by Eli Smith
Today we honor Pete Seeger, the first and greatest of modern folk musicians. Pete did it all. What great talent and vision. We won’t see his like again. Included here are a few film clips of him over the years that I think are really good. Click Here to hear an interview I did with Pete in 2007 for Down Home Radio.
Pete Seeger invented being an urban folk singer in its modern incarnation. All the strands that we see around us today he in a lot of ways did first, the traditional, the popular and progressive sounds, the political. Pete was among the very first (maybe 1st?) people from outside the tradition to learn thoroughly very traditional banjo playing and ballads from records, field recordings and firsthand sources in the South. He also played popular and classical music on the banjo and was very well versed in African-American music and 12-string guitar playing learned directly from Leadbelly among other sources. He built on his experience of Woody Guthrie’s songs and style to make his own protest songs in an early modern singer-songwriter style which he invented and which also paved the way for later “Folk-Rock” stylings. And as he broke through into the mass media with his band The Weavers and as a solo performer, Pete really invented the genre of “Folk Music” as a category within the field of Popular Music as a whole. In fact, Pete’s father Charles Seeger, a founder of the field of Ethnomusicology, wrote on the subject, saying that in the modern era, folk and popular music would meld as isolated, local and traditional communities were brought under the influence of mass communication and rapid transit.
In the many pieces now being written in the press about Pete I often see it said that he “was a champion of justice, civil rights and the environment.” That is very true, in addition to and in conjunction with music he was a committed and extraordinary social activist. He was also a life long socialist, and someone who had a deep sense of compassion, fairness and respect for all people and communities.
His activities in the Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement and Environmental Movement I have seen widely discussed. But a major part of Pete Seeger’s legacy and the foundation of his identity as a musician, is his crucial involvement in and commitment to folk music. Somehow this aspect of his life, which was of a piece with his other convictions, seems to be poorly understood in the mass media and is somehow always mentioned only in passing. Pete Seeger CARED about folk music – music with a long history, made and perpetuated by regular rural people, played in a rough style and dealing with topics and gritty realities that pop music would never touch.
["To Hear Your Banjo Play" - 1947 - narrated by Alan Lomax and featuring a young Pete Seeger and the only footage of Woody Guthrie in his prime.]
Pete Seeger personally did the fundamental work that popularized the repertoire and created the social context for folk music to persist in our modern mass culture society. For instance, in 1939 Pete operated the recording machine for Alan Lomax as he recorded the great banjo players Pete Steele (whose instrumental Coal Creek March he often performed) and Wade Ward, absolute bedrock recordings for anyone interested in playing real traditional old time banjo music. But its much more than that…
First off, Pete Seeger invented the concept of “pop-folk,” with his band the Weavers, teaming up on their early records with producer Gordon Jenkins (who also worked with Frank Sinatra, etc… for Decca Records) to create a hybrid music of songs from the folk repertoire in a pop style that was usable by the mass culture industry of the time and became extremely popular. And secondly he pioneered the idea of mass group singing at concert events. Pete literally sang together with millions of people over the course of his career.
Pete did the hard touring, taking him away from his wife Toshi and family, starting in the 1940′s and continuing for decades, that created from scratch the audience for Folk Music in modern post WWII America. Much of his work over the many years has been with children, at schools and summer camps, a field which few popular entertainers particularly in the early days, would touch. These children grew up and became the folk music audience and folk musicians of the 1950′s, 60′s and on…
Urbanized or suburbanized people were and are used to experiencing music passively as commercial consumers of CDs, radio, etc. Pete’s mass group singing at his concerts gave people who had lost a personal connection to making and experiencing music, a way to connect, feel good about their musical selves and be a part of a community. He gave back to so many people, at least on a basic level, the chance to sing and make music together, a vital part of being human, even as “progress” has worked to alienate and isolate us. Most were content to sing with Pete at the concerts but many many people also went home and picked up instruments and pursued making music themselves more proactively at different levels.
[Pete sings out against the Vietnam War on the Johnny Cash show with his song "Bring 'Em Home."]
What a talent. That was what allowed him to breakthrough and operate in the visionary way that he did. Pete Seeger had so much talent it was stunning. He was completely unlike any other figure or “entertainer” in the field of American popular music. He was and is the only person in the popular consciousness who cared about folk music, really knew what he was talking about in a very serious way and took that understanding to the stage in his performances. He played at colleges, summer camps, big venues, benefit concerts, radio and television, everywhere. Pete Seeger was also a founder of the Newport Folk Festival that presented so many great traditional artists and is also inextricably linked to the first and greatest independent record company devoted to American Folk Music, Moe Asch’s Folkways Records. Without Pete, who knows if Folkways could have survived all these years. He recorded dozens and dozens of albums for them, which remain among their biggest sellers, and have given them so much needed revenue over the years when most of their amazing recordings did not.
Pete was an intellectual and a theorist, as was his father, and was very widely read. He also made films, field recordings and started the magazines People’s Songs and then its successor Sing Out! where he wrote columns, published songs and engaged in dialogue and journalism for years. He has also written several books, song books and banjo and guitar instructional manuals.
Pete Seeger is much more than a protest singer, although he was certainly that and in great form. He was incredibly proactive and prolific. When did he sleep? In the few times that I got to meet and spend some time with him I found him totally unassuming, uninterested in stardom in anyway, without ego and yet extremely charming and compelling. He was indeed very tall and slim, he had small eyes, a ready crooked smile and he drank butter milk. You realized immediately upon talking with him that he was extremely smart, focused but also a serious dreamer, whose ideas many felt were impractical! But a lot of them caught on in big ways… If folk music means something to you, then Pete Seeger lives on.