By Anthony Castillo
On January 27th at the age of 94 iconic folk singer, folk song collector, song writer and activist Pete Seeger died in New York. As a folk musician, Seeger was a living archive, carrying on the folk tradition of trading songs in an oral musical history to pass them on and preserve them. For Seeger folk music was more than just music, it was a tool for social change – by creating a sense of community, it could then lead to political action. Seeger was political from an early age and stayed so until his death. He had integrity beyond reproach and a life-long commitment to the struggles of common working-class people that was unwavering.
Seeger began his career as a folk singer in the 1940’s after dropping out of Harvard, where he attended for only two years during which he studied journalism, published a radical newspaper, and joined the Young Communist League. He ended up going to New York City and being introduced to Lead Belly. He would then meet and form a group with like-minded folk singer/song writer Woody Guthrie. The Almanac Singers did benefit concerts for migrant California farm workers. Before World War II the Singers sang anti-war songs and labor songs. After the U.S. became involved in WW II they sang anti-fascist songs. It was the group’s pre-war songs that caught the attention of the FBI for their leftist political messages. The group split up. Seeger rode the rails by hopping on freight trains to trade songs and expand his catalog of folk music.
By 1948 Seeger was performing as a solo artist alongside Paul Robeson at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. They would both go on to perform concerts in support of Henry Wallace’s presidential bid on the Progressive Party ticket. About this time Seeger invested $1700 in 17 acres of land that overlooked the Hudson River and began building a log cabin. He lived in Beacon, NY in that home for the rest of his life.
In the period from 1950 to ‘51 Seeger’s musical career broke big with his group the Weavers being signed to Decca records and going on to sell four million albums. The group had many hits like Seeger’s classic “If I Had a Hammer” and a number one with Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene.” Seeger also wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn Turn Turn” (later made even more famous by The Byrds’ electric version) and had a hand in coming up with the song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement in the 60s, “We Shall Over Come,” which was based on black spiritual and labor songs. These songs would be inspirational to the next wave of folkies such as Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and many others.
But Pete Seeger’s Communist past and leftist politics would in 1955 earn him a subpoena from Senator Joe McCarthy’s red baiting House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger refused to answer any of the committee’s questions, but instead offered to sing them any and all songs that they had asked about. Not surprisingly, the committee refused his offer. Seeger was charged with ten counts of Contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. But the indictment was dismissed as false on appeal in 1962. However, he ended up being blacklisted, like many other entertainers and artists had been. The Weavers were no more, as they could not get booked for concerts or continue to make records. Seeger again went solo but he would not be allowed to appear on network television again until 1968.
Seeger would continue to perform, record and work for progressive causes for the rest of his life. He sang against the war in Vietnam, for labor unions and workers’ rights, marched with Dr. King, and worked for the environmental clean-up of the Hudson River, which he did for decades with his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater project. The clean-up by General Electric finally began in 2009. He sang kids’ songs, humorous songs, topical songs, but he always encouraged you to sing along.
Seeger was honored and awarded many times over for his music, but he was always uncomfortable with the notion of stardom, and distrusted commercialism. In fact, when he was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the presenter of the honor was Pete’s old friend Arlo Guthrie, who commented on the Weavers “Good Night Irene” reaching number one: “I cannot think of a single event in Pete’s life that is possibly less important to him.” Seeger gave no acceptance speech, but instead led a sing-along of “Good Night Irene.” Pete Seeger also received one other award of note among the many – the Order of Felix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award in defense of the environment and against racism. Pete Seeger was a role model of the highest degree, may we all be inspired to follow his lead.
Arlo Guthrie writes about Pete Seeger:
I usually do a little meditation and prayer every night before I go to sleep – Just part of the routine. Last night, I decided to go visit Pete Seeger for a while, just to spend a little time together, it was around 9 PM. So I was sitting in my home in Florida, having a lovely chat with Pete, who was in a hospital in New York City. That’s the great thing about thoughts and prayers- You can go or be anywhere. I simply wanted him to know that I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time. I’d grown up that way – loving the Seegers – Pete & Toshi and all their family. I let him know I was having trouble writing his obituary (as I’d been asked) but it seemed just so silly and I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound trite or plain stupid. “They’ll say something appropriate in the news,” we agreed. We laughed, we talked, and I took my leave about 9:30 last night. “Arlo” he said, sounding just like the man I’ve known all of my life, “I guess I’ll see ya later.” I’ve always loved the rising and falling inflections in his voice. “Pete,” I said. “I guess we will.” I turned off the light and closed my eyes and fell asleep until very early this morning, about 3 AM when the texts and phone calls started coming in from friends telling me Pete had passed away. “Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”
Below: Earl Newman’s silkscreened original posters
Thanks to Earl’s generosity, the Beachhead will receive 75%
of all proceeds off the sale of Pete Seeger posters
$40 each, $75 for both
for these and other great posters, such as the Gashouse and Venice West in the ‘60s
Above: Pete Seeger by Earl Newman, 17.5″ x 23″
Above: Pete Seeger by Earl Newman, 11.5″ x 35″
By Anthony Castillo