Pete Seeger 1919-2014

Pete Seeger with his banjo. Image from PBS.

Pete Seeger with his banjo. Image from PBS.

Our site crashed recently and we’re finally getting around to posting recent material. This Seed and the Story column originally ran in late January. 

Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away on January 27th at the age of 94. He is known today for his pivotal role in the folk music revival of the 1960s, including helping to organize the Newport Folk Festival and reaching commercial success while performing with the Weavers. Revered for his song writing, arrangement, and charismatic ability to bring people together around music and song, he was an American radical and patriot who believed music could mobilize people and dismantle injustice.

For years he was blacklisted by the government for his work in labor organizing in low income communities and his short-lived affiliation with the Communist party. Self-identifying as a staunch patriot and fighter for freedom, he was involved in peace movements, the civil rights movement, and in later years turned his attention to helping clean up the Hudson River. He articulated his life’s work as a planter of seeds and believed in “throwing in his lot,” as he said, with what he called the “meek of the earth.”

In honor of his recent passing , Point of View American Masters series recently began rerunning the powerful film Power of Song, a 2007 biography tracing Seeger’s life and work. The piece follows Seeger’s early days as a child of classically trained musicians who sought to take classical music to everyday people. In their travels they soon realized the communities had their own equally powerful music traditions and a young Pete became enthralled with people’s music from rural America. He took up the banjo and twelve string guitar and later worked with folk song collector Alan Lomax and travelled with Woody Guthrie. He later formed the Almanac Singers and put together People’s Song, an organization to “create, promote, and distribute songs of labor and the American people. He even hit commercial success while performing with the Weavers when their cover of blues singer Ledbelly’s song “Goodnight Irene” hit the top of the charts. After being blacklisted in the McCarthy era, Seeger was unable to play in most venues and decided to take his banjo and twelve string guitar to the schools where he taught kids an appreciation for traditional folk music and sang songs like “This Land is Your Land.”

His own songs, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” were huge hits for other performers in the 1960s, adding momentum to the growing anti-war movement. His song “Big Muddy” offered a biting critique of the Vietnam War and while spending time at Highlander Folk School he helped to bring popularity to the traditional spiritual “We Shall Overcome.” The film highlights his involvement in each of these movements, but perhaps one of the most striking things about this film is the depiction of his wife Toshi, clearly the backbone of the family, a role which allowed Seeger to travel and carve out a life centered around song.

Photographic images of Seeger performing or leading song circles often include his banjo, a handwritten phrase etched around the body: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” In speaking in the film about the relationship between music and struggle Seeger said, “Music can help you survive your troubles. But music can also help you understand your troubles. And sometimes, music can help you do something about your troubles.”

Watch the film below:

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365166823/

“Big Muddy”

Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert

“Goodnight Irene.”

Seeger and Johnny Cash
“Worried Man Blues.”

 

Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie “Lonesome Valley.”

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier  in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.