By Allan M. Winkler
Pete Seeger, the father of American folk music, died on Monday evening at the age of 94. Wiry and spry, he still played his long-necked banjo with the same exuberance he’d shown for decades until the very end. Pilloried in the past, he was part of the celebratory concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Musicologist Alan Lomax once observed that modern American folk music was born the night Pete met Woody Guthrie at a benefit concert for migrant farm workers in 1940. Guthrie took Seeger out West, riding freight trains, thumbing rides, playing in bars for nickels and dimes. The homespun Oklahoman taught the Harvard-educated Seeger how to keep the music simple and accessible to an audience, a lesson he learned well
Singing first with the Almanac Singers, then the Weavers, and finally on his own, Seeger found himself in the forefront of every important social movement of the past 75 years. A tireless supporter of union organization in the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party, performing his songs with banjo and guitar accompaniment to promote worker solidarity.
He sang out against American involvement in the Second World War in the early 1940s, only to change his tune after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He even enlisted in the Army and served overseas in the South Pacific.
In the 1950s, he found himself under attack in the Red Scare for his radical past. He narrowly escaped a long jail term for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, when a contempt conviction for invoking his constitutional right to free speech was thrown out on a technicality.
In the 1960s, he became the minstrel of the civil rights movement, focusing its energy with songs that inspired protestors and challenged the nation’s patterns of racial discrimination. Indeed, he rewrote the song “We Shall Overcome,” and helped it become the anthem of the movement.
Toward the end of the decade, he turned his talents against the war in Vietnam, and, like many of its critics, drew fire from those who attacked his dissent as treason.
Finally, in the 1970s, he led the drive to clean up the Hudson River, which flowed almost literally through his backyard in New York State, and lent his voice to the growing environmental movement.
Seeger’s wonderful songs live on. Groups getting together to sing still know the words to “If I Had a Hammer,” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” or “Turn, Turn, Turn,” along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
Seeger dedicated his life to getting people to sing together. In concerts, he enlisted the audience’s help. He revived old songs and taught them to people who had never heard them before. “I begin to feel like old Grandpa,” he once remarked. “But I’m 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.” He taught them to all of us, and became the patron of such figures as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, and dozens of others. In 1994, at the age of 75, he had the satisfaction of being awarded the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest official cultural honor. In 2006, Bruce Springsteen’s tribute – the Seeger Sessions , featuring songs that Pete sang – made him known anew to audiences around the world.
I got to know Pete about 10 years ago, when I was writing a short biography: “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song. I interviewed him half a dozen times, usually bringing my guitar along, for he was always willing to play together. Over time, as I got to know him and his family better, I brought my wife, and once my sister, along, and he was always welcoming. Just before the book was published in 2009, I asked if I could bring a couple of colleagues to his home in Beacon, New York on a Sunday afternoon in January to play music together. And so, with our wives with us, we sat in his living room with a fire blazing, looking over the Hudson River, two banjos, two acoustic guitars, for about two and a half hours. It doesn’t get any better than that. After the book appeared, I taught a senior seminar on Folk Music at Miami University, and on a beautiful fall day, I brought a dozen of my students to Beacon to meet Pete, talk with him, sing with him, and appreciate all that he gave us.
I miss him already.
Allan M. Winkler, is University Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University of Ohio, and author most recently of “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song.