Pete Seeger, America's Teacher

April 28, 2009

The January concert at the Lincoln Memorial celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama offered many stirring moments, but perhaps its highlight was Pete Seeger leading a chorus of hundreds of thousands of people singing "This Land Is Your Land." This is where Americans expect to see Pete Seeger, raising his voice for change, even when it’s cold outside.

Seeger has been singing folk music for change for more than 70 years now, sometimes in the middle of storms, sometimes causing them. Defiantly leftist, pacifist, and for a decade or so, Communist, Seeger has embraced almost every major reformist cause of the 20th century. He’s sung and spoken out for organized labor, against McCarthyism, in support of Civil Rights, against the Vietnam War, and -- from the deck of the sloop Clearwater, a “ship of song” which he helped to build -- his voice put early wind into the sails of the environmental movement.

Now 89, Seeger has witnessed his own transformation into an icon. President Clinton bestowed the National Medal of the Arts on him in 1994, and The Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend” in 2000. In 2007 PBS released "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" as part of its American Masters documentary series. Seeger’s 90th birthday concert in New York on May 3rd will be a star-studded affair featuring luminaries from Ani DiFranco to Bruce Springsteen.

One of the words you hear applied most often to Pete Seeger these days is “genius.” A 2005 album even proclaims him a “Genius of Folk.” But instead we should think of Pete Seeger as America’s teacher, an “inconvenient artist” (as Clinton put it) who taught the conflicts before other people got to them.

As the energetic teacher to a nation, Seeger has let his songs do the instruction. He’s the author of evergreens like “If I had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and as a member of the Weavers he helped bring folk music into the commercial mainstream before Seeger and the rest of the group were blacklisted during the Red-baiting fifties. But Pete Seeger is perhaps best known as a walking, talking American songbook whose encyclopedic contents are accompanied by his banjo or guitar—and by the voices of his audience. Springsteen, who in 2006 made a memorably vital album of songs called "The Seeger Sessions," says that, “Pete’s library is so vast that the entire history of the country is there.”

Like Benjamin Franklin before him, Pete Seeger has long sought to lead an exemplary life. Woody Guthrie, whose friendship with the teenaged Seeger in the late 1930s became one of the formative events in the young man’s artistic development, was amazed that Seeger didn’t drink, smoke, or chase women. Some of Seeger’s asceticism may have come from the New England culture he was brought up in, but it’s also clear that Seeger consciously chose to live a certain way, and that his principled choices inform his entire adulthood.

And so when the time came for Seeger to face the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he refused to discuss his politics or his associations. He didn’t plead the Fifth, though. Instead, he took the First. “Using the Fifth Amendment,” Seeger explained, “is in effect saying, ‘you have no right to ask me this question’; but using the First Amendment means in effect, ‘you have no right to ask any American such questions.' ” This courageous gesture resulted in a conviction for Contempt of Congress that kept Seeger suspended, a hair from jail, for nearly seven years before it was tossed out on a technicality in 1962.

***

Pete Seeger has been a teacher to three generations of my family. I'm in the middle one of the three, and my memorable Pete Seeger moments include the 1980 reunion of the Weavers at Carnegie Hall, a final appearance by the group shortly before one of its mainstays, Lee Hays, died. (That reunion is the subject of the excellent 1982 documentary "Wasn’t That a Time.")

The Weavers, a quartet that featured the harmonies of Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, achieved unprecedented commercial success for a folk music group during the early fifties, selling millions of records. Seeger reacted ambivalently to his sudden immersion in the mainstream, sometimes wearing red socks with his tuxedos.

The anti-Communist blacklist cut down the Weavers in the middle of their hit parade. Banned first from television and then from theaters and clubs, the group disbanded in 1952. They defied the blacklist to reunite in 1955, but Seeger left the group in 1957 to pay more attention to his solo career. The 1980 reunion was the first appearance together of the original Weavers lineup since the early 1960s. I’ve attended some joyful concerts in my life, but I’ve never seen an outpouring of love between audience and performers like that one.

These days I like getting my daughter, KC, into the same room with Pete Seeger whenever possible. My theory is that hanging around with incorruptible people is a character builder. KC’s first Pete Seeger concert was a 2007 benefit. Pete walked on stage that night after being introduced, and hundreds of people popped up to give him a standing ovation before he sang a note. I've been talking to KC (who was then 8) about that ovation in the months since, about how the audience was saying "Thank you for living your life the way that you have, and for making the choices that you did." I’ve suggested to her that getting an ovation like that is better than being rich, since you can't buy it. What better reward is there for a teacher?

Pete Seeger’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but he does a few songs, leads some singalongs, tells a few stories, visits with the folks. He played some songs that KC knows, including "This Land Is Your Land," which she sang along with delightedly. Someone requested "Old Dan Tucker," and he said, "You've been listening to Bruce Springsteen!" before he played it with a handful of extra verses that nobody but he and a handful of music historians know. He also led a singalong of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," ending by insisting that the audience add two words to the last line even though he said that Yip Harburg, the song’s author, would have objected: "If birds fly over the rainbow, then why oh why can't you and I?" The change made my heart swell.

I've also been talking to KC about Pete Seeger's different causes. The soundtrack to our discussions—which have been mostly in the car, where she has less to distract her—has been his songs. She frequently requests Pete Seeger music now, especially the Weavers and the older stuff. She likes some of his antiwar music too, especially the controversial classic “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

“Big Muddy” tells a story about a platoon during World War II whose obstinate captain ignores advice and leads them to the brink of disaster. The song’s transparently scabrous commentary on President Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War led CBS to censor the song when Seeger first taped it as part of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1967. But the resulting protests — including Seeger’s own warning that “the public should know that their airwaves are censored for ideas as well as sex” — led the network to back down and invite Seeger to sing “Big Muddy” on the show a second time. This time it was broadcast. The song sadly retains its topical resonance. Seeger rerecorded it last year for his most recent album, At 89, to protest the war in Iraq.

Union activism is the subject of most of KC’s favorite Pete Seeger songs. KC knows about unions in a general sense from hearing her mother, a union lawyer, talk about her work, but she's getting a full vocabulary now, since I'll hit the pause button to explain what a scab is, or how picket lines got their name.

The result is that my daughter has become the oddest of birds: a nine year-old Old Time Leftist. She sings "Which Side Are You On?" and "Solidarity Forever" as though she were marching herself. She loves "Talkin' Union" ("You can always tell a stool by the yaller streak runnin' down his back") and "Union Maid" ("Oh, you can't scare me, I'm stickin' to the union!"). I feel a strange mixture of pride and amusement when I hear KC singing those songs. Her labor choruses have made my mother very happy, for she got her politics from Pete Seeger. She grew up in a household where no one talked about such things, and when she started at Brooklyn College in the late forties, she attended Pete Seeger concerts on campus, where she learned from him. I grew up on Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Weavers records, and my extended family—from grandparents to grandchildren—will be attending Seeger’s coming birthday concert.

***

But there’s an issue that Pete Seeger missed: the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and afterwards. One of the great songs Seeger popularized, for example, “Little Boxes,” indicts conformity, but only for men. “The boys go into business, and marry and raise a family,” goes the song. These men play golf and “drink their martini dry,” but the women in their lives are nowhere heard from. At a time when Betty Freidan was leading a charge against a different kind of barricade, Pete Seeger continued to sing about a default person who was always male, attended by an invisible female helpmeet. Some of those lyrics make me wince today — and when my daughter is around, they also make me reach for the pause button to explain.

Pete Seeger had a monumentally atypical career, but the way that he pursued it was typical of the men of his time. When he wanted to escape the restrictions of the blacklist by singing his way around the world, his wife Toshi dutifully pulled up stakes with their children, and accompanied him on a one-man peace, love, and understanding tour that encompassed over 30 countries. When Seeger wanted to bypass the television networks’ blacklist of him, he devised a PBS program called "Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest," which featured Pete and the guest of the week sitting around a kitchen table informally playing and talking about music. The show ran for 39 episodes in 1967. (Many of them are available on DVD, and are well worth checking out.) Toshi Seeger produced "Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest," but she’s listed in the credits as “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.”

In the sunset of his epic life, Pete Seeger now proclaims the ways that his wife made that life possible. He touts Toshi’s contributions to their work, and repents the burden that he laid on her, a burden that she lovingly bore. Pete Seeger’s commitment to Toshi Seeger’s work underscores in a different way the credo by which he has lived his life: what he calls “participation.” Thus does Pete Seeger nourish his unshakable commitment to the communities around him.

Like the best teachers, he has always understood the value of learning — for himself as well as his students.

Bio

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University. His book Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, has been nominated for a 2009 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.

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