The death of the iconic American singer/activist at the age of 94 recalls a century of struggle, both long gone and still living, says Crikey’s writer-at-large.
There are people who die at a great age, and it seems impossible they were still alive. When the writer Edward Upward, a quintessentially 1930s writer, Berlin and cabbage soup and railways, died in 2009, amid Facebook and convenience stores, it seemed like a sort of trick of the century. That is not the case with Pete Seeger (pictured), the musician and activist, whose passing at the age of 94 marks the end of a long continuity.
Last year he was playing at gatherings at the tail-end of the Occupy movement; he did the first of these in the late ’30s, a tall young man of ferocious energy, wielding a five-string banjo, the then somewhat obscure instrument he’d heard played at a square dance in North Carolina. Before the guitar went electric, the banjo was electrifying, its sharp strings and hard shell giving it an urgent intensity. Seeger sang and played it for strike parties, union benefits, hunger marches, peace rallies; later, for civil rights rallies, antiwar rallies, counterculture gatherings, anti-nuclear concerts, the global anti-capitalist movement, Iraq War rallies, and Occupy. He played protest songs and old folk ballads, songs of war and love, and thousands of children’s songs. He revived and sharpened We Shall Overcome, wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Turn! Turn! Turn! and dozens more, made famous The Lion Sleeps Tonight and dozens more.
He was the straight and continent man to Woody Guthrie’s tempestuous, tormented — and tormenting — short existence, and the carrier of much of his memory to new generations. He was part of a vast undertaking, a movement as wide as the century, and his name stands for thousands less well known, or not at all. But he was also a leader, a regrouper, someone who pulled people together and sent things in a certain direction.
In the ’40s, he organised the Almanac singers, and then the Weavers, groups that took folk into the mainstream. Much of that music, smoothed out for commercial use, seems anodyne today — the Seekers, as the name maybe suggests, were pretty much a mildly rocked-up copy of the Weavers — but it introduced folk into the bloodstream of American culture. The Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955 — after they had been blacklisted from TV and radio for several years — and the album that came from it pretty much marks the start of the folk boom that would explode in, and in part shape, the ’60s.
But Seeger was as much an activist pure and simple, as a musician who did benefit gigs. His politics were initially hard-Left. Coming from a prosperous liberal family — he was at that North Carolina square dance because his father was taping the music there, in a manner of many such at a time when genuine folk cultures were falling victim to highways, cities and radio — he went into the Communist Party in the late ’30s, at a time when Communism seemed to many to be the only movement capable of resisting fascism. That he stayed it in through its peregrinations in the ’40s — playing antiwar songs in the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and then Leftist patriotic ones after the USSR was invaded — was something he would later be rueful about. His seven years or so with the party will doubtless form the nub of much right-wing commentary. But retrospect is kind. Just as everyone who does past-life regression discovers themselves to be Cleopatra or Caesar, everyone who judges decades past imagines they would have been Orwell. Since there was only one of him, and not many more others like him, it is a rather self-serving delusion.
Feted in the anti-fascist ’40s, Seeger rapidly became a target of the blacklist. The process was altogether more brutal than it is often represented to be, since the intent was not merely to bar people from media access, but to deny them employment and destroy them psychologically. Families were targeted, and even extended families. The numerous resulting suicides were really homicides.
“Seeger was dubbed ‘Mr Saint’ by those around him. Unquestionably, it was not a simple compliment …”
Yet many at the time bore this and other dangers — beatings, and worse, at civil rights rallies — and stayed upright, and Seeger was one of them. After being jailed for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was banned from TV and many venues until the late 1960s. He began playing at colleges, effectively sparking off the college entertainment circuit, and writing and publishing musical how-to books. In the ’50s, he and his wife Toshi, who died last year after 70 years of marriage, built a cabin up the Hudson River and began campaigning for the clean-up of what had become an outfall pipe. Their campaign of sailing the river and raising awareness was an early model of a localised, site-specific campaign with a global message. He also created children’s music organisations for ghettoised urban kids to get to sing and play, funded by the royalties that came in from recordings that were adaptations of traditional songs.
In that respect, as much as being a radical, he was a conserving, conservative figure — a reminder that a section of the Left, over this century, did the work that many conservatives contributed little to, allied as they were with a nihilistic modernising liberalism. We conserved the cities, the buildings, the habitats, the folk culture and the commitment to serious art that the Right were happy to see swept away by market forces. Seeger was an essential part of that, because he and others saw the way in which the disappearance of a folk culture — dying from the late 19th century onwards, crowded out by an industrially produced culture — was theft, an alienation of our lives, of the immediate simplicity that such a culture offers. The effort to reintroduce it was part of a great cultural renewal in the 1960s, when we began to push back against the creation of monolithic suburbs, the destruction of living cities, the imposition of a drab and conformist lifestyle.
Too successful, perhaps; the folk revolution changed, above all, the way we do early schooling, the songs we learnt, the stories we heard, the forms of organised play. It fused itself with a philosophical search for authenticity in a commodified world and became, through a transformed popular music, the voice of that search.
It was inevitable that that would come to be the thing we would flee from, whether through Bob Dylan’s turn to electric music or the punk rendering in which the authentic was necessarily the pessimistic — or now, through our simple distancing from it, via a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis, which treats the era that Seeger helped create as one as distant as the Pharaohs. But by now, the historical work of its content has been done. We regained a dimension of life we had lost, even if endless primary school singalongs or Sesame Street rejigs make it impossible to now hear the rawness and exuberance that If I Had a Hammer or Guantanamera had on first hearing, among the lush and overproduced lounge music of the ’50s.Seeger was dubbed “Mr Saint” by those around him. Unquestionably, it was not a simple compliment, but neither was it purely sarcastic. He left the Weavers when they decided to do a cigarette commercial; he donated his fees on Lion Sleeps Tonight back to the composer, Solomon Linda, when he found out it was not a traditional song (the song’s US publishers, in turn, stole the fees back again). Like many who live long and are famous in this game, he was quite possibly impossible and imperious at times, may well have got credit due someone else.
The dust bowl aesthetic he took on — never as stagily as Guthrie — was no doubt as irritating to his contemporaries as Bruce Springsteen’s born-again fauxletarianism was in the ’70s. Time has elided the fact that he was the private school-educated son of a New England, New Deal family. Black-and-white film has done its work, rendering the past as authentic in a way that we feel we have lost. But of course that is a little true — Seeger and Guthrie, and others, were not trying on a new image, they were committing to a movement and a world; that world took them on and changed them, and Seeger at least lived long enough to be part of the years when everything turned, turned. That may be an occasion for nostalgia, but it can also be one for self-renewal.
In an era when the gains are small and the scope of change has become modest, it is easy to take refuge in a pessimism, a paranoia, an idea of a permanent dissidence that aims for no more than to make known its refusal of consent. Pete Seeger’s long life reminds us to think otherwise. When he began, at the tail-end of the Depression and the beginning of a total war, black people were being hanged from trees on a harsh word, on mistaken identity, on a whim; the world was carved up into a number of European and American empires; a casual and near universal anti-Semitism girded and protected its violent and vicious counterpart in Germany and Eastern Europe; a woman could be sacked from her half-pay job for getting married, for kicking back against a sexual shakedown; a child could die because no one could afford the price of a doctor. In whole areas of the world, these things do not happen now, not as a matter of course, and when they do it is an exception, not a rule, and the word goes out worldwide. When a gay man is killed in Idaho or a woman pack-raped in India, a synagogue attacked, or a footballer abused, there is outcry.
Some of it, maybe much of it, is self-serving and hypocritical, or silly, or feeds a sense of self-satisfaction. Some of it is actively used to obscure other acts that it is inconvenient to note — the burning and bombing of mosques, for example. Some things go backwards at a rapid clip. But the world where such things could get no more than a shrug of the shoulders is fading fast to sepia. If it feels sometimes that a radical spirit has departed the place, that is because we live after a great surge towards that new time, the period from World War II to the end of the ’60s, to be seen properly as a single unified period, a great social revolution.
If it often seems like we missed the best of it, well, we missed the worst of it, too, both the delusional pursuits of utopia — as such things are often portrayed — and the grim choice between armed camps, as they more often were. And if it looks like the one thing we did not achieve was a greater economic equality, some sort of democratic control over the means of how we live, then it’s worth remembering how poor poverty was for many, and how threadbare of opportunity was even prosperity; if it feels like we have exchanged those limits for a plenty that is immersing us in a culture of glut, surplus, waste, atomisation and spiritual damage, well, that is the next battle to be won, the next thing to make visible. If the struggle to stop lunatics from torching the planet feels like playing on defence, it isn’t — this battle was always going to come, not to simply restrain a bunch of criminals and psychopaths, but to reassert the global ownership of the shared resources of a finite existence.
All this is encompassed by Pete Seeger’s long life — all that, and the thousands, less well known or not at all, who worked with him, influenced him, taught him. There are times when the image of someone like Pete Seeger — standing ramrod-tall, singing defiance, before a crowd over six decades, all over YouTube — seems impossible to live up to. But the example is there, not to allow us reproach ourselves for the time when the strength or the vision fails; it is there to encourage us to stand back up again when we have fallen or been knocked down, with as much spine as we can muster. No one can ask more of us or themselves than that; we cannot give more than that because that is all that is in our power to give.
That is what I take from Pete Seeger’s life, and we shall overcome, someday.