Pete Seeger left us at 94 years old with a legacy of lessons and guidance from a music career spanning eight decades. He was born as broadcast radio ushered out the player piano and an infantile record industry played the role of folklorist in trying to find the latest Hillbilly and Race hits. He stood up to things that usually break a man: political assassination at the hands of his own government and offers of big money. He left this world a better place but inequality and injustice remain in newer, slicker forms.
We don’t only need a voice like Pete’s more than ever, we need eyes and ears like his. It is up to us to witness and cry foul to the crimes of the powerful against the weak and voiceless. Musicians are all at once historians, story-tellers, and organizers; keepers of an ancient wordless language based in love. Pete Seeger lived the power of song and his example is a shining gift. Here are some lessons I will keep in my heart forever.
Remain resilient and adaptive in the face of adversity and don’t sell anybody out.
In the Summer and Fall of 1950 the Weaver’s Goodnight Irene charted at #1 for 13 weeks. By 1953 Pete Seeger and the Weavers had been dropped by Decca and banned from every legit club in the country after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Pete responded by refusing to answer their questions or name any names and proceeded to tour the then “underground” college circuit and lend his time to the Civil Rights movement. The Weavers regrouped in 1955, sold out Carnegie Hall, and started working with Vanguard, an independant label.
Don’t take their money, even if it’s really good money.
Pete finally split with the Weavers in 1958 after they agreed to a cigarette commercial. Pete refrained from being involved, finished his year of performances with them, and moved on from the chart topping, commercially successful group at the height of the 50s folk boom. Some friends of mine recently turned down a Chase Bank commercial for essentially the same reasons, though the whole band was on basically on board and they continue to play. Good to know this one is still going strong with musicians!
If the sound is awful stop and fix it.
A lot of people think that Pete was enraged at the electricity of Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival but he was actually appalled at the sound quality. The Reverend Gary Davis played plugged in the day before and Pete had no problem. The PA had to be cranked so loud for Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Bluesband that it began to distort and the vocals were rendered unintelligible. Pete was pissed that a song as good as “Maggie’s Farm” was being garbled to mush.
Another classic Pete moment of unwavering commitment to quality sound is him gently explaining mid-song to a massive crowd why clapping along at Carnegie Hall doesn’t work.
Use your power to help the powerless by standing side by side in solidarity.
Pete Seeger helped the Civil Rights movement find one of its most powerful slogans: we shall overcome. Dr. King heard Pete sing it in 1957 and in 1965 he gave his “We Shall Overcome” speech here in Chicago at the Palmer House. Pete also stood with civil rights marchers in the South, fellow humans rendered voiceless by race in an unjust society, at a time when people working for civil rights were turning up dead.
Racism and segregation remain today in subtler forms and ever changing guises, so still we must seek out hate, surround it with love, and force it to surrender. If you’re a songwriter and you think what you’re writing might upset people or challenge the way they think about the world or themselves you are on the right track!
Don’t bring a bunch of unnecessary crap with you on tour and jam econo!
After he was finally allowed a passport in 1963 Pete, Toshi, and the Seeger children went on a world tour based around Pete’s performances as well as collecting film and audio field recordings of music and dance from the places they visited ( like Indonesia, Japan, India, East and West Africa, the USSR, Israel, and Ireland to name several.)
Pete said in his Sing Out Column in 1964 , “…we have so much equipment with us that, to keep from paying too much overweight charge on the planes, our clothing is down to the bare minimum. One pair of shoes apiece, two socks, two shirts, etc. The rest is banjos and guitars, a taperecording machine, and cameras, cameras, cameras.”