I’ve never been a fan of the traditional folk music of the 1950s and early 1960s. The entire concept, “Hey, let’s sing this song together that will end war, poverty, injustice, and bee stings,” always seemed a bit soft in the noodle to me. I’d rather hear about Joey Ramone’s need to sniff glue. However, on the passing of Pete Seeger, it struck me how little conversation there was about his contributions to music and how much conversation there was about his activism. You can’t separate the two when it comes to Seeger and being blacklisted for one’s beliefs is an easier story to tell/sell, but let’s not forget that his contributions to popular music were major indeed.
Seeger wasn’t some rube that wandered off a West Virginia tobacco farm. His father, Charles Seeger, was a noted ethnomusicologist that taught at several prestigious universities. One of Pete’s first gigs in the music industry was doing archivist work with music historian Alan Lomax. By his early twenties, Seeger had a deep knowledge and respect for traditional American country music (then referred to as “hillbilly” music) and “race” records.
His first professional outfit was the Almanac Singers, a group that specialized in rather unimaginative agitprop (first anti-war, then pro-war, always pro-union). The anti-war songs that this group released and Seeger’s 1940’s membership in the Communist Party created the opportunity for Seeger to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. A few facts to consider during this timeframe – there was a strong public sentiment against both the military draft and entering World War II prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor (the Almanacs were not taking an extreme position),“Dear Mr. President” is as anti-Hitler as anything from that jingoistic era, Seeger served in the Army during World War II, and the United States was an ally of Communist Russia during WW II. Seeger simply became an easy political target when high-ranking members of the United States government decided it needed to punish people not for their actions, but for the beliefs that they held.
In 1948, Seeger became a member of the Weavers, a less overtly political group than the Almanac Singers. I have been unable to find reliable chart data on the Weavers, but they did have significant pop hits and other influential material. The breakdown:
“If I Had a Hammer.” Seeger wrote this definitive folk activism song in 1949 with fellow Weaver Lee Hays. The Weavers single version bombed, but Peter, Paul, and Mary took the song to #10 on the pop charts in 1962. Trini Lopez, giving the song a more danceable groove, took it to #3 on the pop charts in 1963.
“Goodnight, Irene.” The Weavers popularized this Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) suicidal ideation ballad, somehow managing to make it sound like a bubblegum commercial. It went to #1 on the pop charts, but perhaps more importantly, highlighted a connection between folk music and traditional blues.
“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” This 1951 hit was another tarted up Lead Belly number, a rewrite of the 1937 recording “If It Wasn’t for Dicky.” 1950’s pop star Jimmie Rodgers (no relation to “The Singing Brakeman”) took his pop version to #3 in 1957).
“Wimoweh.” You know this tune as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Alan Lomax found a 1939 recording by Solomon Linda, performed with The Evening Birds choir, and brought to Seeger’s attention. The Weavers released a hit version in 1951, which contained the underlying chant but no lyrics. In 1961, George David Weiss, who wrote music for Broadway and for films, gave the tune lyrics and the Tokens took “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to #1 in 1961. Legal disputes regarding the proper writing credits/publishing took decades to resolve.
“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” “Michael” was a Negro spiritual that was first published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. Seeger learned it from a Boston folk singer and brought it to the Weavers. The Highwaymen (no relation to Willie, Waylon, and the boys) had a #1 pop hit with “Michael” in 1961.
“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” Moving past the Weavers era, Seeger developed the first three verses for this moving anti-war song in 1955 and performed it as part of a medley in 1960. Joe Hickerson wrote additional verses, cleverly making it a circular song, and The Kingston Trio popularized the complete song in 1961. The cover versions on this one are staggering – The Searchers, Bobby Darin, Roy Orbison, Flatt and Scruggs, EARTH, WIND, AND FIRE!!! And about 200 others.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” Not a driving instruction, Seeger took a particularly poetic section from the Book of Ecclesiastes, attached a gorgeous melody to it, and gave the world one of it’s most beautiful folk rock songs. Originally recorded by The Limeliters in 1962, Roger McGuinn brought the number to the attention of The Byrds and the group scored a #1 pop hit with it in 1965.
That’s a good place to stop, although we haven’t mentioned “Bells of Rhymney” or Seeger’s role in keeping songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land is Your Land” in public consciousness. As a writer and interpreter, Pete Seeger gave the world music that the public has enjoyed for decades and will continue to enjoy when he has long been forgotten.
And, to return to his politics, there are two indelible images from the ending of the PBS “American Masters” special on the man. In one scene, he is singing “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s anthem about America belonging to its people, not its creator, to a group of children that appear to be of kindergarten age. The expressions of joy on the children’s faces are a reminder of why people love music and its importance in our lives. In the final scene, Seeger and a few hearty souls stand on a corner on a snowy day in upstate New York, protesting one of America’s oil wars. He was a true believer in his convictions until the very end.
If we have learned anything during the past few decades, as our nation evolves from a democracy into a de facto oligarchy, it is that the voices of dissent will continue to pay a heavy price – we are all pawns in a large corporate game. We will need reminders that when capitalism trumps community, we all lose. And, despite my kneejerk cynicism, we still truly need songs of hope to sing around the campfire.
simultaneously self-effacing and egomaniacs
essentially a disco remix of “Rocket Man” featuring one of the the UK’s biggest stars…
“I literally really need you to jump up and down”
Friday night might kill us but Thursday evening is a blast
it just isn’t the triumph she needed after six years
an impressive sonic ride.
a high-spirited Post Pandemic anthem
a memorable band who were never better than here
almost Pink Floyd-esque