Friday, January 31, 2014

Why Pete Seeger Mattered: An appreciation of the conservator and revolutionary of folk Song - Farewell

“You may have thought you were comin’ here tonight to sit back and take things easy while we did all the work,” Pete Seeger told the audience at the legendary 1955 Weavers concert at Carnegie Hall. “But I’m gonna ask you to help us sing this one.” A thrum of his five-string banjo and the metronome of his tapping foot cue Seeger’s cheerleader tenor: “Michael, row the boat ashore…” The other Weavers — soprano Ronnie Gilbert, second tenor Fred Hellerman and bass Lee Hays — complete the chorus of hallelujahs. “Get the idea?” Seeger asks. “All you do is come in on the Halleluuujah. Now clear out your throats and try singin’ that.”

The listeners take a tentative stab at a hallelujah. “Oh, I can hardly hear ya!” Seeger says, comic despair in his voice. “Try it again.” They do better. “Say, got any high tenors here tonight? Sopranos? Reach up here: HalleLUUUjah!” Now the crowd has caught the spirit, and still Seeger goads. “Don’t let your neighbor look at you peculiarly if you sing too loud. Just kick ‘im in the ribs and get ‘im singin’ too.” By the end of the song, a couple thousand individuals have become one chorus, converts to the gospel of folk. He has turned a concert audience into the Mormon Tabernacle Campfire.

That was Seeger, raising his voice to raise the rabble and a generation of rebels. By his death yesterday at 94 at New York Presbyterian Hospital, this pacifist Pied Piper had inducted three generations in the cause of the people’s music. He contributed mightily to the soundtrack of ’60s reform and revolt with his own compositions: “If I Had a Hammer” (written with Hays), “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (completed by Joe Hickerson) and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes). The Negro spiritual “We Will Overcome” — collected in its now-familiar version by Zilphia Horton from Lucille Simmons, a union worker — was first printed in 1948 in Seeger’s magazine People’s Songs Bulletin. Changing the verb to the more defiant “We Shall Overcome,” he kept singing it until it became the indispensable anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

He called himself not a folksinger but “a professional singer of amateur music”: the songs he had collected or adapted and then promoted — proselytized, really — in union halls and concert halls, at rallies and marches. In the early 1960s he sang of equal rights; in the late ’60s he sang peace to war; in the ’70s and beyond he fought — and sang — for a cleaner environment. His voice cleaned the water and cleared the air.

Remember that Seeger was also, and mainly, a musician — one of charismatic stage presence and lasting influence. Usually wearing a work shirt, sleeves rolled up the elbow, he poured tremendous power from an Olive Oyl-thin frame. His seemingly untrained voice was trained to sound that way; he admired the reedy honesty of rural singers and imitated them. Never wanting to sing alone, he got any audience of school kids or sophisticates to sing along. Yet his muscular tenor rose above the crowd, and his falsetto was just as strong. Hear him in top-octave strength in the near-yodeling passages of “Wimoweh”: it’s a very macho castrato.

With his canny choice of material, out of the thousands hidden in the old songbooks he read, Seeger godfathered modern folk music: the pop-flavored mix of traditional and modern songs that made The Kingston Trio the country’s top sellers of albums and spawned Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. The mother lode for pop-folkies was the song list at that 1955 concert. It spawned hit singles by Jimmie Rodgers (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”), Lonnie Donegan (“Rock Island Line”), the Beach Boys (“Wreck of the Sloop John B”), Brook Benton (“The Boll Weevil Song”), Nina Simone (“Children, Go Where I Send You”), the Highwaymen (“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”) and the Tokens — when the Weavers’ “Wimoweh,” a more rousing version of Solomon Linda’s 1939 South African song “M’bube,” was Americanized into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Then the Seeger-Hays “If I Had a Hammer” struck gold for Peter, Paul and Mary and in the inanely infectious disco version by Trini Lopez.


America’s finest troubadour-salesman was born into music. His mother, Constance Edson Seeger, was a violinist and later a teacher at the Juilliard School. His father, the Harvard-educated Charles Seeger, Jr., was a composer, conductor and founder of the first country’s first musicology course (at the University of California) but was fired for his pacifism during World War I. The Seegers returned to New York City, where Peter was born the following year. “As a child I was allowed to bang or tootle on any musical instrument that caught my fancy,” he recalled in his 1972 autobiography The Incompleat Folk Singer. “Age eight I got a ukulele” — everybody had a uke in 1927 — switching to the five-string banjo when Charles took him to a North Carolina square-dance festival.

Pete went to his father’s college, hoping to build on the song-collecting scholarship of Carl Sandburg and Alan Lomax — archival field work that would spawn many of the “pop” hits of later generations. Pete left after his sophomore year; time spent on musical agitation as a member of the Young Communist League lowered his grades. Determined to live the hard life he sang about, he became a Depression-era man of the road: playing for pennies at union halls and riding the rails. Turned out this hobo from Harvard had a steep learning curve. The first train he jumped, in St. Joe, Mo., was quickly detoured onto a siding. The next train did take him to Lincoln, Neb., but, having been warned by veteran rail-riders to avoid arrest by jumping off before the train pulled into the freight yards, Seeger tumbled out onto the ground and broke his banjo.

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