Pete Seeger and the Inauguration
Purdy, Publicity Director
In my youth, back when 8-track players were the cutting edge of music technology, I have fond memories of Sundays when my dad would sing along to his favorite tapes: Eddie Arnold, Slim Whitman, Charlie Pride, Jim Reeves, The Weavers and many others. My father had a good voice and these singers had a style and range that complemented his voice. I sometimes wondered if he had not been the great, good responsible sort, caring for his wife/my mother and three obstreperous boys before he’d even reached the ripe age of 25, if he would not have been more like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, riding the rails, thumbing the by-ways and back roads, singing for his supper. My dad loved to sing, and never missed an opportunity to spotlight his talents when opportunity presented itself in the form of a wedding or funeral or festival. I remember one night watching a documentary special about the Weavers. My dad watched with envy and awe. He sang Goodnight Irene for weeks non-stop following that program. It rings in my ears to this day. Pete Seeger of The Weavers most recently appeared at President Obama’s inaugural celebration. He will turn 90 this May 3rd. Allan Winkler, author of the forthcoming To Everything There is a Season (May 2009) offers up some thoughts about Seeger’s lingering impact on that sea of humanity in DC for the inauguration.
There he was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Abe looking over his shoulder in the background. It was part of the exuberant “We Are One” concert the day before the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bruce Springsteen, perhaps America’s best known singer, had just done a song on his own, and now he welcomed 89-year-old Pete Seeger, “the father of American folk music,” with his grandson Tao to lead the crowd of several hundred thousand in Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land.”
As he has done for more than 60 years, Pete started off by giving the audience lines of the song. Over the years, he has dedicated his life to getting people to sing along, and this concert was no exception. But this time the crowd needed no help. People were eager to join in what Springsteen called “the greatest song ever written about our home.”
Pete was in fine form. In his 30s and 40s and 50s, he often seemed serious in concert. He took satisfaction in moving an audience along, but appeared earnest. The real satisfaction came from a job well done. Now he seemed to radiate an unadulterated joy.
He’s admired Springsteen for some time, and was genuinely pleased when “the Boss” put out his Seeger Sessions CD a couple of years ago. This album consisted entirely of songs Seeger had sung and helped popularize, and got attention for both men. Pete, who had tangled with the establishment for decades, over union issues, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the environment, who had been willing to go to prison when he felt Congress exceeded its bounds by insisting that he talk about his Communist past, now has the status of icon. He still performs in an occasional concert with Tao, but doesn’t like to travel. For this concert, a private plane brought him from his home in New York to Washington, D.C.
His enthusiasm was contagious. He had an old knit hat on his head. His long-necked banjo hung from a rope strap over his shoulder. But often, with a huge smile on his face, he let the banjo drop and used his arms to entreat the crowd to sing even louder. And all of us, both standing on the Mall and sitting in front of our television steps, were only too eager to join in.
For me, it was especially moving, for in the course of writing a short biography about Pete, I’ve gotten to know him and his wife Toshi. Both have been gracious, helpful, and hospitable, and have made the project one of the most enjoyable in my life. The first time I met Pete, we spoke on tape for about three hours, sitting in his living room in his home by the Hudson. When we finished that first interview, I said, “Pete, I’d like to ask you a favor.” When he asked what I wanted, I pointed to the banjo on the wall and said, “Would you play that thing for me?” He looked at me, then at the guitar I had brought with me, and replied, “Only if you’ll play with me.” And that, of course, what just what I had wanted to hear.
We played four songs that day, and others on subsequent visits. Then, in November, I was in New York, and brought my wife Sara up to meet Pete and Toshi, for she hadn’t been there before. At that visit, I asked if I could bring a couple of fellow historians with me for a musical afternoon in early January, when we would be attending the meeting of the American Historical Association. And so on a Sunday just two weeks before the inauguration, we drove up, with our banjos, guitars, and wives, and spent two and a half hours, playing music with Pete. We sang “This Land Is Your Land,” of course, and many of the other songs, like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” just to mention one, that he wrote and taught to us all. It was a wonderful afternoon. At first I felt self-conscious about asking him to play with me. But then I realized that he was “proudest of all that I’ve been able to be a kind of a link in a chain for a lot of people to learn some good songs.” We’re part of that chain, and he was only too willing to do with us what he’s spent his life doing with people around the world.
And there he was at the inaugural concert in Washington, D.C. It was an energetic performance, celebrating a momentous occasion. Pete, once unwelcome to the nation’s leaders, was there in fine form to help us celebrate the dawn of a new age.