When I heard that Pete Seeger had passed at age 94, I realized I’d seen him perform live more than I had any other musician. It’s not because I always raced out to get tickets for his shows. It’s because for decades, if there was a demonstration or a benefit concert for a good cause Pete lent his services. Enthusiastically.
Whether the event was to protest the Vietnam War, an infringement of civil rights or the Kissinger-engineered coup in Chile -- whether it was organized to demand cleanup of the Hudson River, to end nuclear proliferation or to protect the disenfranchised from the privileged in any way -- I knew I was going to hear Pete Seeger, and be happily singing along with him. If I was close enough to the stage, I could read the inscription on his banjo: “This machine kills Fascists.” That always tickled me as much as the sound effects we all made with our mouths when Pete had us do our parts on “Coming ‘round the Mountain.”
Indeed, Pete Seeger inspired everyone in my generation who ever wanted to do some good while working in the entertainment industry. Sure, many of us, long ago, read Jean-Paul Sartre on the subject of artistic “engagement.” Most of us are familiar with the Zen idea of “right livelihood.” And we all admire the writers, poets, musicians and actors who generously donate time, energy and money to promote good causes. But for Pete, the good of the planet and the death of Fascism were fulltime occupations; he was the one to emulate.
He weathered the McCarthy era blacklist (refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955) and CBS censorship (when they cut his Vietnam War protest song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” from a 1967 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour). His refusal to compromise was downright heroic.
Both his personal stands and his music roused people to action. And many of his songs -- including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Bring ‘em Home” and “We Shall Overcome” -- became so anthemic people forgot he wrote them.
In addition to entertaining with his great original tunes, Pete Seeger taught his listeners the basic twentieth century folk canon. Most of us who know Woody Guthrie’s songs (from “Union Maid” to “This Land is Your Land”), Leadbelly’s (from “Goodnight, Irene” to “Blue Tail Fly”) and those of rebellious slaves and labor organizers, heard them first when Pete sang them.
So, too with what is now called “world music.” In 1950, his adaption of the Hebrew folk song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” became a Number 2 hit for his quartet, The Weavers. A year later, the group had another top seller with Pete’s adaptation of the South African chant, “Wimoweh,” which I first heard morphed into The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” In 1966, his adaptation of the iconic Cuban ditty “Guantanamera” became a hit for a band called The Sandpipers.
Of the above, I’m fondest of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena.” In the extremely assimilationist Jewish household of my childhood, it was the only Hebrew-language record. So I not only learned folk music and world music from a political hero, he taught me a little Hebrew as well.
Many young film buffs, I’m sure, think they don’t know Pete Seeger’s music. But they probably do without knowing it. The banjo, whistling and yodeling theme played throughout RAISING ARIZONA is Carter Burwell’s arrangement of Pete’s “Goofing Off Suite.” Joel and Ethan Coen grew up listening to the record and knew, even in pre-production, it would be a perfect underscore for their yarn about the ne’er-do-well H.I. McDunnough.
Pete had other connections to cinema, too, and I found them all exciting. He played himself, at Woody Guthrie’s bedside, in Arthur Penn’s ALICE’S RESTAURANT, and he lent the scene warmth and authenticity… his warmth and authenticity. In Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary, FESTIVAL, later excerpted in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME, Pete looks on, beaming like a proud father, as Bob Dylan leads a songwriting workshop.
He was the subject of the 2007 film, PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG, and he graced the screen in Lewis Lapham’s THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS. He was featured in LOMAX THE SONGHUNTER, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE: THE STORY OF POPULAR MUSIC, THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOT and LET FREEDOM RING: HOW MUSIC INSPIRED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Whenever he appeared on screen he was more than just an avuncular presence; he seemed to personify an essential goodness, a true and profound heroism.
So… another great hero, made from a mold that was broken long ago, is gone. He will be missed. His many achievements, including a radical cleanup of the Hudson River, will be remembered and rightly lauded. And, thank goodness, he’ll be discovered and rediscovered because his work has been preserved in recorded music and movies.