That scene wasn’t about trying to “make it” in the music industry. It was about spreading a humanist spirit in a country that worshipped the greenback dollar. Its avatar was Pete Seeger, who died Monday at 94.
Seeger’s father, Charles Seeger, was a Yale ethnomusicologist who was one of the first to understand the importance of music to heal the divisiveness of this country. He was one of the first scholars to collect folk music in the South and use it to bridge the ravine between culturally diverse regions.
Pete Seeger carried on his father’s work by dropping out of Harvard to travel through the South with folk archivist Alan Lomax, who collected blues and “hillbilly” music and then disseminated it as “traditional” (i.e., public domain) music. Soon after, he got a real lesson in Americana when Woody Guthrie invited him to go “hoboing” across country. With no money in their wallets, they hopped freight trains and sang for their meals, learning first-hand about a folk culture that lived in the Big Band Era, but never swung with it.
They formed a group called the Almanac Singers, which on occasion included Rancho Mirage resident Carol Channing. The group broke up when Seeger volunteered for World War II and it never had a significant impact on pop music. But Seeger formed another group called the Weavers in the late 1940s that changed pop culture. Playing in Greenwich Village, the sheer size of their crowds attracted music industry people who couldn’t believe that folk singers could go mainstream. But Frank Sinatra’s most romantic arranger, Gordon Jenkins, put strings on the Weavers’ recording of the old Lead Belly folk song, “Good Night, Irene,” and it became the biggest hit of 1950.
The late Rancho Mirage resident Howie Richmond published their humanist music and promoted it to disc jockeys around the country. When peace-advocating songs like “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and ethnic tunes like the South African-derived “Wimoweh” began catching on, McCarthy Era hawks called Seeger a Communist. Seeger never said he was a Communist, but he never said he wasn’t and his refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee got him charged with contempt of Congress. He was blacklisted through the 1950s and the turbulent ‘60s until the Smothers Brothers broke a network ban by letting him sing on their variety show. Fittingly, he sang a protest song about President Lyndon Johnson Vietnam War policy titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
But Seeger remained influential while enduring the blacklist. With Richmond publishing his sheet music, Seeger began taking songs like Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to kids in sing-alongs. Youths like David Crosby, John Sebastian and a guy who came to be called Bob Dylan grew up on folk songs that were popularized at hootenannies and campfires as Seeger sowed the seeds of the ‘60s cultural revolution.
Dylan, who famously angered Seeger when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, once called Seeger the true Pied Piper of the peace and love generation.
“He’s a master at that, leading a mass of people in four-part harmony to a song not even in their language,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1985. “I think he could appeal to people as much as Sting could because he could make them feel like they matter and make sense to themselves and feel like they’re contributing to something. Pete is almost like a tribal medicine man, in the true sense of the word. Rock ‘n roll performers aren’t. They’re just kind of working out other people’s fantasies.”
Seeger was a reluctant beneficiary of copyright laws. Howie Richmond once told me he wanted his songs disseminated whether the distributors paid for the right or not. But he survived the blacklist thanks to the royalties he received from artists like Peter, Paul & Mary recording his “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” the Byrds recording his “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and Palm Springs’ own Trini Lopez recording his “If I Had A Hammer.” His classic “We Shall Overcome” was used as a theme song for civil rights battles by Johnson and Martin Luther King.
In his later years, Seeger became active in cleaning up the Hudson River with his Clearwater Project.His phrase, “think national, act local” again resonated with an entire generation of activists.
Richmond’s son, Larry, who has long run The Richmond Organization publishing company that has published Seeger’s music, admired that the old singer-banjo player never stopped growing.
“The deeper you look, the more impressed you will be about the man, his music and his life,” Richmond said in an e-mail Tuesday. “Pete was special in every way — a great human being with convictions and the heart to follow them. He must have sung this ‘Land Is Your Land’ a million times. He never tired of singing the songs he loved, many written by his friends and heroes like Lead Belly or Woody Guthrie.
“The world lost a great man, but for me, his life passing at 94 is a celebration of a life well lived.”