An Inconvenient Artist Sang the Truth to Power

Cape Times (South Africa), January 30, 2014 | Go to article overview

An Inconvenient Artist Sang the Truth to Power


BYLINE: Paul Wadey The Independent

LONDON: The poet Carl Sandburg once paid tribute to Pete Seeger by describing him as "America's tuning fork". As a musician, songwriter, teacher, environmentalist and political activist, Seeger served as his country's moral conscience, often doing so in the face of hostility and blacklisting. He remained, nevertheless, a principled, dignified and, above all, humane figure.

"My basic philosophy in life," he once said, "is that I'm a teacher trying to teach people to participate, whether it's banjos or guitars or politics." And teach he did, showing generations of Americans how to sing and make their own music.

He was a formative influence on generations of folk-oriented performers - "Most of us," Joan Baez once said, "owe our careers to Pete" - and many of his songs have become standards, among them If I Had a Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn! Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and he popularised the anthemic We Shall Overcome.

He was, in the words of former US president Bill Clinton, "An inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them."

Born in 1919, Seeger was exposed to both music and political activism from an early age. His musicologist father, Charles, had been professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley until his pacifism during World War I saw him hounded from his job. His mother, Constance Edson Seeger, had been a successful concert violinist.

When he was 16 years old he discovered the sound that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. "I visited a square dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo... I liked the rhythms. I liked the melodies, time tested by generations of singers. Above all, I liked the words."

In time the lure of folk music would prove too great to resist and, having gained a place at Harvard, Seeger gave it up to explore the highways and byways of America. En route he worked alongside Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song and met the veteran musicians Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson. He found himself performing at rallies for the New York milk strike, an experience that heralded a commitment to social activism that would endure until his death.

By 1941 he was organising the Almanac Singers, a group of like-minded musicians, including Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, whose repertoire of anti-fascist and pro-union songs and folk tunes gained exposure through weekly Hootenannies on national radio. Woody Guthrie was a sometime member of the Almanacs and, in time, became Seeger's mentor.

"I learned so many things from Woody that I can hardly count them," he said. "The way he could identify with the ordinary man and woman, speak their language without using the fancy words; his fearlessness, his readiness to dive into any situation no matter what it was, and just try it out."

Drafted into the army in 1942, the same year in which he joined the Communist Party, he performed for fellow soldiers and continued to collect songs. …

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