past tense, Pete Seeger has spread the important messages contained in his core belief system. In addition to the above listed songs, he was composer of so many other topical works. Perhaps more importantly, Seeger has made it a mission to keep the older songs of struggle alive, even through adversity. In performances all over the world, Pete presents the songs of Woody Guthrie, Labor bard (and martyr) Joe Hill, songs of the slaves and the Native Americans, the Wobblies, the immigrants, the farmers, the factory workers, the lost union songs and those of many cultures. It was his performance of Jose Marti's "Guantanamera", including a section in which he translated the beautiful poetry of the great Cuban writer, that led to its popularity. Pete taught us traditional songs of the Spanish Civil War--in Spanish.
He sang the praises of Leadbelly, who never got to hear his song "Goodnight Irene" become a Weavers hit in 1951. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter had died the year prior, but Seeger made sure that his widow would continue to receive royalties, as he did for the family of Solomon Linda, the originator of "Wimoweh" (NOT 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', Seeger always reminds us; this song was not written for the Tokens who had the hit with it, but by and for African people awaiting the symbol of the lion to avenge the terrible atrocities committed on that continent by imperialists).
Pete Seeger, this man who performed with Woody Guthrie in migrant camps, who helped organize unions via music and conviction, who sang for peace when it was not popular to do so and then fought the fascists as a member of the US Army; this man who founded The Almanac Singers, The Weavers, People's Songs, People's Artists and stood onstage with Paul Robeson during the concert which became known as "The Peekskill Riot"; this man who braved the House Un American Activities Committee, who marched with Dr. King, who inspired the formation of The SNCC Freedom Singers, who is credited as one of the composers of "We Shall Overcome", who sang against and powerfully protested the Viet Nam war, who made 'Broadside' magazine possible, who acted as a guide to the environmentalist movement, who helped to physically re-build the Sloop Clearwater and engage in the clean-up of the Hudson River, who laid the path for so many and whom has never stopped fighting for justice should be seen by all as a symbol, not just a singer.
Pete's songs are truly the story of 'the folk', and so they tell the people's story. Long before Howard Zinn wrote his 'A People's History of the United States', Pete Seeger sang it. Whether he's explaining just whom Casey Jones the Union Scab was or asking the question "Which Side Are You On?" or telling of the women workers' struggle in "Bread and Roses" or engaging in Leadbelly's story of racism that brings about "The Bourgeious Blues", or singing the mournful anti- war "The Crow on the Cradle", or offering an introspective celebration of the earth in "Sailing Down My Golden River", its all about us. All of us.
During the course of 45 years, (65-ed) Pete has not relented. Though his performances are few and far between these days due to the effects of aging, his activism remains constant. Though he may refrain from solo singing much of the time, he revels in leading groups, particularly large audiences, in song. And when he is asked to serve as a guest speaker for a Labor, peace or other human rights cause, he always does so with musical instrument in hand. Pete Seeger stands then, now and always as the very model of the cultural worker. Taking the distant advice of Joe Hill, he recognized long ago that more can be said in one topical song than in a hundred pamphlets. But, even in silence, Pete's philosophy can be understood by anyone who gets close enough to read what he long ago adorned on his banjo head: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender'.
Happy 85th birthday, Pete Seeger. May you continue to grace us with your message and your presence for many years to come!