The United States, in fact the entire world lost a great man when Pete Seeger died on January 27th of this year. I was away and missed the news, only learning of the folk music legend's passing yesterday. For some reason I've been on something of a Pete Seeger binge the past couple of months, listening and watching videos spanning several decades on Youtube. It was while watching one of those videos yesterday that I saw a comment posted that said RIP, that's how I found out.
My mother introduced me to folk music, and eventually to Pete Seeger. We were watching a reunion concert of an old folk group called The Weavers on PBS. They were performing a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, it was (I believe) 1981. The opening song blew my socks off, Wimoweh. Pete Seeger is the tall gent toting the banjo, this melo sopranic yodelling coming from a man in his sixties sent chills down my spine. Here is the video from the concert, the singing starts about 1:35 in if you want to skip ahead.
Thanks to seeing that concert I was introduced to many more great songs, songs with a message. One such song was 'Wasn't that a time". It covers over 200 years of American history, but not in the usual rah rah flag waving manner. The song refers to both the American Revolution and Civil War as 'a terrible time'.
This same song asks rhetorically:
How many times,
we've gone to kill,
in freedom's holy name,
and children died,
to save the pride of rulers,
Ahhhhh, not exactly mainstream popular thinking. At least not from what I see, hear and read in the mainstream media these days. Nope, not from where I sit. In fact some people get right angry when someone has the audacity to question whatever the prevailing wisdom of the day is, prevailing wisdom that usually comes with Corporate and Government seals of approval.
Ahhhhh dissent, Pete Seeger did a lot of that. Big business, the war machine, he shared his world view by playing his banjo or guitar and inviting people to sing along. Sounds pretty benign doesn't it? Well, Plato didn't think so. In fact one of Mr. Seeger's favourite quotes came from the Greek philosopher:
"Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung".
Actually 'the man' (to use an old 60s term) did somewhat succeed in keeping Pete Seeger from reaching a wider audience. It seems 'Pete' cut his chops with America's labour movement, back when many jobs didn't even provide a living wage, or benefits, or a pension.
Hrrrrrrm, are we talking about the past or present here?
Anyway Mr. Seeger it seems had some involvement with the Communist Party, including membership I believe. And when the 50s came along, with American politicians scaring everyone they could with talk of the Red Menace...well, Mr. Seeger's involvement was front and centre when he was brought before the house committee on Un-American activities.
But while many hid behind the 5th amendment's protection against self incrimination, Pete Seeger didn't hide , instead he invoked the constitution and the enshrined right to freedom of association. That didn't stop him from being black listed though, which basically meant he couldn't work in the entertainment industry in the United States. Thankfully America's loss was the world's gain, he performed often in Canada and abroad.
Here's a great video I came across from when he was in Australia in the sixties: I love the way he steps back from the mike, inviting the crowd to join in. Pete Seeger believed that getting people to sing, that you could change the world. I agree, something vibrates inside when I sing along with certain songs, and it just feel true and right, no matter what I've been told and taught to believe.
Over time the power of the black list faded, and old friends like Johnny Cash brought Pete Seeger back to the masses. But he still wasn't playing nice, singing out against America's involvement in Vietnam on one appearance. I love the line when he sings that he might be right or wrong, but that he has a right to sing this song.
I could go on and on and on. But the world needs voices like Pete Seeger's, now as much as ever. We need people who have the courage to offer up dissenting opinions. Government and corporate media have so much power to get their message out, and groups like those opposed to the Northern Gateway Pipeline should be applauded, instead of being spied on by their own government.
Rest peacefully Pete Seeger, I wish I'd had the chance to see you live and in person.