Remembering Pete Seeger – Part 2
In 1955, when Pete Seeger took his stand against McCarthyism, refusing to “name names”, and pleading the First Amendment at congressional hearings, he was blacklisted from American concert halls and broadcast media. If he wanted to carry on as a professional musician, the member of the best-selling, but now blacklisted band, The Weavers, would have to find other ways to reach his audience. Ironically, his very persecutors were the ones who set him on the path to becoming the torchbearer of the popular front legacy to a younger generation seeking to move beyond Cold War repression and cultural conformism.
Pete had always been dedicated to a grassroots concept of culture, and so to the grassroots he returned, setting out on a series of treks across North America. He performed at summer camps, union halls (that were still open to him) and college campuses, where he found students and younger faculty receptive to his message. Backing him was a small but stalwart network of progressive folk music institutions, like Sing Out! magazine (which he had co-founded in 1950), and Folkways Records, founded in 1948 by friend and supporter Moses Asch.
During these years Seeger recorded many albums of American folk music and songs of struggle – sometimes as many as five per year. The heavy vinyl records in thick cardboard sleeves were produced in small quantities, but they became treasured items as interest in folk music picked up in the late fifties. Pete added teaching to his repertoire, and soon his instruction book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” could be found wherever young folk musicians and aficionados gathered.
The blacklisting of progressive entertainers by the House Committee on Un-American Activities began in 1947, and it was to last well into the sixties. It was still going strong when Pete was subpoenaed, but in retrospect, the beginning of the turnaround might have been in December 1955, when The Weavers came out of their enforced retirement for a triumphal sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Their album “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall”, and subsequent recordings, exerted a powerful influence on the folk music explosion of the sixties. While the band was to carry on until 1964, Pete left the group in 1958 because of a disagreement – the others had decided to record a cigarette commercial!
As a solo artist, Seeger recorded frequently, toured, wrote a regular column for Sing Out!, helped out a new folk magazine called Broadside (which featured the work of young songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs), and composed memorable songs including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”. He played a key role in adapting and popularizing “We Shall Overcome”, the African-American spiritual that was embraced as the anthem of the civil rights movement. He also adapted a Cuban song called “Guantanamera”, based on a poem by José Martí, and sang it in solidarity with the Cuban revolution during the missile crisis of October 1962. Pete’s version was in turn adapted by The Sandpipers and it became a hit.
In 1959 Pete and Toshi helped to found the Newport Folk Festival. The New England festival soon became a national showcase for roots-oriented music, featuring young artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, African-American artists like Odetta, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt, and activist musicians like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. While Pete may be remembered by some veterans of the sixties as the older guy who pulled the plug on Bob Dylan when the singer went electric at Newport in 1965, in the end most of this cohort came to respect and even love him. It is testimony to his ultimate openness to musical styles and forms, that Seeger would later attract the company of progressive (and loud) rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.
As the political climate in the USA evolved in the sixties, more opportunities for challenging the blacklist presented themselves. In 1965-66 Seeger hosted “Rainbow Quest”, a local New York City TV show that featured him talking and jamming with guests like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Malvina Reynolds. In 1968 he made a national TV breakthrough when he appeared on the popular CBS show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and sang his powerful anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.
After the sixties, the main cause in Pete Seeger’s life undoubtedly became the environment. Influenced by Rachel Carson’s important 1962 book Silent Spring, he and Toshi decided to undertake a daunting task – cleaning up the PCB-polluted Hudson River (which ran by their home in upstate New York). In 1966 the two co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and its related musical offshoot The Great Hudson River Revival (a.k.a. The Clearwater Festival). In 1969 the foundation’s dream, The Clearwater, a replica of a 19th century sloop, began to sail up and down the river. Pete, Toshi, and other activists combined popular education with music, and invited community participation in cleanup campaigns. Their campaign played a key role in the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the eventual clampdown by the EPA on Hudson River polluters.
Despite his turn to the environment, Pete never strayed far from working class struggles, the women’s movement, the rights of migrant workers, and the fight against racism. He also continue to speak out against war and imperialism. Pete braved public condemnation by travelling to North Vietnam in 1972, while the American war on that country still raged. Shortly after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the Popular Unity government in Chile, he joined Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs at a New York benefit concert for Chilean refugees. In 1983 he attended the Nueva Cançion song festival in Nicaragua while the Reagan Administration was fomenting terrorist attacks against the country’s Sandinista revolution. The list could go on and on.
In his last years, as the tributes poured in, Pete Seeger was recognized by sectors of the American establishment. In January 2009 he was invited to sing with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inauguration. At Pete’s suggestion they chose to sing Woody Guthrie’s anthem “This Land is Your Land”. They made sure to sing the two verses that are usually left out of the song – the ones that take a dig at private property and speak of lines of hard-hit people standing outside relief offices. In October 2011 Pete could be seen, hands gripping his walker, at the head of a procession that marched from his just-completed Symphony Hall concert, down thirty Manhattan blocks to Occupy New York’s Coumbus Circle encampment. There, accompanied by grandson Tao, and Arlo Guthrie, he led a new generation in a singalong of “We Shall Overcome”.
After his death on January 27th, much of the mainstream media was lavish in its praise of Pete Seeger. President Obama called him “America’s tuning fork” and hailed him for defending worker’s rights, civil rights, world peace and the environment. Although the obituaries often mentioned his early membership in the CPUSA, what was missing was any examination of the underlying philosophy that formed the basis of his remarkably consistent world-view. However, a few left-wing publications suggested that it might have something to do with his essential communism. Seeger himself, in several latter-day interviews declared that he was still a communist (as in “small-c” communist). A tribute on the CPUSA’s website declared that Pete Seeger “never wavered from his communist beliefs even after leaving the Communist Party, and in fact remained a friend of the party and reader and supporter of People’s World until his death” (“Pete Seeger and American Communism”, People’s World, Feb. 13, 2014). Similarly, in a January 29th tribute, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara wrote: “It’s not that Pete Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a communist.” Now that’s something to talk about.
For a good documentary on Seeger’s life check out Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS, 2007)