The Seegers: Not Just Another Bureaucrat
If the full house at Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress Friday night looked like members of an academic symposium on Pete Seeger and other members of his illustrious clan, that was no accident: The crowd, professorial and very much from the Sixties, was there for the Library's Seeger Family Tribute, a day-long series of discussions followed by a concert starring the legendary folk performer and his astonishing family of musicians.
Many of the Seegers grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in a rambling old house on West Kirke Street where Charles Seeger lived as he moved from one federal agency to another in the 1930s and 40s. The father--a huge talent who earlier created the first university courses in ethnomusicology at Berkeley--worked in the Federal Music Project of Franklin Roosevelt's Work Projects Administration, then with the Resettlement Adminsitration, the Farm Security Administration and the Pan American Union.
But as Pete Seeger told the story the other night, his father ran afoul of the government because of his on and off affinity for communism, and when "the FBI caught up with him," Charles Seeger resigned from the government. He went on to make his mark in many other ways, dying in 1979 with a deep pessimism that his son found highly uncharacteristic.
Now 87, Pete Seeger says he has reached old age with a different outlook: "I'm more optimistic today than I was right after Hiroshima," he said, and anyone who has ever watched or heard him sing understands that. For as much as Seeger is associated with generations of protest music and political action, what is most moving about him even now is his ability to stir a crowd. On Friday, that was no great challenge: The audience gathered to hear him and his half-siblings Peggy and Mike Seeger, as well as sundry other relatives from the Washington folk scene, was one of true believers, veterans of the folk movement, members of the sprawling Seeger clan, and musicians who admire the Seegers' ability to spread the heritage of American music to new generations of listeners. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was on hand, too, and drew a huge, extended ovation of the sort that the protest crowd doesn't usually deliver to a representative of the ruling class.
Even now, when Pete Seeger tosses his head back, his mouth pops open, forming a perfect O, and though he doesn't have quite the wind he once had, and his reedy voice isn't as strong as it was for all those decades, he still sings as one with the banjo--and, more important, he still has a unique ability to get even a stiff Washington audience to sing together, full-throated, whether it's a protest tune or an extended riff on Skip to My Lou.
The other Seegers displayed the musical breadth and deep love of American sounds that was handed down from their parents. Peggy Seeger showed a biting wit and charm, as well as a strong lefty political bent. (Though she also poked fun at the predictable nature of the crowd gathered at the Library: As the audience filed out at evening's end, she called after them to just "remember that the world is divided into people who think they are right." Period. Great line.)
Mike Seeger doesn't have Pete's charisma, but he's a great teacher and scholar of American musics, and he moved fluidly from banjo to jew's harp to fiddle to harmonica as he presented samples of American sounds from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Librarian of Congress James Billington credited Pete Seeger with transforming the traditional "I Shall Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" at a 1963 Carnegie Hall concert that was just inducted to the Library's National Registry of Recorded Sound.
The Seegers returned the praise, repeatedly reciting their debt to the Library and to the motherlode of recordings collected by Alan Lomax and his father John, whose collection of sounds of the songs of slaves, prisoners, farmers and countless other expressions of various American folk traditions has preserved forever the music at the root of the world's popular tunes.
It's easy to lampoon an audience in which a passing reference to Henry Wallace elicits a sustained ovation, but Pete Seeger is a true American original, and the family that brought him to us is a national treasure.
Seeing them honored at the Library in these polarized times is something that restores confidence in the American experiment.
On the jump: My 1994 profile of Pete Seeger from when he received a Kennedy Center Honor.
BEACON, N.Y.---Here, in Pete Seeger's warm nest deep in the woods above the Hudson River, you can find the Seeger you require.
If you grew up on Woody Guthrie, sang along with and without Mitch Miller, subjected your kids to "Tzena, Tzena" till they sought sanctuary in the Rolling Stones, here's your Pete: Lanky and strong at 75, he bounds up a muddy hillside, splits logs, tells tales about cleaning up his river. He looks up from his Granny Smith apple and suddenly those clear, rich pipes open up: "You know, there's a song about that ... ."
Or: Pete could be your kindly grandfather. He's a scratchy voice joyfully singing children's songs, "The Foolish Frog" and "Creepy Crawly Little Mousie," "One Grain of Sand" and "Abiyoyo." The phone rings and it's Tao, Seeger's grandson and partner in song. The old man lights up. Tao is Pete's disciple and successor, satisfying the old storyteller's craving for an audience that will remember and recite.
Or: You can't stand this man, once the subject of a New York Times story under the headline "Seeger Sings Anti-American Song in Moscow." That he could be seen as an American hero galls you. The man is a pinko. Comforted the enemy. Sowed the seeds of social discord. Undermined authority, belittled respect. Here in the upstairs corner he calls his office, Seeger's still doing it, sifting through the "little socialist newsletters" he depends on for ideas and insights.
A few days before the president of the United States is to honor him with a toast and a medal, Pete Seeger is at his kitchen table, eating good brown bread made in his wife's new computerized breadmaker, sitting under light provided by the profitmongers at Con Edison, and the man proudly says, "I am still a communist."
Whatever you think of Seeger, you'd be hard pressed to imagine him in a tuxedo, wearing a Kennedy Center Honors medal, chatting up Bill Clinton in the Presidential Box of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, bowing to an audience of swells who shelled out up to $ 5,000 a ticket for tonight's show.
Back home, Seeger wears what you'd expect: a floral print shirt over a political T-shirt, brown boots and jeans so blue you remember that once upon a time you had to fade them yourself. A red bandanna peeks out his back pocket, and he uses it to wipe an apple seed from his chin.
"I use my father's tuxedo," Seeger says, "which was made in 1922. I only had to let it out a couple of inches."
Seeger doesn't like all these accolades that arrive in the twilight of a life well spent. No, scratch that: The accolades are okay, he just doesn't like being singled out for praise. He's given to saying "I'm not important" or "I'm nobody, just a cog in a wheel."
"I'm ambivalent about almost everything in the world," he says. Fame perhaps most of all. Seeger has known fame; he is the first folk singer to be honored by the Kennedy Center, in part because many years ago, his songs sat atop the charts. Hard to believe: a Top 40 folkie.
But fame has been warped by technology, Seeger says. Once, well-known and known could mean the same thing. A storyteller was known, and known well, in his own village. Now, a musician with a hit achieves celebrity across the land, but he is known as a person only by those close to him.
Toshi, Seeger's wife of 51 years, can listen to only so much of this. She rolls her eyes and zings Pete. "He loves the attention," she says. "And he used to own three tuxedos. The Weavers sang in tuxedos" back in the early '50s, when Seeger and Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman became the unlikeliest of pop stars. Their "Goodnight Irene" -- a waltz sung by lefty folkies -- was inescapable in the summer of 1950.
His songs will long outlive him. It was Seeger who changed an old spiritual from "We Will Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" and sang it for Martin Luther King Jr. It was Seeger who wrote "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." His manual on playing the five-string banjo still sells by the thousands nearly half a century after he wrote it.
Seeger and the Weavers sold 4 million records before McCarthyism and the blacklist smothered their celebrity. Seeger retreated into a series of subcultures, devoting himself to causes, using his music to promote his politics. Or was it the other way around?
He has picketed the White House far more often than he has been inside it. In 1970 he wrote a charming number called "Teacher Uncle Ho," about Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese revolutionary Seeger called "one of my all-time heroes."
He educated all the people
He demonstrated to the world:
If a man will stand for his own land,
He's got the strength of ten.
A generation later, Seeger is wary of the American penchant for co-opting its renegades. The great American fame machine shears off the hard edges and turns even the coarsest of rebels into mainstream fodder. Tom Paine, John Brown, Norman Thomas, King -- no matter how radical their thoughts, how seditious their slogans, history bulldozed them into the center.
"There's an ancient Arab proverb," says Seeger, one of the last of the great aphorists. "When the king puts the poet on the payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet."
This is nothing new. At the height of the Weavers' success, their manager wouldn't let the quartet sing "If I Had a Hammer" by Seeger and Lee Hays. It was too political.
And as much as Seeger wishes he could stay ornery to the end, he is, to his everlasting credit, a sweet man who long ago recognized that music, left to its own designs, seeks to soften edges.
He made his political reputation by standing up to power, by singing of the individual, the resister. But his music was always inclusive (sometimes infuriatingly so, to concertgoers who paid to hear Seeger and not the cheery, but painfully off-key, couple in Row S). There was never anything Seeger liked better than singing with a hall full of union members. Song as salve, inspiration to rebellion, political gunpowder. And song as a connection to some mystical folk, to "the people," almost in the German sense of Volk.
That's what lured the young Seeger, what made him turn from his past and devote himself to this kind of music. The tuxedo Seeger inherited from his father is a Brooks Brothers model, and despite the "ain'ts" and dropped g's at the end of his words, Seeger comes from a privileged clan of pacifist intellectuals.
He prepped at a boarding school in Connecticut, went to Harvard and then -- pivoting away from the classical music on which his parents had raised him, rejecting the classical education they had in mind for him -- he dropped out of college, hitchhiked across the country and discovered America's folk music. He visited country fiddlers and blues shouters. He met people who knew nothing of his parents' world of universities and chamber music.
His journey from patrician intellectual to popularizer of America's traditional songs -- black and white, North and South -- was a rebellion. But rebellion was a longstanding family tradition. In a house where the adults argued the merits of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound at the dinner table, Pete was reading socialist books at 11. He had a boy's passion for Lincoln Steffens's autobiography.
When Pete was still a toddler, his father, Charles Seeger, a musicologist, was sacked from the University of California at Berkeley faculty after he denounced World War I as an imperialist adventure. Pete's parents packed the three kids into a Model T Ford and a trailer and started out across America to bring "good" music to the simple folk.
"It was a complete disaster financially," Seeger says. "My poor mother with her violinist fingers, having to wash diapers in an iron kettle night after night. It didn't work." One night the elder Seegers took their classical concert to a farmer's house, and after a sonata or two the farmer took out his fiddle and showed the Seegers a thing or two about country song.
"My father said he finally realized that these people had a lot of good music of their own," and the Seegers returned to the big city.
Pete teeters on the hind legs of a kitchen chair and strokes his beard, the last bit of red remaining on a face hardened by weather and time. He never retreated, but neither did he spurn the mainstream. Seeger suggests the following as the lesson of his life: "You don't have to keep your mouth shut, and you can still work with the Establishment."
It's easier to say that when you're 75 and looking out over the Hudson, shining an apple and getting ready for a trip to the White House. In 1961, when Seeger was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the Committee on Un-American Activities about his friends and associates in radical organizations, the defendant took pride in confrontation.
"Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over 300 years ago," Seeger testified. "Others more recently were abolitionists in New England in the 1840s and '50s, and I believe that in choosing my present course, I do no dishonor to either them or the people who may follow me."
And then Seeger asked the judge for permission to sing "Wasn't That a Time," a song of fathers who bled at Valley Forge and brave men who died at Gettysburg. The judge said no, and sentenced Seeger to a year in prison. An appeals court reversed the conviction.
Forty years later, Seeger sticks to his politics -- with a but or two. "I apologize for once believing Stalin was just a hard driver, not a supremely cruel dictator. I ask people to broaden their definition of socialism. Our ancestors were all socialists: You killed a deer and maybe you got the best cut, but you wouldn't let it rot, you shared it. Similarly, I tell socialists, every society has a post office and none of them is efficient. No post office anywhere invented Federal Express."
The book on Seeger is that he is a radical. But like so many radicals before him, Seeger seeks to conserve the past in a way that most conservatives would find familiar. He clings to an America that savored its plain folk, a country that took pride in its simplicity: "Three times, I've written to Reader's Digest asking why they discontinued that great feature they had, 'The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met,' wonderful stories about rank-and-file people. They never respond."
Pete Seeger celebrates the individual in a way he says would "shock poor old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who said politics begins with millions of people." Seeger quotes William James, who once wrote in a letter: "I am for all those tiny molecular forces that creep from individual to individual ... [forces that] if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride." Those words are painted on the side of Seeger's barn.
He still sings, still appears up and down the Hudson at river festivals and political and environmental fund-raisers. He and Arlo Guthrie did two nights at Carnegie Hall last week, and next week he's got a concert in Pennsylvania.
But Seeger is, above all, a storyteller, a reminder that America still has an oral tradition, even if it is being crushed into silence by television. "The purpose of life is to live, not to watch other people living," Seeger says, reaching into his bottomless supply of folk wisdom.
"Judge the musicality of a nation not by the number of virtuosos it produces, but by the music everyone knows," he says. Apply that test to America today, and even an old communist turns longingly toward the past, toward what has been lost.
"People say, Don't you ever give up, Pete? Well, I give up every night about 9 o'clock, I say the hell with it, and go to sleep."
He still varies the songs in his concert repertoire, and lately he's been singing "Satisfied Mind."
How many times have you heard someone say
If I had his money, I'd do things my way.
But little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in a hundred with a satisfied mind.
"There's a million things I wish I'd done," Seeger says, "books I wish I'd read, places to go. But I've got a satisfied mind. And I even laugh."
By Marc Fisher |
March 19, 2007; 12:25 PM ET
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