Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger 1919 - 2014


We lost a great American today. Pete Seeger influenced generations of American youth, standing for peace and justice for all across the generations without regard for carefully nuanced positions or polls. He followed his conscience and often served as the conscience of the country. Much will be written and shown about Pete Seeger over the next few days and weeks. I'd like to spend a little while writing about what he meant to me during a time when he spoke to a generation of American youth who needed to hear what he had to say.

My earliest memories of Pete Seeger, although I didn't know it was him at the time, was his reedy voice singing "The Golden Vanity" and "Blow the Man Down" with the Almanac Singers on a little remembered collection on 10" 78RPM records from the 1940's. The Almanac Singers, which included Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays, are probably better remembered for their collections of Union Songs. Here's their rendition of "The Talking Union Blues" recorded in July 1941, coincidentally, the month I was born:

Talking Union

I sang and played this song when I was in high school, along with a couple of other Woody Guthrie talking blues, including "Talking Guitar." I owned an LP record of "Talking Union" by Pete Seeger. His loyalty to the labor movement during the late 30's and into the 40's earned him an investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and probably cost him millions of dollars, while cementing his reputation as an American of both conviction and courage.

Pete Seeger was a dynamic, arresting solo performer. I saw him twice during the sixties. Both times were at Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. The first concert was with my friend from Westtown School, Tom Satterthwaite. The second time I went with my girl friend Irene Mulford, to whom I've now been married for nearly fifty years.  As a solo performer, Pete would walk out onto the stage alone and start to sing...no introduction, just Pete.  Here are some clips of a live concert in Australia in 1963. While it's part of a larger advertisement for a complete live concert. This is how I remember seeing him for the first time, perhaps a year or two earlier:

Excerpts from 1963 Australia Concert

Later I bought all the Weaver's albums as well as Pete's banjo instruction recording, which, sadly, I no longer own. When the folk revival really got going, Pete was banned from TV until the Smothers Brothers forced CBS to allow Pete to sing his anti-Vietnam War song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on their hit show.


The only time I ever met Pete Seeger was at the 1979 edition of his Great Clearwater Revival Festival near his home in Beacon, New York, a festival dedicated to restoring the Hudson River by cleaning out the industrial waste.  I was the newly appointed headmaster of a small Quaker prep school in Poughkeepsie, where Pete had appeared several times in benefit concerts. It was a job I wasn't well prepared for and I lasted less than a year there. Meeting Pete the summer before school began remains a highlight of that year for me.

Seeger's greatest success came, perhaps, with The Weaver's. Here's a clip from a 1951 concert catching them at their dynamic best. The group was a huge hit until the HUAC investigation, which, among other things, killed this ground breaking popular folk group.

The Weavers in Concert
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My memories of a young, vital Pete Seeger are alive and real. I decided not to see the declining Pete at his 90th birthday show at Merlefest a few years ago, so I retain the earlier pictures in my mind. Take your own trip around YouTube to find lots of Pete Seeger through the years, listen to him on your favorite streaming vehicle, and get to know him better. You'll find the journey worth your effort.

Pete Seeger 1919 - 2014