I heard Pete Seeger live about 25 years ago in Ann Arbor at a benefit concert. His voice had already gotten quavery, so he didn’t sing much. Instead, he taught the audience the songs so we could do the singing while he played along on the banjo and the guitar. I think he liked it that way; I’ve listened to his “We Shall Overcome” album, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1963, hundreds of times, and those people lucky enough to be at that concert did a lot of singing, too. Seeger had a gift for overcoming people’s reticence and getting them to sing, joyfully, loudly, in harmony, and in a crowd of strangers. What better way to bring people together?
When I was growing up in Denver, my father used to listen to “Down to Earth,” a folk music program on the classical station KVOD, every weekend. The songs on Tom Paxton’s “Ramblin’ Boy” and Judy Collins’s “Fifth Album” still run through my head. We had a whole library of Smithsonian Folkways albums of Seeger singing ballads, kids’ songs, and protest songs. And I think I heard the music of The Weavers – “The Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight Irene,” and their medley of Hebrew folk songs, all with Seeger’s banjo and his tenor voice – basically from birth. The orange “Weavers’ Songbook” was always prominent in our family room.
Of course, when I became aware of Seeger and his music in the ’60s, he’d already had a long and complicated career. He was, for a time, a member of the Communist Party. He and his group The Almanac Singers were tangled up in the politics surrounding the relationship between the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the United States in the early days of World War II. Ultimately, Seeger and The Almanac Singers got behind the war effort and Seeger served in the Army in the Pacific.
After the war, Seeger became a target of McCarthy’s anti-communist committee. The Weavers were blacklisted, and their promising career as a “mainstream” music group – they had a number-one hit with “Goodnight, Irene” – was cut short. Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. While many people named names, and many others took the Fifth Amendment, Seeger cited the First Amendment and simply refused to answer questions. He said:
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.
Questioned about where he had performed subversive songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Wasn’t That a Time,” he refused to identify the locations – but he did offer to sing to the committee. They weren’t interested. He was ultimately convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail, though the conviction was overturned on appeal, and his political activity continued through the Vietnam era.
Earnest political convictions, explicitly stated, often aren’t the best thing for good songs. Tom Lehrer’s song “The Folk Song Army” parodies the idea that you can make social change through song. Every time I sing “If I Had a Hammer,” a little voice inside my head quotes the line “Ready, Aim, Sing” from Lehrer’s song. The greatest songwriters of the Folk Revival, Bob Dylan in particular, moved away from the protest genre. Those who didn’t, like Phil Ochs, produced some great songs, but only a few of them can transcend their time and place.
Pete Seeger, though, will live on forever in American culture. The renaissance of the banjo as an instrument in American popular music rests not only on the great Earl Scruggs, but on Seeger’s book “How To Play The 5-String Banjo” and on his distinctive banjo technique heard on so many recordings. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” may be tied to Vietnam, but it tells a timeless and tragic story. And people will still be singing “If I Had a Hammer” when only musicologists know the names of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
In his autobiography, Dave Van Ronk talks about the contempt that he and his fellow musicians of the early folk revival period in Greenwich Village held for the earlier generation of “folk music” groups. He is pretty tough on the Kingston Trio for taking authentic music and packaging it for the mass market. As for Seeger – well, van Ronk admits that Seeger was different. He was the real deal, both musically and politically.
For me, Pete Seeger is a hero. His testimony before the McCarthy’s committee was a great moment in American history. His recordings brighten my day. And best of all is singing the songs that he wrote, or that I learned from him. Farewell, Pete – your memory will be a blessing for us all.