It’s always deceptively easy to dismiss an icon, especially when the iconic subject of dismissal held many unpopular, or even historically incorrect, viewpoints on things. But to dismiss Pete Seeger with a shrug and think “he was just some old Commie” seems to be too trite and far too little as respect such a one of elder age might deserve.
Pete Seeger’s music was in my life from an early age, one might say, it was there at the start. Some of my earliest memories of music in my parent’s home involved listening to a vinyl lp, “The Weavers At Carnegie Hall”, which I remember most for “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “Wimoweh”, "Darling Corey", and “Goodnight Irene.” My parents, early involved in what might later have been called the “Reagan Revolution” or the “Goldwater Party” saw no contradiction in offering this to me, nearly day and night, up until the age of twelve, anyway, when I rediscovered this album while learning guitar.
And then Mr. Seeger was there again, in my 12th summer, on the television. His program Rainbow Quest in one episode featured a Scottish singer named Donovan. This was marvelous, because for me, Donovan was one of the true role models I took for my own point of view, maybe from a performer’s aspect, but also, synergetically, from the “lifestyle” another tv program, a documentary called “A Boy Named Donovan” had purported to represent. That I and my best friend would later end up living in just such conditions as those meant to be represented in Donovan’s pre-fame, pre-roxtar era, and actually, a bit more poverty-stricken and desperate than his own (which did not last long) never occurred to us- at the time it was quite romantic and appealing. Donovan and Gypsy Dave... well, that is all another story.
Back to Mr. Seeger. He was in my life again when I took up the five-string banjo, and found his “Little Red” (later published in editions of Blue and Green) “How To Play The Five-String Banjo” instructional book to be inestimable in value as to its giving method, technique, and more importantly, a bit of repertoire. Equally important in value, as I felt it was, to the Earl Scruggs method book for five-string banjo. As I recall, they used different tunings, too- Seeger focused on a “C” tuning, while Scruggs used an open “G”. And I gravitated toward the G-tuning, since I felt there were many more songs in the key of G (or which might lend themselves easier in related keys) than Seeger’s tuning. But it was a small matter, since many of the tablature charts were helpful, as was the description of the different forms of strumming- “frailing”, “clawhammer”, and “three finger picking”. All of it went into my head, although as I now later admit, I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever remember about playing banjo, having focused on guitar and bass (and even pedal steel guitar) in later years, and no longer owning one.
Nevertheless. If Pete Seeger had not been around, so many of us would never have been as absorbed by acoustic music, or as it was known then, “folk” music. The Weavers along with John Cohen and Allen Lomax and their ilk kept an American version of the folksong collection tradition (in the UK, represented by Martin Sharp, Cecil Field, and Francis Child) alive, and did so by keeping the songs themselves alive. So many of these songs, and styles, could have easily withered and died on the vine, Balkanized in their isolation, were it not for Pete Seeger and others of his kind. That was the real value of these people to culture.
That Mr. Seeger was at one time a member of the Communist Party could perhaps be forgiven as well as some of his later dispensations of “political correctness,” although like so many, recently, having been used as a “useful idiot” for our current President Spybot and his administration looks to be the final insult and embarrassment for a man who spent so much of his time struggling for what he felt to be justice and truth and a more decent world. There were an awful lot of these “useful idiots” in the Obamanation juggernaut who perhaps now see little contradiction, although it’s as apparent as the Emperor’s New Clothing. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead, for example, who rushed gushingly to endorse him. Jerry Garcia would never have done so, in fact, Jerry Garcia probably would never have even assented to making a “group statement” in the manner of his fellows, had he been alive, back in 2008. Rah-rah-rah, the secret police state is here! Garcia was as apolitical as a sea bass. And in that respect, Pete’s old-line Soviet state boosterism is equalized, the old KGB grant money to the Popular Front movement balances with Obama’s new illegal and unconstitutional US-Style edition of the repressive KGB-Stasi mind police. Well, we are only but one leap removed from having that at the moment.
I could think of a better legacy for Pete Seeger than to have been no more than just another useful vote in helping our current capitalist warmonger (the D beside his name is a small matter. There’s hardly any difference in any of the authoritarians in power now, “D” or “R”, in their bipartisan enthusiasm to crush Constitutional rights and freedom in the name of “homeland security”) to grasp for, attain, and keep, his Princely powers. He is and will remain a great voice in American music. You wonder how some of these other old-school lefty folkies, like Joan Baez, must now feel, about the absolutely hypocritical turnarounds their darling “civil rights legacy” president has unleashed upon all of us. But little matter. He’s spoken tonight- the usual “trot out some martyred soldier act”- of Americans making sacrifices and how all the world looks to us because of our ideals, and more, all of that hackneyed & cliched “patriotic” bullshit. Equality under the law, Mr Obama, means that you are as responsible as anyone else is to the law. America cannot long survive when equality under the law means, “your equal right to be completely monitored.” But Mr. Seeger, bullshitted though he often may have been, himself descended from someone who fought in battles at the very founding of the Republic, will probably be looking down from above & blanching. You did not build that America which elected you, Mr. Obama. People like Pete Seeger did. And speaking of building the America he knew it could be, I would say that the super-spy police-state framework which you have overseen the creation of, the new totalitarian "Oceania" megastate of transnationally-shared individuals' personal data- is not, never was, never can be, the America which Pete Seeger “thought we could be.” And I for one will continue to speak up about what I see as wrong in your own policies, and where you have been, or are, attempting to take us.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. -John Donne