Pete Seeger hasn’t always been right — and he’s the first to say so — but he’s always been true to his own moral compass.
Iconic folk singer Pete Seeger died last night at the age of 94. The following profile was published by MintPress on May 3, 2013:
For almost 70 years, Pete Seeger has provided for many the soundtrack of change. A combination of folk singer, activist and educator, Seeger has grown to become to the ideal of what folk music can be — a fount for inclusiveness, historical continuity, social commentary, communication and entertainment. Friday marked Seeger’s 94th birthday, and for many the day was a celebration of how one man can make better the world. Despite being blacklisted by Joe McCarthy’s infamous Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Seeger continued to make music in support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international cooperation, environmentalism and anti-militarism.
Jon Pushkin, who is now with Pushkin Public Relations in Denver, shared with Mint Press News his experiences with Seeger:
“When I was young my parents would always play Pete’s records but I didn’t really understand the connection until I was in college in the seventies. I was doing an independent study program in folklore and writing about the connection between the folk music of the labor movement and the protest songs of the sixties. I read Pete’s book, “The Incomplete Folksinger,” and I still have the letter he wrote back to me turning down my request for an interview for my paper.
In doing my research, I began talking to my parents about it. At the time we had a hard time communicating. They told me stories about the blacklist and about going to the Almanac House in Brooklyn for the hootenannies with Pete and Woody [Guthrie] when my mother worked for the union. They told me they heard Pete sing at the Progressive Party convention in 1948 when they were delegates hoping to elect Henry Wallace. They told me how they attended the famous Peekskill rally when thousands of people who came to hear Pete and Paul Robeson got attacked on their way out of the concert as the police stood by.”
“A combination grandfather and Santa Claus”
Millions of Americans have stories just like this one. School children in Beacon, N.Y., have memories of an elderly gentleman playing for them during his regular visits. “He’s kind of like having a great elder musician-historian come to visit — a combination grandfather and Santa Claus, but really skinny,” recalled Susan Wright, the music teacher at Beacon Elementary School, to NPR. “They know, when he comes, we’re gonna sing together. We’re gonna do stuff together. They really get him.”
Seeger, a student of Woody Guthrie, took to imitating a “statement” Guthrie made with his guitar: “He went through World War 2 with a piece of cardboard pasted to the top of his guitar: ‘This machine kills fascists,’ ” Seeger says on the recording Pete Remembers Woody. “He really wanted his guitar to help win the war against Hitler. When Woody went into a hospital in 1952 … I put something similar on my banjo: ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.’ “
On every banjo Seeger has owned since then, that motto was written. Most importantly, Seeger embodied that slogan in his actions and his music.
“How Can I Keep From Singing?”
While his commercial success was moderate — in part due to his uncompromising and at times unpopular stances — Seeger’s contributions to the American psyche has earned him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Harvard Arts Medal — given to an alumnus who has made a significant contribution to the arts (Seeger received the award despite dropping out of Harvard his sophomore year) — the Kennedy Center Award, the Presidential Medal of the Arts and he’s been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Seeger’s career started when he worked as a transcriptionist for folk archivist Alan Lomax on Lomax’s efforts to record traditional music of the American South. It was from this exposure that Seeger developed his love of folk music. His passion for social justice brought him to the Young Communist League (YCL) and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Although, he separated from these groups in the late 1940s, his involvement with them would impact his later career.
At 21, Seeger performed with the Almanac Singers, who recorded albums such as “Songs for John Doe” and “The Talking Union,” which were critical of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 Peacetime Draft and were supportive of the CPUSA’s platform. At roughly the same time, African Americans were banned from working in defense plants. Black union leaders prepared to march en masse on Washington to protest this, only to be placated by Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act), which barred racial discrimination by federal contractors.
In support for Roosevelt’s issuing of the executive order, the Almanacs released “Dear Mr. President,” on which Seeger sung the title song:
“Now, Mr. President, / We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain’t at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.// Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain’t perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not ’cause everything’s perfect, or everything’s right. / No, it’s just the opposite: I’m fightin’ because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew,”/ “You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.”// So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.”
A moral man
This song would be the first that speaks of Seeger’s philosophy of social harmony. It would not be the last.
His albums satirically attacked the Vietnam War, pushed for the cleaning-up of the then-polluted Hudson River, and provided the anthems for many of the movements of the late 20th century, including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, argues that Seeger gave America its moral center. “Pete Seeger is one of the very few incorruptible figures in American public life. One of the reasons that Nelson Mandela is revered is because he proved, in the most excruciating way, that he wouldn’t sell out, ever. Pete Seeger hasn’t always been right — and he’s the first to say so — but he’s always been true to his own moral compass. He’s a publicly honest man, a role model for us all.”
“That’s why I’ve sought to put my daughter in the same room with him at every opportunity while she’s growing up,” Cassuto continued. “It doesn’t matter that his voice isn’t what it once was. His principles are in great shape.”