Monday, February 3, 2014

“So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”: Deceased Artiste Pete Seeger

The phrase “great American” is used to distraction (or more accurately, misused) by a current-day conservative talk host (the one that John Cleese reminded us is “plump as a manatee”). In his usage, the phrase means nothing – it just means you agree with him. My idea of a great American is that old folkie who died a few days back after sharing his music with the world for over three quarters of a century (he died at 94 but had begun performing in the Thirties).

Pete Seeger was blacklisted in show business for quite a while, but never bailed from this country (who would have blamed him if he had?). He had a great enthusiasm for musical history and, in going through the list of his hit songs, one finds that not only was he one of the first great advocates of what is now called “world music,” but that he also continued to shine a spotlight on American history (usually the underside of our history) by keeping old folk songs alive.

He kept it simple, simple to a fault. He breezed past the winds of fashion and went in and out of style. There were moments when songs he had written were in the Top 40, and he surely was making a good deal of money from the publishing rights – he also was a member of the quartet that qualified as the first “crossover” folk act to hit the pop charts, the model for the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and every other folk duo or trio that hit in the “folk boom” of the early Sixties. Seeger's group was, of course, the Weavers.

Here is a beautiful collection of what they called “Snader Telescriptions,”short films made in 1951 showing the Weavers at the height of their powers and celebrity. These were little “soundies” made for TV that show them singing, among others the catchy-as-hell Israeli song “Tzena Tzena,” “So Long (it’s been good to know yuh),” and their big hit,”Goodnight Irene”:

It was Seeger's love of this country, though, that always came to the fore. He involved himself with many causes, from union struggles in the Forties right through to the “Occupy” movement. 

His belief that a better America could be obtained through protest – and, of course, through music – was most likely the thing that kept his heart beating until the age of 94. (And most likely the recent passing of his wife Toshi – the two were married for just under 70 years – was one of the things that let Father Time catch up with him.)

Like most people of a “certain age,” I grew up seeing Pete on TV, performing both simple numbers for kids and incredibly serious and moving old folk tunes. What remained impressive about him was the fact that he truly didn't care about fashion – in a literal sense (except for his conductor caps or the occasional nice pullover, Pete was never a “natty” guy) and in the metaphorical one as well.

At a certain point his music was deemed too “corny” and his singalongs were the stuff of stupid jokes – yes, Pete could certainly croon several verses of “Kumbaya” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” both of which became punchlines for jokes about folk music and “brotherhood.” He didn't care, though – he loved classic folk songs and clearly *believed* in them as well. He could be an incredibly laidback performer (and certainly became more so as he got older), but he was always incredibly sincere.

The other thing that kept knocking me out as I delved into the trove of Seeger video material that is available online is that every third or fourth song I came across was one that I knew but didn't know the title of. Pete was the master at rediscovering older tunes that had incredible, fucking unforgettable hooks (thus the pop success of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” taken from “Wimoweh,” Seeger's version of an African folk song).

Pete had a heritage of music and social activism in his family. His dad was a musicologist who specialized in ethnomusicology and his mother was a concert violinist and teacher at Julliard. Pete was not from a poor family – he was sent to a boarding school and did indeed make it into Harvard, which he quit after realizing he really loved folk music (and radical politics, having joined the Young Communist League).

Here's a short clip from a filmed interview he did, where he talks about his interest in folk music:

The people he worked with in the Thirties and Forties are now the stuff of legend: Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Will Geer, Funhouse favorite Nicholas Ray, and the man he traveled the country with, the immortal Woody Guthrie. Seeger was already a “grand old man” of folk by the Sixties because he had known all of these legends who were long gone by the time of the folk boom (or, in the case of Woody, unable to perform any longer).

He first courted controversy as a member of the Almanac Singers, a loose-knit group of folkies whose first line-up included Pete, his pal Woody Guthrie, screenwriter Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays (later of the Weavers). Their first album (consisting of three 78s) was called “Songs for John Doe” and was released in 1941 well before Pearl Harbor.

This last fact is important because the album stressed an anti-interventionist message about the ongoing war in Europe. The sentiment behind this position was that U.S. corporations were beating the drums for intervention. Here's the lead track, “The Strange Death of John Doe”:

This isolationist message of course fell out of favor quickly as 1941 came to a close. The Almanac Singers toured all over America and even recorded an album of songs called “Dear Mr. President” that praised America's role in the war. In the meantime the group sang other types of tunes (including sea shanties) and on other topics (including the Spanish Civil War and, most importantly, the union movement).

But the isolationist material they recorded on the “John Doe” album brought them to the attention of the FBI and the right-wing press, which branded them “commies” (they were, of course) whose music was “dangerous.” This, mind you, while the war was raging overseas – thus, Pete and his friends were tarred and feathered in the press by right-wingers even before the HUAC existed.

Here's an interesting ditty the Almanac Singers performed called “The Dodger Song”. The group also performed classic folk material like the song “Liza Jane,” but the one song from that period that Pete kept in his repertoire for years to come was this item (recently redone by the Dropkick Murphys and Ani DeFranco – separately).

Pete served in the Army during WWII in a performing unit. After the war he began his solo performing career, which didn't last very long (in this era), because by 1949 he was part of the Weavers. The group's repertoire was indeed sublime – they chose to sing American folk classics, great new tunes by folks like Lead Belly and Guthrie, their own new tunes (including Pete's “If I Had a Hammer”), and songs from around in the world in English translation.

Their records were selling, they were a popular touring act, but the appearance of Pete's name in the infamous publication “Red Channels” meant the group was now under surveillance by the FBI and Seeger was blacklisted from appearances on TV and radio.

Pete did go up before the HUAC in 1955 and made news by not “taking the Fifth.” Instead he evoked the First Amendment and indicated that his decisions and beliefs were private. He was held in “contempt of Congress,” was indicted in '57, and wasn't cleared of the charge until '62.

What was most interesting, given the “underground” and then crossover appeal of folk music in the late Fifties, was that the Weavers did reunite in 1955 to play Carnegie Hall, and sold the place out. As a result they stayed together for the next few years, until Seeger quit the group because he objected to their doing a commercial for cigarettes.

He continued to reunite with them over the years, the most poignant occasion being when Lee Hays was ailing and the group once again played Carnegie Hall, certain this was the last performance of the original quartet. The performance is chronicled in the documentary The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982). Here is the final song from the show, the group's biggest-ever hit, “Goodnight Irene”:


The maker of the terrific PBS documentary about Pete, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song has uploaded some of Pete's home movies, made with a sound camera in the mid-Fifties. Here is a great clip of him in 1955 giving a little crash course in how to play the banjo:

And an equally interesting lesson in “How to Make a Steel Drum”:

These home movies tie in to what Pete did to make a living during the time he was blacklisted: he toured the college circuit doing concerts and also taught music in schools and summer camps.*****

In researching this piece I was reminded of how important a “curator” of this music Seeger was. At the time in the Sixties when his songs were hits for other artists, he undertook one of his most interesting experiments in the media, a weekly show called “Rainbow Quest,” that was shot at and aired on an NYC/NJ UHF station, WNJU (Ch. 47, whose programming was primarily Spanish-language).

He only did the show from 1965-66 (he funded it himself with coproducer Sholom Rubinstein), and there were only 39 episodes, but the result is a timeless piece of musical history. 12 of the shows were released on either DVD or VHS (some on both media), and currently a number of complete episodes and wonderful clips are available online. 

The uploader named “d3singh” has put up complete episodes, and every one of the shows is a gem. Pete made sure to represent different types of folk music on the program, and so the viewer gets a musical education, as well as being entertained by some truly kick-ass musicians. The first episode finds Pete musing on being a TV host (this is, remember, when he was still banned from mainstream TV).

He talks about it here at 5:00, before inviting on his guests the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and Tom Paxton:

The Rainbow Quest clips available online include some terrific performances. Among them are Malvina Reynolds (who cowrote the classic “Little Boxes” with Pete) performing her song “Turn Around,” which is a number that I haven't heard in many years, but which used to appear on TV quite a lot (as noted, these songs are burnt into all of our minds and hearts from many years ago).

The guests run through a range of material, from old gems – Hedy West singing the “murder ballad” called “Little Sadie” and Pete's brother Mike and the New Lost City Ramblers singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” – to younger artists doing their own work – the act that Pete seems most enraptured by is Richard and Mimi Farina, doing Richard's “House Un-American Activity Dream.” 

The show did run the gamut, from the memorably ridiculous

to the incredibly sublime:

Seeger took care to bring on living legends, but he also brought on the new talents of the Sixties, including Donovan (who guested with an Irish friend who played sitar and blues icon Rev. Gary Davis):

Buffy Sainte-Marie and Pete did a cover of “Cindy,” which I've spoken about on this blog in relation to Dolores Fuller and Howard Hawks:

The most memorable episode from the series is the one that feature Johnny Cash and June Carter. Johnny is clearly on some drug, but he's very eloquent and sings very well. Again, it's fascinating to see these iconic figures interacting with each other:


Rainbow Quest was a local production that was meant to be syndicated around the country, but independently – I'm most curious what kind of commercials aired in the ad-breaks on WNJU, seeing that the station was predominantly a Spanish-language station. Seeger made his first network TV appearance in a decade and a half when he guested on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

His song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” just cut too close to the bone for America at the time, so CBS edited out the song from the September '67 show on which he sang it (he was still included in the final edit otherwise). Tom Smothers brought the case to the “court of public opinion” by getting the press to cover the act of censorship, and so CBS allowed the song to air on a January 1968 show on which Seeger returned as a guest.

Pete also sang his classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” on the Smothers show. Another controversial TV appearance he made a few years after this was his guest spot on The Johnny Cash Show after he had visited North Vietnam when the war was still at its height. Cash defended him and had him on for a full segment:

After Vietnam and the civil rights movement, Seeger chose to “think globally, act locally” by campaigning for the clean up of the Hudson River. After the bigger struggles he had faced from the Forties through the Sixties, his turn to environmentalism might be seen as a “simpler” task, but it was totally in keeping with his interest in the world around him. He sang plenty of songs about the river and the environment, but the one that burned itself into my brain was this modest children's tune:

Pete did weigh in on the other battles of the Seventies. Here he does a number by his sister Peggy that reflected the women's liberation movement of that period. Doing these numbers Pete could indeed be looked upon as corny, but the guy was so charming and earnest, he brought the numbers to life beautifully:

Seeger was incredibly generous to younger performers whose work he admired. I doubt Joni Mitchell would've wanted anyone else adding to her work, but when it came to Pete, she was clearly flattered that he decided to write an extra verse to “Both Sides Now.” (Pete's verse is clearly from the point of view of a parent, so it briefly turns the song into “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.)

The whole concert featuring Joni and Pete was available as of a few days ago, but has been now been taken off of YT. Here is their duet on “Both Sides Now”:

The one artist Pete was most closely allied with in the last few decades was his friend Woody's son Arlo (you can read about Springsteen's tribute to Seeger everywhere online, so I'm going to skip over that collaboration). Pete and Arlo worked perfectly together, with Arlo supplying the lighter side and Pete getting the crowd alive and singing. Here they are in 1993 (Pete is a mere stripling of 74), doing Seeger's big hit “If I Had a Hammer”:

One younger performer who admired Pete and wrote a wonderful tribute song about him was Harry Chapin. Harry acknowledges the fact that Seeger was derided in some quarters, but beautifully conveys the importance of the man as a conscience for our country:


The only way to really close out this piece is with Pete's own wry take on aging – at points it seemed like he had left his sense of humor behind, but this tune proves it was always lurking somewhere in the background.

There is a clip from his very last performance (in Nov. 2013) online, and most of his obits pointed out that one of the most significant performances he gave in recent years was when he played at Pres. Obama's inauguration – an event that seemingly served as an apology from the U.S. government for having attempted to ruin his life for over a decade and a half.

One of the most moving clips related to Pete on YouTube is a record of an event that took place in April 2012 in a town square in Oslo, where 40,000 people gathered to sing the Seeger song “My Rainbow Race.”

A right-wing terrorist who was on trial at the time for terrorist acts (which he confessed to having committed, stating they were “atrocious but necessary”) had cited the song as an example of “cultural Marxism” and multiculturalism that was used to “brainwash” Norwegian children. The man leading the crowd in song is Norwegian singer Lillebjorn Nilsen, who had a big hit with the Norwegian version of the song.

I know that Pete played in front of thousands of people at many of the historic concerts and folk festivals he performed at, but there's something especially moving about one of his latter-day anthems being sung by tens of thousands of people in a foreign language in a country he was never identified with. (Pete's original version of the song can be found here.)

Seeger always said that for him the happiest moments at his concerts were hearing the voices of audience members singing along. Now that he's gone we'll just have to keep singing for the “old folkie.” He certainly spent enough time teaching us how.

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