Pete Seeger: 1919-2014

Folk music legend Pete Seeger passed away on January 27 at 94 years old.

Innumerable reasons to miss Pete Seeger will present themselves during the time it takes to square our sadness at his death with the world we wish this was. But even for those of us who never met him, the things we prize are very specific. Not just his gentility, the crucible that helped harden that firm voice he sometimes raised against injustice. No. We’ll miss his banjo, his link between the hoboing Woody Guthrie and the camped-out members of the Occupy Movement. We’ll miss the mind that could write the last century’s most important anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” and steal the wistful words of the folk song — later a rock treasure — “Turn Turn Turn” from Leviticus. I enjoyed The Weavers and “Good Night Irene,” a gathering of natural 1950s Americana voices that somehow contrasted and coexisted with the era’s homogenized complacencies, the anti-Sandra Dee. But I loved the man best who sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on a nationally televised variety program.

In 1967, Seeger played The Smothers Brothers Show, which teens of the day thought was just barely cool enough because it occasionally took swipes at The Establishment, had veiled drug jokes, and often featured guest rock stars like The Doors and The Who. It was significant for Seeger because it was his first appearance on T.V., 17 years, after being blacklisted for refusing to speak to The House on Un-American Activities Committee. He was conspicuously absent during the epoch of American folk music revival, the early 1960s — a number of the best musicians, like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez refused to appear on the popular show Hootnenany because, for all its liberal pieties, it feared to buck the ban on Seeger. Where had all the flowers gone, indeed? But Tom and Dick Smothers triumphed over the politics of the day, and somehow got Seeger on the air, even though, the appearance was partly censored at first. After relentless urging, CBS months later allowed SmoBro to air the song the network feared would rebound on them.

It was awesome and subversive. Seeger took to a darkened stage and — as I remember it — dedicated the song to Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States. The title of the song was enough — even a 17 year old boy got the drift. It was all the more pertinent because I was just months away from being compelled to sign up for random service in a stupid war conducted just as the prevailing quality of the times was turned towards peace, tolerance, and individual liberties. The title was enough, but the refrain, “Neck deep in the big muddy and the big fool said to march on” made the hairs on the back of my neck go up. The memory of it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

There are stories about Seeger that make him seem like a kindly dud. Chief among them is the (probably true) one about him wanting to turn off Bob Dylan’s electric band at the Newport Folk Festival. I like to think it’s true, even the versions that say he grabbed an axe and was about to hack the power cables. Why? Because I think he was angriest that Dylan had turned The Song too deeply inward — his lyrics were poetry for many, but obscure for a man who believed in sing alongs and music’s role in social change. Something in the tale reminds me of Christ among money changers — it doesn’t fit the rest of the lifestyle, but it sharpens the sense of this human being driven against what he knows is wrong.

The 1960s seem rebellious looking backwards, but there was a lot of stoner relativism, too. “Whatever” was our mantra first. Maybe because I was raised in a strict Catholic home with an authoritative father, I loved the man who stood up and bit the hands that could have fed him. The soldiers marching into the Big Muddy know that the captain is wrong, but he’s the captain. The singer knows differently. In that way, Pete Seeger will always be one of my few heroes, because he stood up in the largest possible forum and sang defiance to his powerful idiot judges.


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