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R.I.P. Pete Seeger

American folk music icon Pete Seeger passed away at 94, reports the New York Times. Money quote:

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete was an activist-singer, standing up for common folk and on the side of the underdog his whole life. I saw Pete in concert many times, always captured by his infectious joy and the power of the music he shared. Pete sang hope. Pete sang justice. Pete sang love. And Pete always made sure everybody sang along. 

Here's what Arlo Guthrie said on his Facebook status:

I usually do a little meditation and prayer every night before I go to sleep - Just part of the routine. Last night, I decided to go visit Pete Seeger for a while, just to spend a little time together, it was around 9 PM. So I was sitting in my home in Florida, having a lovely chat with Pete, who was in a hospital in New York City. That's the great thing about thoughts and prayers- You can go or be anywhere.

I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time. I'd grown up that way - loving the Seegers - Pete & Toshi and all their family.

I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I'd been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn't think of anything that didn't sound trite or plain stupid. "They'll say something appropriate in the news," we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night.

"Arlo" he said, sounding just like the man I've known all of my life, "I guess I'll see ya later." I've always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. "Pete," I said. "I guess we will."

I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 AM when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away.

"Well, of course he passed away!" I'm telling everyone this morning. "But that doesn't mean he's gone."

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Thanks, Lisa.  Pete Seeger was an American bodhisattva.

He also said, "Every baby should be born with a banjo." He was right about that, too.

Seeger sang the right songs at the right time (at any rate, if you were labor liberals like the people in my neighborhood, and most of our parents had his records). But he wasn't born into that life (his father was an academic). 

I'm also leery of sloganeering, and a lot of the "punchlines" in some of his songs struck me that way. But a lot of those "protest songs" are like that.

On the other hand, Seeger was a happy and inclusive communist (before he renounced communism), and a happy commie was kind of a novelty; most are argumentative and never met a political question they couldn't subdivide into into a schism. When criticized later in life for his support of Stalin, he readily agreed he was wrong.

He wrote a few good songs. He lived simply. He was proud of his little book about how to play the banjo. He was a good Unitarian-Universalist who believed God transcends denominations and creeds and is manifest wherever there is love, kindness, and peace. 

And there are worse things that you can do with your life than spend it having a real good time singing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HE4H0k8TDgw

 

 

First Things has re-printed a 2010 article about Seeger and the folk music movement.  What amazes me is that First Things doesn't fault Seeger for being a (naive) Stalinist.  Times have indeed changed.  May he rest in peace.

The Midnight Special, a folk-and-other-stuff radio program that has broadcast from Chicago since the 1950s, is running a two hour Pete Seeger tribute special this Saturday from 4-6 pm Central Time.  More info, including web broadcast links, here.

I love the notion of the prayer-communication Arlo Guthrie presents...I, too, snag ina large concert with Pete Seeger and our Community Choir and have a picture of the two of us (I wasa nobody who shouldn't even have been permitted to sing!) on our refrigerator... one of my personal wonderful moments...Thanks for sharing Arlo's very personal sense.

If you've ever read Pete's testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, it was a thing of great power, delivered in his usual simple style.  He didn't take the 5th Amendment as many did.  Nor did he "name names," as others did.  He told the Committee members that they should be ashamed of themselves for asking an American citizen what he believed, who he knew and what he thought.  Or as Pete put it:

"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. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them."

You have to love the line about "I might be a vegetarian" Pure Pete Seeger. 

Although The Star Spangled Banner may be our national anthem, thanks to Pete Seeger's life Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land is our national song.  

It's good to remember that Woody Guthrie wrote this song in critical response to Irving Berlin's God Bless America - Woody was tired of hearing Kate Smith belting it out on the radio.

This Land is Your Land sings of a decidedly different vision of America, and a decidedly different political ethic for America:

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway

I saw above me that endless skyway

I saw below me that golden valley

This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

While all around me a voice was sounding

This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,

This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

 This is the song that we Americans should be singing instead of the SSB.

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,

And on the sign it said "No Trespassing,"

But on the back side, it didn't say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

 

 

 

See also “Commentary” article by Jonathan S. Tobin,

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-and-the-judgment-of-history/

Excerpt:

“It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

“To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

“That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

“And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

“Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.”

I liked that he was always playing benefits concerts until he wasreally, really old.  And they weren't benefits for the hotshot, big ticket causes, but fundraisersfor the the little guys.

It is hard to pick a favorite of his songs, but "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" will always be my choice.

The repeating refrain: "When will they ever learn" is prophetic.

"We Shall Not Be Moved" .  It was a staple at the various housing marches/rallies, when I was young.

 

 

Tom,

In my youth my Catholic Elementary school offered guitar lessons for which I enrolled.  One of the songs we learned was "This Land Is Your Land" The mimeographed version we received for practice (and the very fact that it was mimeoed gives an idea of how long ago this was) contained that verse.  It generated several protests to our Pastor who stepped in and banned the playing and singing of not only the verse in question but the song.  We were told that it didn't show the proper respect for private property!  I always offer a brief prayer for the good Sister who taught us to play when I hear "ThisLand is Your Land"  I'm sure her life wasn't too easy when those calls began coming into the rectory.  For what its worth, she was transferred at the end of the school year and guitar lessons were dropped as an option the following September.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/This_Land.htm

These verses, and the one Tom Blackburn sent in, were sung when Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performed the song at the Lincoln Memorial during Obama's 2009 inauguration.

In reading over the article about him in the NY Times, I was surprised at how many of the songs which became iconic in the '60s were written by him, and at the same time how much his own career was formed long before the '60s. If I Had a Hammer, Turn Turn Turn, We Shall Overcome, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and more, were all his songs, with inspirations culled from folk traditional sources. 

The folk revival did indeed have some radical roots, but to confuse what is essentially American populist progressivism with Stalinism is to elevate mistaken political pieties of a particular era (which passed) into THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN which can never pass away. The sin against capitalism, which is the sacred dogma of some people.

If you look at Pete Seeger's lyrics, what they appeal to is American traditional pieties that were not completely extinguished by consumerism and cynicism. The reason they proved stirring is that there is a message within them that touches a chord of truth that transcends the Soviet system, which laid claim to a certain idealism and cruelly betrayed it. The hopes remain human, though, and these are what the music conveys. This is palpably the reason why people could go on singing them for causes such as civil rights, and the movement against the Vietnam war, and more, without ever being enamored of communist ideology. Justice, freedom, and love are core American values. War is a terrible, recurring tragedy. Hope that endurance and solidarity will ultimately win the day for the oppressed is something that people want to believe in, and his music gave that hope a voice.

Gabe Huck once wrote (I am told) that we are a people awash in music, but deprived of song. With the demise of the folk revival, what sort of song do we have in America? Music is a product we buy and consume. The cult of performers has replaced the "movement song." How economically profitable. How socially impoverishing. But that's another discussion.

Rest in peace, Pete Seeger. You did what you could. 

Thanks very much for that, Rita.

Here's another nice piece about Seeger:

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/pete-seeger--2

Rita,

I think you nailed it!

I went to university in the Land of The John Birch Society and that influence tended to permeate a lot of the student thinking in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

To discover Peter Seeger, his songs, his social outlook and to see the influence that he had on subsequent iterations of folk singing in the 1960s was a true breath of fresh air.

His music gave another level of critical thinking to my slighlty impoverished repretoire of the time. But, as he sang: The Times They Are (Were) A' Changing."

Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.

May he rest in peace. Amen.

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful (and not so faithful) departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Jim McCrea, you do know that "Times They Are A Changin'" was written by Bob Dylan, not Pete Seeger, right? In 1963.

Yes, Rita, I did, but the song was appropriate to what was happening then and to me.  I remember Pete singing it and only incidently Dylan doing so.

Got it. 

Gabe Huck once wrote (I am told) that we are a people awash in music, but deprived of song. With the demise of the folk revival, what sort of song do we have in America? Music is a product we buy and consume. The cult of performers has replaced the "movement song." How economically profitable. How socially impoverishing. But that's another discussion.

What a great observation! Perhaps that's one reason why people tend to hold on to their traditional hymns? Church is one place you're encouraged to hear music and sing along without anyone hitting you up for money (um, well, mostly). 

Jean, yes! Traditional hymns are the one holdout against this shift. Church is one of the ONLY places where song still has this role that it has enjoyed in traditional societies and in movements: For free, for everybody, and giving voice to deeply-held common values and beliefs.

Pete Seeger was always ready to come out for causes he believed in. I remember a concert/rally  at Mercy College  during the Vietnam War when he brought the house down with an impassioned " Bring Them Home!" He had a way of giving his audiences the words for what they were feeling, and he knew how to bring them to their feet. One of his legacies here in the Hudson valley is certainly his signature campaign to clean up our beautiful but polluted river. He did his best  for years  to persuade communities along the river to take more responsibility for it, and gradually the message has gotten across. He is irreplaceable ,and will be greatly missed.    

"One of his legacies here in the Hudson valley is certainly his signature campaign to clean up our beautiful but polluted river.'

I remember his Clearwater sloop stopping at the river towns along the Hudson in the fall selling pumpkins to fund the clean-up of the river.

Rita and Jean: the only other occasions I can think of in which people sing instead of consume music are the national anthem at sporting events, and Christmas caroling (which probably isn't all that common, but we used to do it in our more frivolous days).  I went to summer camp a couple of summers as a kid but I don't think we even sang campfire songs.

Peter Seeger and Irving Berlin both had a commercial side, of course; and there is nothing wrong with that, as artists should make a living wage, too.  But they both, in their own ways, earned their money in a way that enabled communal mediation: Berlin by publishing his compositions as sheet music, so the family or club pianist could sit down and plunk through "God Bless America" or "There's No Business LIke Show Business" and get people to gather around and sing along; Seeger by adapting roots music that itself was written for communal singing and wasn't difficult to play.  Seeger's stuff was unslick, while Berlin's was the epitome of slick, yet they both lended themselves to communal mediation.

I watched some of the Grammys on Sunday night, and I am not sure that I heard much that would lend itself to communal singing.  Today's musical artists do put out the occasional anthem that makes people want to sing along - Katy Perry's "Roar" and Lorde's "Royals" are a couple that come to mind.  But what people are singing along to is the commercial recording as a sort of soundtrack.  It's a different dynamic.

 

Jim P,

Even at ball games, the National Anthem is sung by a soloist nowadays. Although I suppose one could sing along, how many do? Of course the National Anthem is a tough tune, with a wide range. 

On the other hand... Here's another example. Happy birthday is not a tough tune. Yet in many restaurant chains today, the waitstaff comes out to "sing" (or shout out) a birthday ditty (which the patrons don't know). OK, I know it is because of copyright, but there goes another song that everybody used to sing, replaced by something else done by a select few, who are employed by the establishment to do it.

It always pleases me to hear Happy Birthday sung spontaneously in restaurants. People who don't even know the birthday person will join in. It's the last song everybody knows and feels it's their role to sing. But it shouldn't be the only song we feel that way about.

"O Canada" has easy-to-remember lyrics and a singable melody.  Why do our northern neighbors understand the fine art of composing a national anthem and we don't?

Folk music  :)  I especially liked his songs The Bells of Rhymney and  Turn Turn Turn as sung by the Byrds.

Though "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore" is pretty awful.

We had a CD mix for the car- "Jukebox From Hell"   It had that song, long with classics like "Who Let the Dogs Out".  Bad songs that get in your head and just won't get out.

Angela, the last "O Canada" in the Canadian national anthem is almost as hard to get as "the rockets' glare." For me, anyway. But no one ever said I can sing.

Rita, I've noticed transplanrted New Yorkers at spring training baseball games like to sing the National Anthem one line ahead of the rest of the crowd.They are, for example, at the dawn's early light while everyone else is stall oh saying can you see.

And Jim P, Irving Berlin is hardly the epitome of slick. You are thinking of Jerome Kern. Berlin's most memorable stuff can be played confidently by beginning ukulele players,

He died the very day I was utilizing some gospel songs and spirituals in class (e.g., We are Climbing Jacob's Ladder, Mary Don't You Weep), and so I played his renditions as well. (Which wasn't exactly fair to him, since his versions pale in comparison with, say, the Ward Singers). My little one sings a lot of the same songs he sang, so this stuff does live on.

(BTW, if O Canada has a singable melody, it's because it's a Mozart rip-off. Also, the lyrics are complicated as all hell).

The only time I saw Pete live was a cold snowy night in CT where he was doing a benefit for a local church.  He was maybe 75 at the time, there were maybe 200 people in the church hall, but by the end he had us all up and singing like there were 2000. Just Pete, his banjo and his guitar.   And he made it fun.  Joked with those who weren't joining in.  Encouraged everyone.  It was a wonderful evening of song, stories and fellowship in the broadest meaning of the term.  One thing I remember was there was no big introduction.  He more or less just walked to the front of the hall and started singing. 

Rita - great point about Happy Birthday.  Regarding copyrights: I refuse to believe it's not in the public domain.  Unless the restaurant is utilizing it for commercial purposes or printing the music and lyrics, I wouldn't worry about it.  Here is the eminent legal authority Wikipedia on this issue:

The combination of melody and lyrics in "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier.[1], pp. 31–32None of these early appearances included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered for copyright in 1935, crediting authorsPreston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman. In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the company owning the copyright for $25 million, with the value of "Happy Birthday" estimated at $5 million.[6][7] Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claims that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to Warner. In one specific instance in February 2010, these royalties were said to amount to $700.[8] In the European Union, the copyright of the song will expire no later than December 31, 2016.[9]

The American copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" began to draw more attention with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer specifically mentioned "Happy Birthday to You" in his dissenting opinion.[10] American law professor Robert Brauneis, who extensively researched the song, has concluded that "It is almost certainly no longer under copyright." [1] In 2013, based in large part on Brauneis's research, Good Morning to You Productions, a documentary film company, sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song.[4][6]

 

Jim, I knew about that lawsuit in 2013, and I don't believe it is decided yet. You are morally right, but the legal position is not so clear. Warner certainly believes it's under copyright, and I understood that this is precisely why the restaurant chains do not allow their employees to sing the song as their agents -- because they would be legally liable for copyright violation. 

I just thumbed through my OLD collection of dusty LPs and there are four (4, mind you!) of the Weavers with PS in tow.

But now that I am a devotee of Hip Hop and Rap ........

When people stop singing together the community is in trouble.

Song kept Wales together and the language alive, in large part due to its choirs. Here's a whole stadium of 'em singing. In Welsh. Even the jocks. Some in harmony: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM4mIlYKG9s

Before racing to canonize Mr.Seeger, the dyed-in the-wool, unrepentent communist, one should peruse the following followed by a little humor.

Pete Seeger remembered:
http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2014/01/29/pete-seeger/?singlepage=true

Tom Lehrer's take down of folk music
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yygMhtNQJ9M

 

To the extent that Pete Seeger sought to advance Soviet policy in order to undermine the United States, that's deplorable and worth noting, even in the wake of his death.

At the same time, perhaps it could be noted that American culture proved stronger and better than Communism.  If Pete Seeger propandized communism, he also, in a sense, helped preside over the failure of communism in the US.  In the labor movement, universities, coffee houses, Communism ultimately was not able to put down lasting roots, and liberal politics went off in more quintessentially American directions.  I'm sure this gave him food for thought in the last decades of his life.

 

Jim  P. ==

While it's true that in the universities Communism never did take hold, the old political accusations of the far right against academe have had lasting effect.  The loyalty of college professors to American ideals is still suspect in many quarters, and the far right still seems to assume that most college profs are at least socialists.  However, somehow or another the right also has succeeded in painting the professors not as socialist egalitarians, but, most ironically, they paint the professors as elitists.  Go figure.

 

Mr.Pauwels

"American culture proved stronger and better than Communism."

You might reconsider if you check out the CV, associations and background of NY City's new mayor Bill de Blasio and his band of supporters

They are now called Progressive

 

Discussion is getting close to just providing links to the Washington Times or the Drudge Report...

As Pete sang in his Letter to Eve (about needing a new Garden):

Oh oh, pacem in terris mir shanti salaam heiwah.

I know this post has rolled off the first page and am not sure if anyone is checking back anymore.

At Deacon's Bench blog, Greg Kandra provides a link to an interview that Pete Seeger did in the early 1970s.  Good stuff.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2014/02/pete-seeger-on-a-park-...

 

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About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).