Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Obituary: Pete Seeger

Famed folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, 94, died yesterday. He played the banjo and guitar and was an important part of American popular music in the twentieth century. He was a noted songwriter who saw music as a way to further political ideals. He wrote such classic pieces like "We Shall Overcome," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn!," and "The Hammer Song."

In fact, it is almost impossible to write about the 1960s at all without mentioning Seeger, who was a big influence on younger musicians.

Seeger was active almost to the end of his life.

This clip featured Seeger with Bruce Springsteen at Obama's first inaugural back in 2009. Seeger wasn't quite 90 here:

Seeger also hosted a PBS or public affairs program back in the 1960s called Rainbow Quest. This show featured some of the all-time greats in the folk/country blues field. In this clip, circa 1965 or 1966, Seeger shoots the breeze with country blues great Mississippi John Hurt, who was one hell of a musician and one of my favorites:

Seeger seemed to know everybody who was anybody in the field of twentieth century music:

For a time, Seeger played banjo for children in his aunt's classroom. At 17, he met celebrated musicologist Alan Lomax, who hired him to transcribe songs from the Library of Congress collection. Through Lomax, he met Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, king of the 12-string guitar and a living archive of black American music, who broadened Seeger's musical horizons.

"I think of Lead Belly always sitting up straight and singing right out straight," Seeger once said, using a description that could apply to his own musicianship. "No slyness, no finagling, no tricks."

On March 3, 1940, at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant worker benefit concert, Seeger met Guthrie. The renaissance of the American folk song could be pegged to that night, Lomax later said.

Seeger rejoined Guthrie and Millard Lampell in New York City, playing the "subway circuit" — left-wing fund-raising parties. They soon formed the Almanac Singers, which also included Hays and a changing cast of others. The group sang such activist tunes as "The Talking Union Blues" and the pacifist song "The Ballad of Oct. 16."

Because of his early membership in the Communist Party, which he later spurned, Seeger found himself jailed for a time and blacklisted, but he didn't see his setbacks as a negative. He later encountered censorship with an appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour back in the late 1960s with his anti-Vietnam war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," but the number appeared on a later broadcast. By that time, public opinion was turning away from US involvement in Indochina.

Seeger continued to be involved in causes such as opposing the Iraq war, environmentalism, and the Occupy movement.

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