America owes Pete Seeger a debt

Pete Seeger dies

This May 13, 1975, file photo shows folk singer Pete Seeger, left, performing at the Rally for Détente at Carnegie Hall in New York. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Pete Seeger retained his capacity for outrage without ever losing his ability to sing love songs, including songs about love of country — even though his patriotism came under attack.

He helped score the soundtrack for the labor and civil rights movements, and changed minds by getting people to sing. It happened to me. I discovered Seeger as a teenager and his songs about migrant workers, union organizers and civil rights triumphs and struggles have influenced me throughout my life. I still remember the words and can break out into song (to the consternation of friends and family) without much encouragement. My politics were not identical to his, but I loved him for being on the front lines of so many struggles.

I had the privilege as a student 42 years ago to interview Seeger after a concert. Today, a friend unearthed that piece I wrote all those years ago and sent it to me. I wrote in part:

When Pete Seeger came to Boston in August of 1968 to sing at a giant Gene McCarthy rally at Fenway Park, he introduced a song by noting that at one time radio stations purposely ignored it. Now, he said with considerable feeling, it had become one of the most popular songs around.

The song was “If I Had a Hammer,” later popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. The radio stations wouldn’t play it when it appeared two decades earlier because Seeger, its composer was a “known Communist” or “Communist sympathizer.” He had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and declined to testify. “You may be cited for contempt of Congress,” the Committee chairman told him. “Sir,” replied Seeger. “I have nothing but contempt for this Congress.”

(…) Yet there is an intellectual quality about Seeger which separates him from Guthrie and other singers who came out of the South and West. “Pete Seeger sings folk songs,” Woody once said. “Bob Dylan is a folk singer.” This other side of Seeger is the ethnomusicologist, (the trade which his father also pursues.) Seeger often refers in concert to Alan Lomax, who collected a lot of backwoods songs for the Library of Congress. This is work which Seeger believes in very strongly. “People often tend to forget their own culture,” he says. “It takes somebody from the outside to come in and remind them of it.”

(…) Seeger’s intellectualism may rub some connoisseur of Country music or the blues the wrong way. But it will do so only if the so-called expert tries to take Seeger on terms different from Seeger’s own. For if Seeger ever fancied himself as another Guthrie (and I doubt he ever did), he has for a long time made himself perfectly clear: his mission is not to be Woody, but to inspire the love for people’s songs and the rugged America which made the boy from Oklahoma tick. And Seeger has a further mission, which is political. He wants to keep alive the faith of those who think things can be changed for the better, and to light a fire under those who don’t think there’s any need to change things around at all.

You can read the whole article here. The country owes Seeger a debt. And it can pay it by singing the old songs — and writing new ones. He of all people would not want us to live in the past.

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