In 1996, in my job of assistant editor at a weekly newspaper, I awarded myself the title of music reviewer for a single issue and attended a concert given at a local high school by Pete Seeger, who died three years ago today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual music reviewer was only interested in attending and writing about rock concerts. This was a stroke of luck for me.) I wrote a review, even though I knew that a review is not what one writes about a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.
It was a great concert, by the way.
For those like me who grew up in the Hudson Valley during the 1970s, Pete Seeger was as much a part of the environment as the river itself and as real and as near as the Catskills, and his effect on our lives was incalculable but tangible. His ship, the sloop Clearwater, brought attention to the polluted state of our beautiful river and helped lead to change.
The sloop was launched in 1969. That year, Seeger and its crew sailed it to Washington, DC, in 1972 to deliver over a hundred thousand signatures to Congress while it was debating the Clean Water Act, which was passed over President Nixon’s veto. The Hudson River that I remember standing beside as a little boy, which was bubbling with a soapy scum that coated the pebbles on the shore, is not that river any longer. To this day, that memory of the Hudson—those memories from years of walking to the river and living beside that great river—became and remains my personal image of the word “pollution.”
Thousands of public school students in the mid-Hudson Valley visited the sloop at least once as a part of the checklist of things our local schools brought their pupils to; “Pete’s boat” was the first ship I ever set foot on.
Pete (no one called him “Mr. Seeger,” it seems) was an elderly man by the night I saw him sing in 1996, but he stood through the entire, intermission-less, two-hour-plus show. He complained that his voice had lost a lot of its range, but really, that was his cover story for getting the audience to feel more comfortable with singing along. “You can reach the notes I can’t any more,” he stated, and then strove to hit them anyway.
And then came what remained for me the centerpiece, watching this master showman split the audience up by voice type and urge us on in singing the lyrics and the “Hallelujah” chorus to “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”—just like he did in his legendary “Children’s Town Hall” album.
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Pete Seeger was born to an artistic family and introduced to folk music at an early age. With plans to be a journalist, he attended Harvard, but dropped out after a couple years to forge his own path: first he worked for John Lomax and with the folk song archivists at the Library of Congress, then, after he met Woody Guthrie, he traveled alone and with Guthrie to wherever the music could be found and made.
His music career took off in fits and starts through the 1940s and ’50s, but it seemed that whenever he grew too popular, an accusation that he was too anti-war—before World War II, he sang anti-war songs, but switched to entirely anti-fascist songs after America entered the conflict; later, he was called a Communist—would almost derail that career, but not him. In the 1950s, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was blacklisted and fought Congress for several years over a contempt of Congress indictment.
In one of the eternally great performances of a witness facing an unfriendly committee, Seeger refused to use the Fifth Amendment to protect himself but also steadfastly refused to answer questions he called “improper.” The transcript shows how Kafka-esque the proceedings were, and what a nightmare of single-sided questions the committee thrived on forcing people to answer:
MR. SEEGER: Sir, the whole line of questioning—
CHAIRMAN WALTER: You have only been asked one question, so far.
MR. SEEGER: I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it. I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don’t you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?
MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.
CHAIRMAN WALTER: I don’t want to hear about it.
Several times, Seeger even offered to sing his answers, but he was rebuffed. If he had merely pleaded the Fifth, he would not have faced the contempt of Congress indictment, but Pete Seeger was not the type to plea for anything.
Blacklisted from television and the major concert stages, he sang in church halls and high school auditoriums and gyms and helped found the Newport Folk Festival.
Many years later, in 1967, Seeger was invited on to the Smothers Brothers’ prime-time television show. This would end the television ban. He did not kiss the ring of the television executives and sing something non-controversial; instead, he chose to sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a parable he had written that is set in World War II but was very translatable to the futile war our nation was engaged in at the time. The show’s network, CBS, censored the song from the broadcast, which essentially continued the blacklist. The Smothers Brothers fought hard, and Pete was re-invited to sing it in on their show in 1968:
Once upon a time, songs and words could get the attention of the powers that be. In two incidents recounted above, a television network re-considered a mindless ban and Congress over-rode a President’s veto, both thanks to Pete Seeger.
It was a privilege to share some time on this earth with this thin, powerful-voiced, banjo-picking, attention-getter. Protest is not pleasant, but it is essential for the world to be more tolerable and tolerant, and Pete Seeger in song made it a joy to behold.
Late in life, in his mid-80s, he told Mother Jones magazine, “I’m still a communist, in the sense that I don’t believe the world will survive with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.” There is a phrase one can use to describe this statement from an 84-year-old, and that phrase is “bringing it.”
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While I was writing this, I came across this video, produced by our local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, of Pete Seeger singing and leading an audience in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at a local high school (where else?).
He coaxes a lovely rendition and offers an editorial comment that rouses the audience to cheers. It was recorded just before his 90th birthday—he performed live until a couple months before his death, three years ago today—and it captures almost everything one needs to remember this grand man:
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Pete Seeger’s Clearwater organization will hold its annual concert, the “Great Hudson River Revival,” June 17 and 18 at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson. Announced performers include Los Lobos, Tom Chapin, Tom Paxton, Holly Near, and many others.
Last week, Folk Alliance International announced that it will name an award after the Clearwater Festval—the Clearwater Award—and that the first annual Clearwater Award will be presented to the Clearwater Festival, “for prioritizing environmental stewardship and demonstrating public leadership in education and sustainable event production.” From now on, other festivals will be honored with an award named for the festival that Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi started in 1978.
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