Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Late Great Pete Seeger

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. He wrote or co-wrote many of the best known folk songs of the Twentieth Century, including "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)".  "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?". With The Weavers he would have a string of hits in the early Fifties.

Pete Seeger was born on 3 May 1919 in New York City. His father was the prominent musicologist and composer Charles Seeger (among his many claims to fame was formulating dissonant counterpoint and founding the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at the University of California in 1913). His stepmother was Ruth Seeger, well known composer and folk music scholar. His younger brother Mike Seeger was also a folk musician and folklorist. His younger sister Peggy Seeger was a folk singer. As might be expected, as a child Pete Seeger grew up hearing a good deal of folk music. It was in 1935, when Pete Seeger attended a folk music festival, that he was introduced to the five string banjo. It would become his chosen instrument, along with the 12 string guitar.

In 1936 Pete Seeger went to Harvard. Among his classmates there was John F. Kennedy. He dropped out halfway through his sophomore year. For a time he worked in the folklore archives of the Library of Congress. He later travelled throughout the United States. In 1941 Pete Seeger founded The Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie. The group recorded four albums before disbanding in late 1942 or late 1943. The album Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, released in 1944, would contain material from former members of The Almanac Singers, including Pete Seeger.  During World War II he served in the United States Army. In 1943 he married  Toshi-Aline Ōta, who became a prominent documentary filmmaker and producer in her own right. She died last year.

It was in 1948 Pete Seeger formed The Weavers with  Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. The group took their name from Gerhart Hauptmann's play Die Weber (The Weavers). After a rough start they eventually started playing regular gigs at The Village Vanguard, the jazz club in in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was there that pianist, composer, and arranger Gordon Jenkins discovered them. Signed to Decca Records, The Weavers would go to #1 on the Billboard singles chart with their cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene". The success of "Goodnight Irene" would be followed by further hits, including their version of "On Top of Old Smoky" (which went to #2 on the Billboard chart), 'Kisses Sweeter than Wine" (which went to #19 on the Billboard chart), "Wimoweh" (which went to #15 on the Billboard chart and was later covered by The Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), "Wreck of the John B", and a cover of Guy Mitchell's "The Roving Kind".

Unfortunately The Weavers' success would end with the Red Scare of the early Fifties. An FBI informant identified both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger as members of the Communist Party. As a result The Weavers were blacklisted. They were dropped from Decca Records and their songs were no longer played on radio stations. In 1955 both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger  were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Lee Hays declined to testify before HUAC, citing the Fifth Amendment. Not only did Pete Seeger refuse to take the Fifth Amendment, but he also refused to answer any questions about his political beliefs or any of his political associations. As a result Mr. Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress. For a few years afterwards he had to keep the Federal government appraised of his whereabouts.  He was convicted of contempt of Congress in a trial in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in jail, but in 1962 an appeals court overturned the conviction.

As to The Weavers, they reunited in 1955 for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The event was recorded and a live album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, was released by Vanguard Records. The Weavers were then signed by Vanguard Records. It was on 1 April 1958 that Pete Seeger left The Weavers. A disagreement had arisen when The Weavers were to provide vocals for a television commercial for cigarettes. Believing tobacco to be dangerous and viewing singing for a TV commercial as selling out, Pete Seeger decided to leave the group. He fulfilled his commitment to them for one year before his departure.

Pete Seeger continued to record songs and perform concerts, although his career was seriously hampered by being blacklisted. In 1963 he had a minor hit with the song "Little Boxes". In 1965 he covered Phil Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag". It was in 1965 that the blacklisting of Pete Seeger ended when he became the host of Rainbow Quest, a television programme devoted to folk music.

In 1967 he would have a minor hit with the song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy". The song was widely seen as an attack on President Lyndon B. Johnson and his escalation of the war in Vietnam. The song would become even more famous due to Pete Seeger's appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, his first appearance on network broadcast television since The Weavers had appeared on The Faye Emerson Show in 1950. He decided to perform "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" for the show. Unfortunately, CBS cut the song before that particular episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Perhaps because of the ensuing controversy over their decision, Pete Seeger was invited to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour again and appeared on its 25 February 1968 edition.

On 15 November 1969 Pete Seeger took part in the Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington, DC. During the Sixties Pete Seeger was a regular columnist in the journal Sing Out! and a contributor to the magazine Broadside. He was active in the Civil Rights movement and he encouraged Bernice Johnson to form The Freedom Singers, the folk group formed in 1962 to educate people about civil rights through music.

Pete Seeger remained active in the Seventies. He released seven albums throughout the decade. In 1972 he was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame. On television he appeared on The David Frost Show, The Dick Cavett Show, Sesame Street, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and All You Need is Love.

In the Eighties he slowed his album output, only releasing two albums (Sings Traditional Christmas Carols and A Fish That's a Song) during the decade. He performed a benefit concert for  Poland's Solidarity movement in 1982. In the 1990's Pete Seeger released one album, Pete, in 1996. In the Naughts he released the albums At 89 and Tomorrow's Children. He made a rare television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman to support the album. In 2009 he performed  "Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land" at President  Barack Obama's Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C with  Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger. That same year he performed at an Earth Day celebration at Teachers College in New York City. On 2 May 2009 the Clearwater Concert was held at Madison Square Garden in honour of Mr. Seeger's 90th birthday. Mr. Seeger was among the various performers.  In 2009 he also appeared at the 52nd Monterey Jazz Festival.

In the Teens he recorded his final albums, A More Perfect Union and Pete Remembers Woody. On 21 October 2011 he took part in a solidarity march with Occupy Wall Street. In 2012 his biography Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words was published. That same year performed with Arlo Guthrie and Mr. Guthrie's family at a concert at Carnegie Hall. In 2013 the audio book Pete Seeger: The Storm King; Stories, Narratives, Poems was released.

There can be no doubt that Pete Seeger was one of the most influential singers, musicians, and songwriters of the 20th Century. Both as one of The Weavers and as a solo artist he was largely responsible for ushering in the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Artists from The Kingston Trio to Peter, Paul, & Mary to Bob Dylan then owe Mr. Seeger a debt of gratitude. Along with Woody Guthrie, as one of The Almanac Singers Pete Seeger was largely responsible for the rise of the protest song in the United States. The Weavers would continue The Almanac Singers' history of protest songs with such songs as  "If I Had a Hammer", even if the political content of the songs was not explicit.

As a songwriter Pete Seeger was responsible for writing or co-writing some of the most iconic folk songs of the 20th Century. He adapted Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes for the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!", which would be a hit for The Byrds in 1965. With Joe Hickerson he wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", which would be recorded by The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and others. Along with Lee Hays of The Weavers he wrote "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)", later a hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary. He added lyrics to the melody "Mbube" by Solomon Linda (which Mr. Seeger thought was a traditional tune) to create the song "Wimoweh", which was later recorded by The Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".  His songs 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" has been covered multiple times.

Regardless of whether one agreed with Pete Seeger's political beliefs, there can also be no doubt that he was a man who stood by his convictions. He defied HUAC, citing the First Amendment when refusing to discuss his politics or the politics of others and risked possible imprisonment in doing so. He left The Weavers when he felt that the group had become too commercial. He stood by his choice of performing  "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" even when CBS had other ideas. Not only was Pete Seeger was a man of conviction, but he was also a man who did not let his age stand in his way of his career or his activism. Last year, only months before his death, he was still performing and still taking part in his causes. With the strength of his convictions and a long career, in the end it can be said that Pete Seeger truly made a difference.

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