Unchanging Fashion: Pete Seeger’s Journey Of the Spirit

Music in the Air, No 10, Winter 2000, p.6-9.

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

Looking back over eighty years of life, as Pete Seeger may well have done in May 1999, one seeks patterns and consistencies. There is the big pattern, of course, the living the eighty years, and the consistency of having been a professional folk singer for the last sixty, with his father, Charles, as a collector of folk songs before that. From the songs he wrote and sang, one might see Seeger’s life as a jumble of topics and engagements, held together by an enthusiasm for singing, considerable technical musical skills, and an involvement in radical causes.

Indeed, Seeger has been involved in so many social movements that at first they seem a jumble. Initially it was with the Almanac Singers (which at various times included Woody Guthrie, Beth Lomax, Lee Hayes with a commitment to the union movement reflected in such songs as ‘Talking Union’, ‘The Union Maid’, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’, and ‘Solidarity For Ever’. That was the early 1940s, with the New Deal transforming post-depression America. But soon the need to organise workers into unions was replaced by the need for war songs to defeat fascism. After the war it was back to union organisation, campaigning for Progressive Party Presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, in 1948, and supporting Paul Robeson, whose pro-Soviet connections plus colour had him blacklisted and pelted by racists. Then it was the Weavers with their record-breaking ‘Goodnight Irene ” written by black ex-convict Huddie Leadbetter, although ‘If I Had a Hammer’, ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’, and ‘So Long It’s Been Good to Know You ” are better remembered today. All this time Seeger was also singing, and collecting, traditional American folk, and foreign, songs, such as ‘Tzena, Tzena’ from Israel, the flip side of ‘Goodnight Irene’ , and ‘Wimoweh ‘ from South Africa.

From his teenage years in the 1930s, Seeger was a member of the American Communist Party. One of the major sources on his activities are released FBI files, which sometimes give the impression of surveillance by the Keystone Cops. By the middle of 1951 the FBI operation became more sinister -for example. providing information to others so concerts were cancelled, and publishing critical articles.

The Korean War was in full swing. and McCarthyism building up. The Weavers collapsed. Following a blacklisting, Seeger’s singing became a sort of guerrilla warfare. where he would sing for a (modest) fee at a venue and escape, before the anti-communists had time to enforce the ban. By 1955 he was in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, described by ex-President Harry Truman a.” ‘more un-American than the activities it is investigating ‘.

Perhaps inevitably, given the courageous way he faced up to the committee, the Lower House of Congress cited him for contempt (with seven others including playwright Arthur Miller). He was found guilty in 1961 and jailed for ten years. The New York Post reported: ‘Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here: Amid our larger tribulations, the Justice Department has moved fearlessly and decisively against ballad singer Pete Seeger… That the combined powers of the House Committee and the Justice Department should be rallied to imprison him is bitter burlesque. Some jails will be a more joyous place if he lands there, and things will be bleaker on the outside.’ We can laugh today, but it was not much fun for Pete Seeger, his family and friends. Fortunately, there was an ,appeal, bail, and the US Court of Appeal dismissed his case in 1962, ending the decade of anxiety. (He managed to join the 1961 Easter Peace March in Washington between trial and sentencing.) Yet in these troubled times Seeger wrote ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’, led the revival of interest in American folk music, and was a symbol for those with a civil liberties bent. But this revival was also a valuable-in-its-own-right exercise of saving a heritage before the older singers and their songs died forever. Seeger was a key player in the recording and publishing company Folkways (founded in 1948), which has done so much to preserve and promote traditional folk music, and the new topical songs of the 1960s.

While he was nurturing young singers and recovering old music, a new wave was sweeping America, the civil rights movement. The recording of the Carnegie Hall Concert in June 1963 nicely portrays Seeger’s style (1). The record begins with ‘If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus’, recalling Rosa Park’s famous sit-down, followed by the black spiritual ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On}’, and a couple of civil rights songs, ‘I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail’, and ‘Oh, Freedom!’ Now the segue to ‘What Did You Learn in School Today?’, telling how the white middle class learned their racism in their social institutions. On to ‘Little Boxes’ on social conformity, to ‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’, on the public pressures on private lives, finally on Side One, ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?'(the boxer).

Side Two opens with’ A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, reputedly Bob Dylan’s response to the Cuba missile crisis, with the first line of every song he was never going to write if the damned things were launched, followed by a quick children’s song to rest the voice, then ‘Guantanamera’, the words written by a Jose Marti, a nineteenth century Cuban freedom fighter, followed by ‘Tshotsholosa’ an African song. The song ends on a triumphant ‘We Shall Overcome’ joined by the audience. All this when he was still blacklisted from television, including a programme called ‘Hootenanny’a gathering at which folk singers entertain, often with the audience joining in – a word which he had introduced into the English-American vocabulary.

There is a seduction of the audience going on here. The audience may have arrived passionate about black rights, but other causes are posed as related. Thus the themes of campaigning against nuclear weapons and the US treatment of Cuba get woven into the Civil Rights story.

A few years later Seeger is front stage for the Vietnam War protest movement.

In 1967 his ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ was a hit on the college circuit. Superficially, it is a soldier’s story, of a captain leading a platoon across a river which gets progressively deeper and more dangerous, ‘But the big fool said to push on.’ Eventually the captain disappears into quicksand, the platoon pulls back, and discover that, for all his confidence, the captain had misunderstood the terrain. But the audience knew it was a song about President Johnson leading the nation into the Vietnam morass. So did the media executives, and they banned it. What should have been a mass hit was stifled by censorship. (In 1991 I recycled the song in a Listener column to describe what the Rogernomes were doing to the New Zealand economy.)

Although Seeger does not always write great lyrics, he has an extraordinary ability to find others’ texts and put them to music. His co-writers include the Almanac Singers, the Bible, Alex Comfort, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jose Marti, Matt McGinn, Malvina Reynolds, and William Shakespeare, sources indicating the breadth of material, embracing international and national, past and present, writers.

‘My Name is Lisa Kalvelage’ is an almost verbatim version of the statement of a woman arrested on a peace protest against napalm bombs. She had been born in Nuremberg, and as a GI bride wanting to enter America, was closely examined about her involvement in Hitler’s regime. This questioning, and the trials of her birth city, gave her an understanding of, and commitment to, the principles of personal responsibility, which, twenty years later, she applied in California, to be arrested for doing so. The words are so dignified, so apt, so moving, they are blazed on my conscience, yet I cannot recall the music, so beautifully subdued and supporting is the background guitar.

The song finishes up in the air, with the words of the final verse:

The events of May 25th, the day of our protest,
Put a small balance weight on the other side.
Hopefully, someday, my contribution to peace
Will help just a bit to turn the tide.
And perhaps I can tell my children six
And later on their own children
That at least in the future they need not be silent
When they are asked, ‘Where was your mother, when?’

leaving the audience to ponder their personal ‘when’. Seeger uses the same ending style for his standard presentation of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’, terminating abruptly at the finish of the third verse. The audience knows the circularity of the song.

Seeger’s musical skills are that of a melodist and instrumentalist, a fine one at that, who has written books on how to play the guitar, the 12 string guitar, the banjo, and even on the steelpan drums of Trinidad (2), Rescuing the banjo from its joke reputation as being something black minstrels played, to a respectable and complex musical instrument (it is his favourite) has meant that it can now contribute to a symphony orchestra, as occurred in a New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concert in 1999 (3).

From one perspective Seeger resisted modernisation. He had a key role at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in which Bob Dylan moved into ‘electric rock’, leaving the traditional folksinger’s path. (Before then some had seen Dylan as the next Pete Seeger.) Deeply shocked by what many saw as a betrayal, Seeger nevertheless gathered the players together for the finale. But he withdrew from public involvement shortly after for a period. He never joined the movement to electric rock and beyond in his own performances. The times may have been a-changing, and he continued to develop techniques and write new songs often based on old melodies. But keeping to his craft, he allowed others to develop theirs. A recent double CD, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (Appleseed Music, 1998), has a host of folk singers, each performing a Seeger song, and some of them using post-1960 folk musical arrangements.

Like many other loving musical fathers, there are a host of children’s songs in his opus/repertoire. One of my favourites comes from a Russian child’s painting on which he wrote, ‘May there always be sunshine, may there always be blue skies, may there always be mummy, may there always be me’.

Later, environmental songs are added. He sings passionately and movingly about the Hudson River on which he lives and sails, and which became polluted. Enjoy ‘Sailing Down My Dirty Stream’, an ironic comment on his earlier ‘Sailing Down This Golden River’.

Any complete record of Seeger ‘s achievements must also include mention of his efforts to preserve, publish and promote folk music. He still retains an active role with Sing Out! (4) , reflecting a host of earlier efforts to keep folk music alive and popular.

Slowly, but surely, he became accepted as part of America, even to the point that recently President Clinton honoured him. It has been a long journey from the days when he was considered so subversive that the mainstream media would not touch him.

What about Seeger’s spirituality? He does not seem to have been a regular churchgoer, although he came from a religious family, made use of church folk music and spirituals, and willingly sang in churches. Probably the most famous version of the well-known passage of Ecclesiastes is Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)’.

Nevertheless I was struck by the spirit of his most recent CD, Pete (Living Music Records, 1997), in which he explores yet another issue: how to think about aging, and the end of human life. Death is perhaps the greatest challenge. Many people, even today, avoid its apparent finality by claims of an afterlife, although the proportion of the religious who make no such claims appears to be rising. Most humanists reject the possibility. Those that believe in the traditional afterlife have a simple explanation of why we are here. The rest do not, and yet as they get older they are faced with questions of the purpose of life and the meaning of death, while rejecting the answers from traditional religion. It requires considerable courage to face honestly the old questions without the old answers. Even for a humanist the answers appear to involve spirituality, a spirituality often related to music. It is almost as if the bits of the brain that deal with them are the same or close together. It is easy to see in Bach, say, a religious conviction in music rising out of a religious commitment in life, but Beethoven’s music and life challenge any direct connection, while enchancing the bond between music and spirituality. So does Seeger’s.

Seeger gives no direct indication of a belief in an afterlife: the final song in Pete is pointedly ‘To My Old Brown Earth’:

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of ‘I’

Instead, the songs on the CD celebrate a person’s life, friendships, and ideals. The penultimate contribution is a banjo version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, which is cheeky in one way, but in another shows the ability of a banjo, in Seeger’s hands, to play serious classical music. It also links Seeger’s philosophy to Beethoven’s and Schiller’s.

It is always instructive how a good song written for a specific occasion can be transformed to an apparently universal one. In the late 1960s Seeger was asked to write a song for Otto Preminger’s film Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, which was about three severely disabled people living together, illustrating the capacity of people with disabilities to celebrate life. In Pete, a quarter of a century later, ‘Old Devil Time’ takes on a new meaning:

Old devil time, I’m goin’ to fool you now!
Old devil time, you’d like to bring me down!
When I’m feeling low, my lovers gather ’round
And help me rise to fight you one more time!

It would be easy to accuse Seeger of just being a stirrer, who hopped on to every fashionable bandwagon that passed. One could even argue the Communist Party engagement of the 1930s and 1940s was one of the earliest examples, for many people joined then because it seemed the thing to do. But to view Seeger’s life as a series of five year stints in fashionable radical causes is to miss its coherence.

In 1962, when he was 43, Seeger wrote’ Sailing Down My Golden River’ , a song of a child, or someone recalling childhood, involving messing about in a boat in a local estuary or complex of creeks:

Sailing down my golden river
Sun and water all my own
Yet I was never alone…
Sun and water, old life-givers
I’ll have them where’ er I roam
And I was not far from home.

By the time it is being sung by a man in his seventies in the album Pete, it is a statement of someone who has travelled far, done many things, for many causes, and yet was never far from the home of his beliefs. That is a more useful way to think about Seeger’s life. Each radical cause became an opportunity for him to express decency, humanity and the possibility of progress. He did so actively, leading a host of musical and social movements, and leaving a whole lot of great music, which will remain with humankind, as long as it sings.

Go to top

I was asked to nominate my Ten Favourite Songs that Pete Seeger is associated with:
The Bells of Rhymney
Declaration of Independence
Guantanamera .
How Can I Keep from Singing?
If I Had a Hammer
John Henry
Kisses Sweeter than Wine
May There Always be Sunshine
My Name is Lisa Kalvelage
Oh Freedom!
Old Devil Time
Peatbog Soldiers
Quite Early One Morning
Sailing Down this Golden River
Sailing Down my Dirty Stream
Seek and You Shall Find
Solidarity Forever
Talking Union
This Land is Your Land
Those Three are on My Mind
Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)
Union Maid
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
We Shall Not Be Moved
We Shall Overcome
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

(OK. So Pete Seeger is such a big man, his ten is larger than most.)

Notes/Biblography /Discography
(1) The concert recording is We Shall Overcome: Pete Seeger Recorded Live at His Historic Carnegie Hall Concert, June 8, 1963, Columbia Records, Monaural BP 473073.
(2) Steel Drums: How to Play Them and Make Them, instruction manual by Pete Seeger, an Oak Publication, 1964.
(3) ‘Promenade Overture’ by John Corigliano, played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 1999.
(4) Sing Out!,founded in 1950, the New York based bimonthly magazine, published by Folkways, covering the entire North American traditional music scene as well as the contemporary urban scene, and described by one of the founding editors, Alan Senauke, , as an alternative to the predigested sounds of pop music, bought and sold by giant record companies and slippery-tongued promoters’.
(5) ‘To My Old Brown Earth ” words and music by Pete Seeger ( 1958), copyright renewed, 1964, by Storrnking Music Inc.

The Incompleat Folksinger , Simon and Schuster, 1976, is the earlier autobiography, and includes very extensive coverage of the singer’s own songs and traditional songs. A later autobiographical work, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Sing Out Publications, 1993, is described on the Seeger website as ‘absolutely THE definitive book by and about Pete Seeger for those who admire him and love his music’. This text seems to be out of print. The adventurous enquirer can contact Sing Out Publications, P. O. Box 5253, Bethlehem PA 180150253.

How Can I Keep From Singing? By David King Dunaway, McGraw-Hill, 1981, is the major biography.
http:/ /ourworld.compuserve .com/homepages/ JirnCapaldi/index.htm>The Pete Seeger Appreciation website contains an almost complete discography, a list of songs he has written, some with their words, and a list of books by and about Pete Seeger.

Go to top