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Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014)

February 7, 2014

This is the first and hopefully last time I’ll run consecutive posts about the loss of some great humans.  Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pete Seeger carved out a spot in our culture that will remain unique.

Seeger was born to a life out of the mainstream.  His mother Constance was trained to be a concert violinist at the Paris Conservatory of Music and taught at Julliard.  His father Charles came to U Cal Berkeley in 1912 to establish the music department, but had to resign in 1919 because of his pacifist opposition to World War I.

His parents divorced in 1926.  Six years later Charles married Ruth Crawford, who would become an influential modernist composer.  Her love of folk music exposed the family to a variety of experiences.  At 17, Pete heard the five-string banjo for the first time at a folk festival.  He set out to master it.  He attended Harvard, but dropped out in 1938 after his deepening involvement in music and leftist politics caused him to lose his scholarship.

Seeger married Toshi-Aline Ota in 1943.  She bore him four children, the first of which, Peter, died at six months while Seeger was deployed overseas with the Army.  They remained married until her death last July.  Seeger credited her support as the reason he accomplished what he did.

And what he did is such a massive body of work that I can’t do it justice in the confines of this blog.  If your curiosity is piqued, start with his Wikipedia entry.  Here’s a taste: he wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and co-wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer”.  He was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1961 for refusing to answer questions or plead the Fifth Amendment in front of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was later overturned.

Seeger was an original board member of the Newport Folk Festival, which gave huge boosts to the careers of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Jose Feliciano.  He helped found the environmental group Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which celebrates that area’s cultural history and works to clean up the river.  He marched with Occupy Wall Street.

Last September, two months after his wife’s death and four months before his own, Seeger performed at Farm Aid in Saratoga Springs, New York.  He sang Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land”, adding a verse he’d written specifically for the concert.  Ten days before he died peacefully in his sleep at age 94, he was chopping wood.

I owe Pete a long-belated thank you for a kerfuffle he got into in 1967.  He was appearing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to sing his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, which is about a captain in World War II who drowned while leading troops in training.  The final lines are “every time I read the papers/those old feelings come on/we are waist deep in the Big Muddy/and the big fool says to push on.”

CBS got skittish that the lyrics could be considered a reference to the Vietnam War and LBJ, so the song was cut.  The outcry against that grew so loud that he came back on the show four months later to sing it.

Pete, as one of those who got pushed through the Big Muddy, I thank you for the controversy.  And for all the other ways you enriched our lives.

 

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3 Comments
  1. February 9, 2014 6:20 pm

    I was at a Pete Seeger concert in Saskatoon in about 1972 and became a huge admirer of him and his music. The whole concert was just Pete and the rest of us singing together. My friends and I learned and sang all his music. He proved the power of honest music.
    Julie
    (I have a new blog, Safe Place for Poets. So far it’s mainly about poetry.)

    • February 14, 2014 8:44 am

      Well, hey, Julie! Good to learn that you’re surviving a prairie province winter. Seeger’s ongoing influence far outweighs any headlines he might have grabbed along his journey. My next stop is your new blog.

  2. Gordon permalink
    February 19, 2014 12:37 pm

    Man, I am so far behind. Just caught up with this blog and, as usual, appreciate it greatly. I saw Seeger in person at least twice at Wolftrap here in Virginia during the 70s and 80s when he appeared with Arlo Guthrie, sorta passing the torch even at that early time. (Arlo now has white hair and is likely looking for torch recipients.) There we were, a multitude of Washington bureaucrats and stuffed shirts, sitting there on the lawn, clapping our hands in time to the banjo and swaying back and forth when he told us to. Remarkable evenings; remarkable life.

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