(Pete Seeger’s death Monday night at age 94 reminded me that five years ago, I had started writing something about Seeger but never finished it. In finishing it, sadly, I had to change the verbs from the present tense to the past.)
I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.
- Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath
Everyone has held an opinion that, in retrospect, seems indefensible. One of mine: For a long time, I didn’t like Pete Seeger.
I didn’t dislike him, of course. How could you, unless you were nostalgic for McCarthyism, labor exploitation and segregation? He stood up for all the right causes. One of my best friends knew, and had performed with, Seeger and assured me that Pete was a kind, generous, humble man. I saw Seeger a few times on the train between New York and his home in Beacon, NY, standing tall and erect with his trusty banjo, and I marveled that one of the most recognizable men in the country could mingle in such a public setting without a trace of self-importance. I had a healthy admiration for Seeger the man.
My problem: I didn’t like folk music. It felt tame and musty, an anachronism like tintype photos or silent movies. I developed an aversion to the banjo that lasts to this day (sorry, Mumfords). Songs about hammer-wielding, steel-driving working men had no resonance for a middle-class suburban kid who expected to work his whole life with clean hands in an air-conditioned building. While I respected Seeger’s environmental activism, I thought of nature as something to tolerate while walking from my house to my car.
I loved the noisy, lusty impurity of rock-and-roll. I was an excited five-year-old when Elvis gyrated his hips to “Hound Dog,” a devoted Beatlemaniac at thirteen, a 14-year-old Dylan acolyte when he plugged his guitar into an amp at Newport (supposedly much to Seeger’s chagrin, though he always downplayed it, reminding interviewers that he had already enjoyed Howlin’ Wolf’s electric set). I dutifully sang along with the anthems during my college activism days, but my antiwar song of choice was Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin-to-Die Rag,” not “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Folk songs felt like Grandma nagging me to clean my plate and wipe my feet; they made me want to mumble, “Yes, ma’am.”
So when, five years ago, I picked up Alec Wilkinson’s slim biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, I did so because I wanted to clarify why I didn’t respond to Seeger. What it clarified was my myopia.
The book included a charming anecdote about a Seeger appearance at a local elementary school. As far as the kids were concerned, Seeger could have just been someone’s grandfather, but the world-famous performer reveled in the anonymity, clearly enjoying the sing-alongs with the children as much, if not more, than collaborations with established musicians like Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. It seemed admirably egalitarian.
Wilkinson fleshed out the stories I knew: his censored performance of the antiwar “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers TV show, his participation in the Peekskill Paul Robeson concert that ended in a riot (far more dangerous than I knew). Then there was his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (Wilkinson includes the entire transcript).
I knew about Seeger’s HUAC appearance and subsequent blacklist – apparently, his brief membership in the Communist Party 70 years ago is still enough to drive some people batshit crazy - but it wasn’t until I read Wilkinson’s book that I appreciated his bravery. Some witnesses named names, of course; most others pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Seeger did neither, knowing full well it risked a contempt of Congress citation, but he refused to act as if he had something to hide. He took a principled stand without losing his sense of humor (asked whether he sang “Wasn’t That a Time” before a Communist group, Seeger offered to sing the song for the HUAC committee, while admitting, “I don’t know how well I can do it without my banjo”) and he demonstrated contempt for the hearing without being rancorous. It was a dangerous stance, resulting in a one-year jail sentence (overturned on appeal), and it severely impacted his ability to earn a living for over a decade. Reading Wilkinson’s account, what stood out for me was Seeger’s unflappability at a moment when many of us would have looked for an easy way out or wallowed in angst.
I still had little desire to sing along with “Kumbaya” or “Guantanamera,” but the book inspired me to seek out Seeger’s 1940s recordings with the Almanac Singers (which included Woody Guthrie). These songs were not tame or fusty at all. Many of them were pro-unionization anthems featuring sardonic lyrics and a compassion for the working poor that evoked Tom Joad’s famous speech.
I was particularly struck by a song called “Talking Union,” performed as a talking blues, in which Seeger, in a voice more sneering than you’d expect, portrays a vision of a labor-capital struggle which is downright corrosive. He describes a stool pigeon who steals coins from a blind man’s cup and sings about the cigar-smoking boss, “He’s a bastard / unfair / slave driver / Bet he beats his wife.” Ouch. In the final verse, he warns explicitly of the tactics management would use to beat down the union: Red-baiting, stool pigeons, vigilantes, race hatred. It reminded me that the men and women who took those principled stands had done so at the risk of their freedom and safety.
It made me think about my father, who spent many years as the member of a union before taking a management job as an engineer (remember upward mobility?). People like my father were able to earn a living wage, provide sufficient meals to his family and purchase a comfortable home – things I had taken for granted – because people like Pete Seeger had stood up and fought for them. If they had improved my father’s life, then by extension they had improved mine, providing me with access to a better education that allowed me a career with clean hands in an air-conditioned building.
I read Wilkinson’s book in 2009, when the American economy was in free fall. The timing reminded me that social and economic advances are never irreversible, and can only be maintained and improved with constant vigilance. Like Pete Seeger had always done. From that day, I only saw him as heroic. I found myself wishing I could see Seeger one more time on the train, so I could approach him and thank him for everything he’d done and would continue to do (a declaration that he would have deflected with self-deprecation). Sadly, that will never happen.
When I learned of Seeger’s death, I felt sorrow out of proportion to my feelings for his music – not just because the country had lost a major figure, but because I understood the irony of the American media extolling his greatness at the exact moment when the country is rapidly retreating from the principles for which Seeger long stood.
There is one thing I’ve failed to mention. His work with the Clearwater, which occasionally docks at my Hudson River town, had an enormous impact on raising environmental awareness and cleaning up a river that, a few decades ago, was disgracefully polluted and unsafe. They are building a new bridge across the Hudson a few miles south of my home, and there is a movement to name it after him. While I would love to see Seeger honored, I suspect he would have been displeased to have his name associated with something that encourages the suburban sprawl he mocked in “Little Boxes.” A commenter on the Seeger obituary in The New York Times, however, wrote that “when you think about it, we should be renaming the RIVER after him. I cannot think of anyone who has done more for that body of water.”