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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

PETE SEEGER: American Patriot

Sure, there are numerous claimants to originating folk music, and  Woody Guthrie comes to mind, but if you Google "founder of folk music in America," you will get Pete Seeger (here with Guthrie) at the top of the list.  Last week I posted on "The Tragedy of Tokyo Rose."  I could have titled this article "The Tragedy of Pete Seeger," and you can only wonder how much more he could have contributed if provided the opportunity he deserved.

Seeger's father was Harvard-trained, established the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at Cal-Berkeley, was on the faculty of Yale and helped found the American Musicological Society.  His mother was a concert pianist and taught at Julliard, while his stepmother was considered to be one of the most important modernist composers of the 20th century.  You can better understand where Pete's activism came from if you know that his father was forced to resign from Berkeley because of his pacifism, so took the whole family in a home-made trailer for a period on a mission to bring musical uplift to the working people in the American South.  His four step-siblings all became folk singers. A collage of the Seegers above.

He married Toshi Ohta and they remained together till just about their 70th wedding anniversary, when she passed away last year.  Six months later, yesterday, Seeger departed at the age of 94.  Toshi was a filmmaker, life partner and inspiration.  She marched at Selma and was one of the founders of the Newport Folk Festival.  Her grandfather was exiled from Japan for his Marxist writings, but, as was possible in Japan then, his son, Toshi's father, was instead sent to Germany.  In the process, he married Toshi's mother, an American.  There is thus no doubt that these influences shaped Seeger's career.

Thus, Seeger ventured forth, inspired by his roots:
  • At the age of 17 joined the Young Communist League, and became a member of the Communist Party USA in 1942, criticizing America's participation in World War II.
  • Served in the Pacific during WWII.
  • In 1944 he sang for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (right).
  • In 1948 he helped third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace with Paul Robeson, where the effort was defamed for being communistic.
  • In the 50's he supported civil/labor rights, racial equality and anti-militarism.
  • In 1955 he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was in 1957 indicted for contempt of Congress.  
  • In 1960 the San Diego school board prevented him from playing a scheduled concert, and the San Diego School District officially extended an apology in 2009 for this action.
  • He was indeed found guilty of contempt in 1961, and sentenced to 10 years in jail, but the verdict was overthrown in 1962.
  • In the 60's he protested the Vietnam War and became an environmentalist.  He and his wife helped "save" the Hudson.
Knowing the above, you can appreciate the problems he faced as an entertainer.  In 1950 he was one of the founders of the Almanacs, which became the Weavers, and they had a string of hits:

However, in 1953 they were blacklisted, radio stations refused to play their records and their concerts were cancelled.  There were a couple of reunions, as for example at Carnegie Hall in 1955, where they popularized Sixteen Tons and Kumbaya (a black spiritual from slavery days, which became part of Boy and Girl Scouts campfires, but there is a lot of controversy, and even the meaning appears to be changing from everything's going fine to a more sarcastic faked unanimity).  He wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone in 1955.

In 1958 the Kingston Trio formed in direct imitation and homage to the Weavers, and Where Have All the Flowers Gone became one of their most requested songs.  Dave Guard and Bob Shane graduated from Punahou High School, where they were forced to learn the ukelele, leading them to musical careers.  Guard went on to Stanford, Shane to Menlo College, and with Nick Reynolds, they played in the Bay Area just for fun...until they formed the Kingston Trio.  My freshman roommate talked me into going to one of their first concerts on the Stanford Campus.  Here they are 55 years later on PBS.  They sound almost the same...but...notice how old they now look.

Anyway, then came the 1960's commercial folk revival, like Hootenanny on TV.  Seeger had by then left the Weavers, but now and then returned, and they had a triumphant Carnegie Hall  return in 1982, leading to a documentary: The Weavers:  Wasn't That a Time (full 1:08:31 version).

More recently, the Clearwater Concert was held in 2009 at the Madison Square Garden to celebrate his 90th birthday (and later televised on PBS).  At the age of 92 he marched with Occupy Wall Street, and followed with a concert with Arlo Guthrie and the Guthrie Family at Carnegie Hall.  This past September he was there with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at Farm Aid in New York, here singing This Land is Your Land.

There will be scores of eulogies, many calling Pete Seeger a hero.  Here is a premonition from the Huffington Post, written a year ago:

Pete Seeger: American Patriot

I might just add that Apple fell 44 points today, mostly because of weak iPhone sales.  However, Carl Icahn also recently bought $4.1 billion of shares, so watch out.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, though, rose for the first time after three days of decline.  (See chart in right column.)

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