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 today at age 94. (Our newspaper’s actual title-holder was only interested in rock concerts.) I wrote a review, knowing full well that a review is not what one writes regarding a Pete Seeger concert. An appreciation. A thank-you note. But not a mere review judging aesthetic merits.
It was a great night out, by the way.
For someone who grew up in the Hudson Valley during the 1970s like me, Pete Seeger was as much a part of the environment as the river itself and as real 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. Launched in 1969, he and its crew sailed it to Washington, DC, in 1972 to deliver over a hundred thousand signatures to Congress during debate over the Clean Water Act, which was passed over President Nixon’s veto. The Hudson River that I remember standing beside as a little boy, bubbling with a soapy scum that became and remains my personal image of the word “pollution,” is not that river any longer.
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; it was the first boat 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-plus hour 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 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.
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 working for John Lomax and the folk song archives at the Library of Congress, then, after meeting Woody Guthrie, traveling 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 2, he sang antiwar songs, but switched to entirely antifascist songs after America entered the conflict—or, later, a Communist—would almost derail that career, but not him. In the 1950s, his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee led to him being blacklisted and fighting a contempt of Congress indictment for several years.
In one of the eternally great performances of a witness facing an unfriendly committee, Seeger refused to use the Fifth Amendment to protect himself and steadfastly refused to answer questions he called “improper.” The transcript, which I link to above, shows how Kafka-esque the proceedings were, and what a nightmare of single-sided questions the committee thrived on forcing people to answer. Several times, Seeger even offered to sing his answers, only to be rebuffed. If he had merely pleaded the Fifth, he would not have faced the contempt of Congress indictment, but 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 helped found the Newport Folk Festival. Many years later, in 1967, Seeger was invited on to the Smothers Brothers prime-time television show to end the ban. He chose to sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a parable he had written that is set in WW2 but was very translatable to the futile war we were fighting at the time. The show’s network, CBS, censored the song from the broadcast, continuing the blacklist. The Smothers Brothers fought hard, and Pete was re-invited to sing it in 1968.
Once upon a time, songs and words could get the attention of the powers at hand. It has been a privilege to share some time on this earth with this thin, powerful-voiced, banjo-picking, attention-getter.
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While I was writing today, I came across this video, produced by our local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, of Pete Seeger singing and leading an audience (at a local high school, where else?) in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” 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 was performing up until very recently, and appeared at a benefit concert in my town of New Paltz last fall—and it captures almost everything one needs to remember this grand man.