Monday, February 3, 2014

Local Perspective: Pete Seeger's Influence and Legacy

"I usually quote Plato, who said 'It is very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music in the republic." - Pete Seeger in 2001

Last week Pete Seeger died in is sleep at 94 years old, leaving behind almost a century's worth of music, peace and political activism. 

Extremely prolific as a songwriter, many of his songs became standards in America's rich musical history. But as much of a songwriter as he was, he was equally involved in activism and became a loud voice in the opposition of tyranny. He spoke when most remained silent, often placing mainstream America in it's hunches, far outside of it's comfort zone. As a member of The Weavers, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Subpoenaed In 1955, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee against the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress. Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self-incriminating) and instead, like his brothers in the Hollywood Ten, refused to name his associations on the grounds of violating his First Amendment rights. This resulted in him being indicted for Contempt of Congress, and for many years he had to had to keep the government apprised of his whereabouts any time he left the Southern District of New York. In 1961 a jury found him guilty of Contempt of Congress and he was sentenced to ten 1-year terms to be served consecutively. In 1962 an appeals court ruled that the indictment was flawed, and overturned his conviction. 

Jail didn't hinder his drive, it only made him more determined. With his songs and strong voice he rallied against war, pollution and unrighteousness and led the charge at many different national protests and organized events. He remained steadfast in political activism right up until his death, participating alongside the Occupy movement in New York City in 2011-12.                         

Many of Seeger's songs have become American standards, such as "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?," "We Shall Overcome," and "Goodnight Irene." In the early '60s he covered Bob Dylan folk classics, such as "Who Killed Davey Moore," and "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall."

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger together in the early '60s. 
He was a member of the board of directors for the Newport Folk Festival, and was in Newport, Rhode Island in 1965 when Bob Dylan turned the Folk movement on it's heels by going "electric." Outraged, it was Seeger who threatened to disconnect Dylan's equipment and boot him off the stage.

"I couldn't understand the words," Seeger said, in a 2001 interview."I wanted to hear the words. It was a great song, "Maggie's Farm," and the sound was distorted. I ran over to the guy at the controls and shouted, 'Fix the sound so you can hear the words.' He hollered back, 'This is the way they want it.' I said, Damn it. If I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now!' But I was at fault. I was the MC and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, "You didn't boo Howlin' Wolf yesterday. He was electric!"

He then added, "Though I still prefer to hear Dylan acoustic, some of his electric songs are absolutely great. Electric music is the vernacular of the second half of the 20th century, to use my father's old term."

Pete Seeger left a legacy that won't be forgotten. He was a human check and balance system for the oppressed and a true man of the people. His influence has been felt around the world, even right here in the fly-over part of the country. 

Last week Pete Seeger died in is sleep. He died as he lived, in peace. 


A few Iowans offered these accounts of what Pete Seeger's legacy meant to them: 

Scott Cochran: I cannot remember a time when we didn't have Pete Seeger as an American folk resource. He was a force of nature, living in the woods in Upstate New York, a survivor of the McCarthy era. His group, the Weavers, were blacklisted and couldn't work for years back in the 50s. I saw a thing about him a few years ago, (was it the Obama inauguration?), and he and Springsteen were performing This Land Is Your Land, outdoors in the freezing cold and Bruce said that he suggested cutting a couple of verses, and Seeger insisted that that would be wrong, it should only be sung in it's entirety, as Woody Guthrie wrote it. The guy was beyond reproach, an old school purist, and champion of the working man, something we need more of.

Doug Simkin: Pete, in my thoughts, is a true hero in many ways.  His powerful belief in non-violence defeated many who tried repress him. His tireless energy took him from the 1930's up to today performing almost constantly. He is an example of persistence and perseverance.  The fact that he survived having been blacklisted is inspirational. He built his own home. By himself. Something about his voice and his words completely disarmed people, he could get thousands of non singers to sing along with him like the world's largest choir. He could teach children to live morally through music. I don't think his contribution to the overlap between music and progressive ideology can be over stated. While his passing at age 94 is sad, his gifts given to us all during his lifetime will continue to regenerate through generations into the future.

Sarah Cartwright: I like this story for two reasons, one -- because it shows that right up to his last year he was an involved activist -  at age 93!

Secondly, it highlights a broader concern  for indigenous peoples and that of living in harmony with the Earth, reflected here in one of his last appearances.

A snippet of journalist interview with Onondaga Oren Lyons, faithkeeper and wise man:

AMY GOODMAN: Oren Lyons, on this Indigenous People’s Day, what are your thoughts you’d like to share with our viewers and listeners and readers around the world?

OREN LYONS: Well, as I listened to Pete sing, recognizing the spirit in all of us, the spirit is powerful, and the will, the will to continue and do what has to be done, and responsibility for adults to act like adults, for leaders to act like leaders, and to take away from the corporate powers that are currently in charge of the direction of this Earth and return it back to the people, where it belongs, and also to protect, really be responsible for seven generations of life coming. That’s our mission, and that’s my mission. It’s always been our mission. The mission is peace. The mission is forever. And the mission is friendship, and to understand that the human family is a family—doesn’t matter what color you are. You can change blood. You can’t get any closer than that. And people should understand that.

Also, his wife Toshi is credited with being  a strong influence and impetus for Pete’s activism. She died at 91  -- they would have been married 70 years!

Bryan Farland: Pete and Woody always seemed like two peas in a pod to me. Both were champions of the common folk and protest ballads, contributing to the cultural revolution that swept through the 60's. Pete will be missed, but his music is a treasured legacy that will endure.

Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger
Cory Berry: I'm sure Pete influenced me in the fact that I follow many musicians that he in turn influenced - but I did not follow him much directly. I did listen to an NPR story tonight and they had a recording of him describing how he viewed himself in the history of musicians. He said something about how he viewed himself as a link connecting old timers and their music with the people after him and that he hoped it would continue with more links (people) stepping up and continuing the tradition. (which of course is and has happened) Now I haven't done the research to see who exactly claims to be influenced by him but some of my favorites that I suspect would say so include: Roger McGuinn, Richard Buckner, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Cat Stevens, Jamie Brockett, Jim Morrison, Gene Clark, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, John Lennon, Sinead OConnor, Suzanne Vega, and pretty much anyone else who has a message in their songs relating to peace, nature, giving back, and equal rights.

Sam Knutson: Pete Seeger records were in my parent's record collection. They played em for us when my siblings and me were kids not with the intent of political indoctrination his politics could raise reference to, but because we loved to sign g along with them.

The judgement of grade-schoolers is simple. We liked it. I later learned of his ardent stand for peace, his protest song that got the Smothers Brothers censored and his love of getting a crowd to sing. He understood the power of music and the consequences and benefits of that power in ways almost no one gets to.

He wasn't ahead of his time so much as he was outside of all it. His musical mission was timeless and he did it because he liked it. There was no question he loved to make music and make a point simply.

CW Smith: Pete Seeger showed me how one man can fire up a crowd, lead a generation in song, start a revolution.

He gave popular music a sense of history, a dose of humility, a direction, a conscience.

He taught me that inspiration can come from many places, that the present often parallels the past. That one voice can make a difference.
Thank you, Pete Seeger, for all the great music, all the valuable lessons. You will be missed.

Sue Ellen CrossLea: I worked for the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and Vietnam Vets Against The War, each one half time from about 1968-69. We had numerous 'demos' and events, some with vets and bit-name music acts. Those were cool, but the best ones were the more political 'in the streets' events, I thought. But, no matter what, no matter how small or large, Pete Seeger would show up. He could always fill in the gaps if some politician did not show up or was late, but he didn't just 'fill in.' He took over the crowd, no matter the size with his enthusiastic, super positive singing. The songs were often his, but I don't think we knew that, we just thought they were great songs and pretty soon the crowd was so inspired, so energized, and so anxious to get on board and do whatever action was happening. Pete had an amazing spirit that was infectious and so positive that we were always glad to see him. I don't know how he knew what we were doing or where or when, although there usually was fairly good publicity after we proved ourselves to be reliable about turning out the crowd we said we would. He always knew just what note needed to be struck, and he led us to follow him with his ideas and views expressed so eloquently in song. I loved him. I really did.

Jon Eric: Pete Seeger (RIP) has given so much to the music world as we know it today. His legacy of love, music, and meeting people on "common ground" will live on in each note played. Those influenced by him are forever gifted.

Jon Eric, who is a banjo aficionado wrote this beautiful piece in Seeger's memory: "Welcome to New York. RIP Pete Seeger"  Click on the link to download. 



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this timely, insightful tribute! -SC