May 4, 2009

Pete Seeger's Birthday! How could I have missed it?

John Fahey was attributed with the following quote about Pete Seeger; "I remember when you'd go into a folk store, there'd always be a big sign up, 'Should Pete Seeger Go To Jail?' I'd always say, Absolutely. Because he sings such lousy music."

Sounds like something Fahey would say! Apparently Fahey had a reputation for saying most anything to be outlandish, get attention, just get a reaction? Hard to know for sure.

But Fahey wasn't without his own political song, don't forget March! For Martin Luther King. Pretty cool song. is Pete at the feet of Woody Guthrie. Now Woody, he had an interesting life.

You could say Woody started all this singin' for change. Sit in, Sing out, march, march, march.

Woody was all about the labor movement.

No doubt Pete learned a lot for Woody, like how to write all over your guitar. looks like the stencil had been invented by the time Pete decided on his protest motto. So you could say that Pete improved on his mentor's style. Always good for the student to teach the master a thing or two, no?
Pete sorta took up the protest career and with all the labor problems solved he decided to focus on racism and wars. Excellent cause. Pete learned another thing from Woody, take a folk song and turn it into a "cause" song. Take an old spiritual and turn it into a "protest" song. Very effective. Everyone kinda knows the tune, add some timely lyrics and presto, the whole crowd sings along!
However, somewhat questionable when it comes to all the accolades the men receive for preserving American folk music. True, some of the praise is well deserved, but let's not lose site of the means to an end. Protesting, sitting in, walking out, march, march, march. And, the causes were noble and worthy, no doubt about that. But does one justify the twisting of the other?

How about the song "I Shall not be Moved"? Beautiful old spiritual, forever linked to sit-ins. Listen to Mississippi John Hurt sing that song. Man, that is something! Very popular song, lots of people did it as a spiritual, Johnny Cash, "Pops" Staples. Long list. Great song.


  1. Ah, but John Fahey also said, "Pete Seeger was an absolutely incredible banjo player, every bit as good as Uncle Dave Macon." The only problem was he didn't feel justified just playing banjo. Except occasionally, like his banjo arrangement of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, which is every bit as brilliant as Fahey's arrangement of 'In Christ there is No East or West'.

    But though his music may not be timeless (very little topical music is), he has my utmost respect as a human being. Not only has he been playing music and singing uncompromising (if populist) songs for 70 years, but he has stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, when they were calling him a communist and asking him to tell them the names of his friends. He told them, "Not only do I not have to answer that question; you don't have the right to ask me that question." And he continued speaking out in the face of incredible opposition which at times even attempted to kill him.

    And it's easy to forget now, but it's the unions and the labor movement that gave us things like The Weekend and the 40-hour work-week, and put an end to child labor in the US. And it's people like Pete and Woody who through their music both educated and created community among the laborers. So Pete's particular brand of polit-folk may not be quite as mysterious as Fahey or as pile-driving as Dick Dale, it fulfilled its purpose with elegance and panache.

    And he may be a banjo-dork, but he's a banjo-dork worthy of respect, gratitude, and even reverence. He built a his family a log cabin with just an ax, don'tcha know.

  2. That damn Fahey, I wouldn’t doubt he would say that. Man seemed to be rather contrary. Irascible, in fact.
    Hey, I’m not down playing one bit, Woody or Seeger’s accomplishments. I love my weekend, and they played their part and in some ways were leaders. But the labor unions were headed that way anyway. People were going to fight racism and the Vietnam War regardless.
    I just think people too often give the men credit for preserving folk music as if that was their only goal. Like a Lomax, maybe. They had an agenda, and that’s fine, let’s just be straight up about it.
    But as I pointed out, every artist interprets music, and uses it. Dick Dale used it to make money. Seeger, to try to change the political world. So one could easily argue that one is more ethical, or honorable that the other. More principled. But it’s a slippery slope when ever one uses an argument like that: well it’s ok to twist that old folk music around this way, but not that way. If Dick Dale hadn’t heard that old song in his home, growing up, and twisted it ‘that way’ to suit his needs, we might never have had a surf music.
    OMG, the artistic black hole!

  3. Hey, ok, I'd like to add my 2 cents to this interesting discussion... I don't disagree with you on everything, but there are a few points that stand out.

    You made the point that the labour movement and the anti-racism/anti-war movement were headed for victory, and would've won without Pete Seeger. Well, that's true. But from the perspective of the times, nothing was that certain. People don't stand up and march or organise if they think everything is going to be alright in 10 or 20 years. That's why it's called a struggle - you have to fight. So, the thousands of workers or students or poor folk or blacks or whoever who chose to stand up, it was a choice to contribute something to a cause whose future success was by no means a sure thing. And it was often a risky choice that took bravery. And Seeger chose to contribute musically - I think you gotta give him more credit for that. He wasn't instrumental to victory; but then, it's pretty rare that anyone ever is.

    Secondly, Seeger was central in bringing together the Newport Folk Festivals, which did an immense amount for the preservation and re-invigoration of blues and folk. So even if he had no musical skill whatsoever, he would deserve gratitude for that.

    Now, on the topic of his skill - I have to say, I am more inclined to agree. I think he was certainly capable and competent, but rarely artistically inspired - at least in what he chose to perform and record. His great skill as a performer was his rapport with the audience, and that was often for political purposes. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but like you say, lets be straight up about it.

  4. Oh, and the poor guy was born with about the most squeaky-clean, wholesome voice you could imagine, which never helps.
    I mean shit, I'm sure he had his share of troubles, but you just gotta watch his interview with Johnny Cash or John Hurt or similar figures, and you can't shake the feeling that he's a complete goody-two-shoes.

  5. Ah D-lo, you've made a fine point about the Newport Folk Festivals. I missed that and despite the charged political atmosphere, an equal effort was put into the revival of some music that was in danger of fading forever. The stories of Seeger nearly going insane trying to unplug Dylan (?), now that is good stuff too!
    But seriously, he and many people were indeed very courageous in those crazy times.
    I like your point about his squeaky-clean image. Probably why I’m a bigger fan of Woody, that guy just seemed to have a great amount of charisma. Or maybe I just fell for too much of that stuff in his highly fictitious Bound for Glory…?