Culture

Pete Seeger's enduring impact on American culture

The legendary folk singer and activist for labor rights is dead at 94

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Pete Seeger, arguably the face of American folk music, died Monday. His life spanned 94 years, but it’s hard to believe he put so much living into so short a time.  

Seeger wrote indelible songs (“Turn, Turn, Turn!” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”); joined the Communist Party; left the Communist Party; performed with Woody Guthrie; worked with musical folklorist Alan Lomax; tried to unplug an early electric performance by Bob Dylan — a musician whose career he helped foment — hosted an extraordinary and little-seen television show about music in television’s infancy; put the word “shall” in “We Shall Overcome” and thus popularized the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement; refused to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (invoking the First Amendment rather than the Fifth, because of the right to freedom of association); led an impromptu Occupy Wall Street march toward the end of his life of tireless political activism; gardened; wrote books; performed and invented the “pull-off” technique on his banjo, upon which he inscribed in multi-colored ink, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  

Each aspect of Pete Seeger's life — and his many ardent pursuits — shaped the mark he left on America. Pete Seeger played five strings, but only one banjo.

One could view Seeger’s leftist politics as disruptive of his career. Chart success in the early 1950s with his group The Weavers foundered on questions of Seeger’s political affiliations. “I love my country very dearly,” he said, “and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”

He was indicted for contempt of Congress and given jail time, a sentence that was later overturned. But his blacklisting derailed The Weavers. Despite achieving chart success and popularizing the old Gullah spiritual “Kumbaya,” The Weavers disappeared from the radio waves and concert halls. Seeger, though he faced a travel ban and was barred from television, was undaunted. He performed at summer camps and on the college circuit. (He left The Weavers when the group’s other three members agreed to perform a jingle for a cigarette commercial.) A dozen or so years later, Seeger wrote “Waist Deep In Big Muddy,” a Vietnam War protest song. CBS censored it from a 1967 performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but Seeger was allowed to return and play the song the following year. “I like to say I'm more conservative than Goldwater,” he pronounced in the early 1960s. “He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.

Pete Seeger

As a child, Seeger had a conversion experience near Asheville, N.C., when he heard the five-string banjo for the first time. He was taught the basic strumming technique and dedicated years to mastering the instrument. He later claimed that a little book he wrote, “How To Play the 5-String Banjo,” was one of his life’s great achievements. He also took credit for inventing the pull-off technique, where a ghost note is made in between strums by pulling the finger off the string’s fret. As with so many of Seeger’s other contributions to our culture, it’s hard to believe it didn’t always exist.

In the Hudson Valley region of New York, Seeger and his wife built the cabin where they lived. He was a committed environmentalist, forming his own nonprofit to agitate for cleaning the Hudson River. "I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods,” he said when asked about his religious beliefs. “I feel part of nature. Or looking up at the stars. (I used to say) I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything.” According to his grandson, Seeger was chopping wood 10 days before his death.

Starting with his work for Alan Lomax, the great compiler of American vernacular music, Seeger became a tireless musical promoter. His television show, “Rainbow Quest,” was the best exemplar of the man’s unerring musical taste. The hour-long broadcast, which ran only on a low-power UHF channel between 1965 and 1966, featured an extraordinarily diverse range of acoustic musical expression. A sample set includes ragtime blues legends Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten and Reverend Gary Davis, country greats Johnny Cash and June Carter, old-time picker and high lonesome singer Roscoe Holcomb, and contemporary artists like Donovan and Buffy St. Marie. Seeger, never one to resist inclusion, would often accompany his guests on banjo or guitar, when he wasn’t fixing them with his intense and admiring gaze.

In the still, small center of this spinning wheel of activity, Pete Seeger maintained a persistent belief in people and community. "The key to the future of the world,” he said, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” If you watch a video of Pete Seeger in the coming days, it will probably show him performing to school children, or leading a sing-along, as he did in lieu of making a speech when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In this sense — this participatory sense — he was more collectivist than his socialist politics might suggest. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said after marching with members of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” He had an ear, maybe the ear, for a simple, sturdy melody and socially potent lyric. He brought that to the people and they returned it to him, as during the hundreds of times Seeger’s crowd sang along to “Goodnight Irene.” Now we must continue to sing along with each other.

Pete Seeger’s banjo had five strings, all tuned to a certain tension and expressing a different tone, all plucked or strummed with the right amount of attack and release. They conveyed a message of gentle political activism, a marrow-deep love of playing an instrument, a sense of place and spirituality in nature, a knowledge and embrace of others’ musical expression and an abiding faith in people and progress. If that banjo — that machine that surrounded hate and forced it to surrender — is silent now, it will still be resonant for generations.

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