Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Goodnight, Pete, Goodnight

Somewhere around the time I was posting yesterday's post, Pete Seeger died.  I didn't hear about it until morning.

I can't say I'm in shock -- he was 94 -- but it certainly has affected me. He was one of a few very strong influences in my childhood.  I grew up listening to his album of American Industrial Ballads.

I have a motto. I've mentioned it here, just some words to live by: Be Brave, Be Fair, Do Good Work.

That was Pete.  I can say for sure that he was a major influence on all three of those concepts.

A couple of things I think you should know about Pete Seeger:

Pleading the First

When he was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he was not only brave enough to refuse to name names, he was also brave enough to refuse to take the Fifth Amendment.  Instead, he took the First Amendment.  He had a right to his beliefs.  He had a right to his conscience, and a right to associate with whoever he chose. 

And he believed everyone had that right.  He would sometimes chastise his own side, especially when union struggles got hot, to always talk with the other side, to make connections with those you disagreed with.

Those who blacklisted Pete made one mistake.  They had got him off the radio, stopped him from getting jobs on TV... mostly.  It didn't occur to anyone, though, that there was any harm in him singing folk songs to kids.  Thus Pete ended up with such a strong influence on the next generation.

Forcing Hate to Surrender

During WWII, Woody Guthrie's guitar had written on it "This Machine Kills Fascists."  Pete's banjo said "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."

He said that songs can't save the world, and neither can speeches or books.  He meant, I think, that you have to take what you learned from songs and books and speeches and do something about it before the world can be changed.

But he was wrong about songs: he _did_ something with songs.  He got people to sing together.   That was his mission in life, and he achieved it over and over again.  He was the one who brought the long forgotten hymn, We Shall Overcome, to the civil rights movement.  (He wrote many great songs, but he is more known for introducing the songs of others or the songs of the past to a new generation.)

And when he decided to clean up the Hudson River, he didn't just sing to a bunch of tree-hugging environmentalists.  He recruited people from all sides of the political spectrum.  Conservative bankers and business people as well as families, country and city.  It wasn't about politics, it was about life.

So he sang with them, and had potlucks with them. (He often said that food is the greatest organizing tool.)

Amazing Optimism

Pete always saw the bright side, always looked for the good in people.  One of my favorite songs of his is Quite Early Morning.  I've always thought that it would be the best eulogy for him. It's a bright and yet sorrowful song -- about how it's darkest before the dawn, and about passing the "singing tomorrows" to the next generation.

But these lines are my favorite, because they are so Pete:

Some say that mankind can't long endure
But what makes them feel so doggone sure?

Here's cut from one of his concerts with Arlo Guthrie on that song:

In recent years, Pete's voice gave out.  He could only sing weakly, but he still sang.  He often toured with his grandson.

One of the reasons his vocal chords gave out is because of how he sang for 60 years: head thrown back, calling out at the top of his lungs.  If he had learned to protect his voice, perhaps it would have stayed strong longer.  I don't know, though.  It's hard to imagine a longer career.

One of the songs in which Pete called out so joyously and so long; the Weaver's version of Wimoweh.  It has so much energy, so much joy. This is Pete as I'll always think of him -- making beautiful sounds in harmony with others.

Finally, one more video clip and song: this is a song he always insisted on the auidence singing along: Michael Row The Boat Ashore.  (It doesn't show his famous ability to sing a song twice -- once to feed a line to the audience and then again with the audience, without missing a beat. But it still is a great Pete song.)

There's a whole series of songs from this concert in Australia when he was blacklisted.  You can find a bunch of YouTube videos of this concert here: Pete Seeger, Australia 1963.

So to paraphrase Leadbelly:

Goodnight, Pete, Goodnight.  I'll sing with you in my dreams.

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