Pete Seeger

“live” and living on

by Bruce Mason

Pete Seeger
Folk singer Pete Seeger entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen in 1944. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pictured centre right.

a hammer of justice
a cry for freedom
a song about love

I had the great pleasure of experiencing many Pete Seeger concerts: lung-fully singing along with little crowds of folks or thousands of joyful, hand-clapping fans; sitting in plush QE and Orpheum theatre seats; sheltered under trees in Stanley Park; standing in the pissing rain on Jericho Beach, soaking up communal joy, covered in goose bumps, as hoarse, humbled and hopeful as any time in my life; hanging on every word that sprang from the depths of his lanky frame, every note picked on his long-neck banjo or 12-string guitar.

He was my greatest influence. Seeking him and his music out every chance I got, I also experienced the privilege of cherished interviews and short chats. At the news of his death (at age 94, in January), I wept. Tears of joy for an exemplary life and extraordinary talent. Tears of worry that the world will have to get along without its choirmaster and greatest troubadour. In various ways, he somehow touched millions of people. And his music is eternal.

A few may ask, “Pete who?” or “Seeger?” Well, off the top of your head, you can sing, hum, whistle or maybe play the timeless verses and melodies he gave us. Start with We Shall Overcome. It was an obscure spiritual called We’ll Overcome until he wrote new verses and insisted everyone sing the word “Shall.” He taught it to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the emerging civil rights leader couldn’t get it out of his head, remarking, “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?” At this very moment, some folks somewhere are singing the greatest, most popular protest song in history. Seeger shared the writing credits and shunned the royalties for a universal anthem that has helped more people do more good, in more places, than any other piece of music, period.

Seeger at the Clearwater Festival June 2007
Seeger at the Clearwater Festival June 2007 photo by Anthony Pepitone

And there’s more. Seeger scared the beejesus out of far-right lunatics and Senator Joe McCarthy’s shameful House of Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt with, If I Had a Hammer. Turned verses from Ecclesiastes into Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season), a #1 hit for the Byrds. Wrote the definitive anti-nuclear song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? And his interpretations of Cuba’s Guantanamera and South Africa’s Wimoweh are arguably the earliest, most widespread examples of World Music.

The son of distinguished musical academics, he attended Harvard with the likes of JFK, but dropped out to hop freight trains and play alongside Woody Guthrie, assembling the ground-breaking Almanac Singers (in the ‘40s, when every home had a Bible and an Almanac). Later, he formed the famed foursome, The Weavers. Their recording of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene (the Israeli soldiers’ Tzena, Tzena, Tzena was the B-side) stayed at #1 for an unheard of 13 weeks in 1950, followed by songs folks still sing: On Top of Old Smoky, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, Follow the Drinking Gourd, Sloop John B, Rock Island Line and The Midnight Special.

Temporarily stopped in his tracks by the fear-mongering Red Scare, he was blacklisted for contempt as a “Commie.” Pete later admitted he was somewhat “relieved” when the big buck gigs dried up. “I don’t smoke or drink, don’t go to nightclubs and prefer to stay with friends rather than in fancy hotels. When the other Weavers needed money and wanted to record a Lucky Strike cigarette commercial, I said,‘We don’t need it that bad.’”

Striking out as a solo artist, he played schools, campuses, coffeehouses, rallies and benefits, anywhere people would listen and sing along, unstoppable, passing the hat when necessary, spearheading the folk music revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“The most important thing I’ve done is go from college, to college, to college, usually small ones, sharing great music seldom played on the radio. I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the audiences a chance to join in – as a kid, a lefty, a man touring the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s a religion with me,” he said. “Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.”

Pete first heard the 5-string banjo at a North Carolina square dance in 1935 and almost single-highhandedly saved and revived the instrument. In the late ‘40s, on mimeographed paper, he published a first edition of the classic How to Play the 5-String Banjo. He utilized tablature – tab for short – a form of musical notation from the Renaissance, indicating instrument fingering rather than musical pitch.

He referred to written music as “fly specks and hen scratches” and although he could read music, he said, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Tab has enabled an endless number of people to play fretted instruments – banjos, guitars, mandolins, etc. – without learning standard, staff musical notation. It’s now ubiquitous in instruction books and on the Internet.

“That little book put my three children through college,” he told me, when I asked about ongoing editions of the book. The preface states the material is not copyrighted: “Permission is hereby given to reprint, whenever needed. Folk songs belong to all of us.”

I witnessed his defiant optimism often, particularly as he poked holes in a plastic garbage bag for his head and arms to keep dry at the Vancouver Folk Fest while he helped clean the grounds. “Music,” he said, “helps people through hard times and difficulties. Sometimes it helps them understand. And every once in a while, to actually do something about it.

“My job is to share that,” he added, encouraging me to put down my notebook and pick up litter. “The key is finding and sharing optimistic stories and songs because if used right, they may help save the planet.”

When I asked him how he stayed optimistic, he told me about a woman who had only two teeth, but told him with a grin, “Thank God they’re hitters, Mr Seeger.”

From my perspective he walked – make that marched – with the likes of Gandhi, King and Mandela, sowing life-sustaining musical seeds all over this sorry planet, broadcasting their messages far, far beyond what would have been possible without him.

Pete Seeger embraced and championed progressive causes as diverse as labour, civil and women’s rights, environmentalism and anti-war and anti-death movements. He fought the AIDS epidemic and at age 91 drove himself miles from his home to walk on two canes in Occupy Wall Street.

He eventually earned the highest US artistic honour at the Kennedy Center, gained entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence and was selected for a Grammy for “Pete,” the Best Traditional Folk Album of 1996. Best of all, he won countless hearts and minds, a role model with an encyclopaedic repertoire and a life-long commitment to human dignity and the well-being of our planet.

Who was Pete Seeger? Ask Google and take it from there. Enjoy documentaries, YouTube performances and more albums and songs than we can count or say thanks for.

“So long” Pete, “it’s been good to know you.”

Pete Seeger “live” and “living on” in Vancouver

Although Pete Seeger had previously performed in local living rooms and labour and community halls, in the 80’s he made the sort of legendary on and off-stage appearances that endeared him to legions of folks worldwide.

On March 21, 1986, he played a legal aid benefit at the Orpheum for dozens of Haida Elders arrested at a Lyell Island anti-logging blockade. At a pre-concert press conference, he read a telegram from “some fellow called Jack Munro.” The IWA president (then BC’s largest trade union) advised him he was “taking jobs away from hard-working union folks.” Seeger responded, “It’s true; I support working people organizing to make a better life, but we must also support the preservation of old growth forests and the rights of indigenous people.” The concert raised thousands of dollars and Pete was honoured at a Haida reception.

While here, he was informed that Downtown Eastside residents were being evicted to make room for Expo 86. Scheduled to perform at the World’s Fair with Arlo Guthrie, he vowed to cancel the gig unless he could also play for the poor. Gary Cristall, artistic director of the Folklife Pavilion, assured Expo boss Jimmy Pattison that the Fair’s show was sold out. The billionaire gave a thumbs-up to a free concert for the evicted in Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl in May 1986.

Seeger dedicated the show to Olaf Solheim, an 87-year-old symbol of anti-Expo sentiment who died shortly after being evicted from the hotel on Hastings Street where he had resided for decades. Vancouver’s chief medical health officer said, “The spark went out of him after the eviction. He just stopped living.” Ten thousand folks will never forget the event with Seeger, Guthrie, Bim, Bob Bossin, Connie Kaldor, Japanese drummers, Katari Taiko and punk rockers DOA.

Cristall brought Seeger back for the 1989 Vancouver Folk Music Festival (VFMF), fondly remembered as the “Wet Ass Fest.” Incessant rain had turned the area in front of the stage into a sea of mud that few wanted to sit in. At a workshop, Pete protested that those standing in front were blocking the view of folks further back. Spotting a puddle onstage, Seeger – in his seventies and unafraid of a “little wet” – sat in it, refusing to continue until everyone followed suit.

At the same time, armed warships were in the harbour to celebrate the Sea Festival. During his main stage set, Seeger stopped singing and pointed into the air to a plane towing a sign, “Greenpeace Alert: Nuclear Arms in Port.” Seeger shouted to the crowd, “Look up, there’s an urgent message. We must rid the world of nuclear weapons.”

With his beloved wife Toshi at his side, he toured the Greenpeace vessel Vega, also in port. Pete had been drafted and served Uncle Sam for three-and-a-half years in the army during WWII. “They would only let me pick up cigarette butts in the camp because I was identified as a lefty,” he once told me. “Then the brass heard me play and sing and shipped me to the Pacific theatre to entertain troops. And made me a corporal, to boot.”

He had married Toshi – who he called the “brains of the family” – during a furlough.

After the war, on acreage purchased for $1,700 in Beacon, in upstate New York, overlooking his equally beloved Hudson River, they built a log house. Raising three children without electricity or running water, the Seegers made improvements, but never moved. Pete was still chopping wood 10 days before his death.

When his conspiracy charges had been overturned in the ‘60s and he could travel abroad freely as a citizen, he took the kids out of school and made music around the world while his family made amateur films of Japanese Rice ceremonies, African dancers and Samoan singers, etc. At 91 years of age, Toshi – who made Pete Seeger possible – predeceased her husband by seven months.

One of the myriad ways he lives on is as Pete Seagull, the iconic, globally recognized symbol of the VFMF since its inception. Organizers noted, “As for how Pete plays the banjo with only his wings, well, it just shows that with a love of music and a little determination, anything is possible!”

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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