MUSIC / The banjo that took on the world: For radical tunes, Pete Seeger was your man. And he's still singing them. Reggie Nadelson visited the last of the protest singers
Thursday 22 April 1993
There is no irony in this. For half a century, his music was the best propaganda of the American left. Tap the sentimental side of an old leftie and you discover what he really believed in was not so much Marx as Pete. The music he sang and wrote - 'If I Had a Hammer', 'This Land is Your Land', 'We Shall Overcome' - is so familiar to generations of old folkies, and, in one version or another, to everybody else, that they play endlessly somewhere on the CD of the American soul.
Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, live up near Beacon, New York, with an extraordinary view of the Hudson River. Grandchildrens' toys litter the yard near a rustic cabin where the Seegers lived for years, and there's a shed where Toshi has her kiln. In the modern house is a loft under a skylight where Seeger has an office; handwritten verse is tacked to the wall.
Seeger is 74. Although he still performs from time to time, he devotes most of his energy to Clearwater, an environmental project to clean up the Hudson. 'I find myself like most older people trying to figure a way for this human race to last, because at the rate we're going we won't . . . rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, natural resources giving out.'
He is tall, spare and bearded. Holding the banjo, he waits patiently for the crew to finish fussing with the lights, but he is not garrulous or easily accessible to strangers. When he sings, though (and all through the interview, he breaks into song as if it were a reflex), he is completely animated. The effect is mesmerising. I remember seeing him perform years ago at a rally for Sane (the American CND). It was Easter, it was raining, the crowd at the UN was restless. Seeger got up and sang and then everyone sang and waved wet daffodils. He had a particular access to the junction of do-good and feel-good for several generations. Getting people to sing along was the most completely political act he could make.
For the most part the voice is shot. Hoarse. Old. Dry. But it has the familiar rasp, part New England grandee, part Okie drawl. Seeger is deaf, more or less. But now and again, a young man gets up out of the old man and sings wonderfully. To illustrate a point, he suddenly breaks into an a cappella version of 'Blue Skies' and everyone in the crew stops breathing.
Glancing out the window at the river, half hidden by fog, he remarks casually on how the British lost this stretch of rich farmland during the revolution through sheer stupidity. This folk-singer does not come of plain folk. He is from patrician stock, privileged, Harvard educated - JFK was among his classmates.
His parents were musicians. His father had been involved in the Composer's Collective where musicians tried to write radical folk-songs as dictated by politics and theory. After college, Seeger learnt the banjo, and started performing for radical groups. Like a lot of other Americans looking for political action in the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party.
'When I was in college . . . it seemed to me the Communists were the ones doing something, not just talking,' says Seeger, recalling a puppet show he put on to help out with a dairy farmers' strike. Seeger played the cow as union organiser.
From the 1930s on, when the left had something to protest, Seeger was usually around. There was always an emblematic tune, a union song, an old hymn. He refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee - apparently he broke into song when he appeared - and was indicted for contempt. He marched on Selma, Alabama and his adaptation of the old hymn 'We Shall Overcome' was the sound track for the civil rights movement.
It was 1964 when Seeger got to Moscow for the first time. 'I think I didn't realise then quite how debilitating any monopolistic bureaucracy can be, whether it's a large corporation or a single political party . . . On the other hand, there were no beggars on the street,' he says, and there follows a familiar litany, the rhetoric of the old left trying to come to terms with its lost illusions.
Still, in Moscow Seeger got 10,000 people to sing 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore' in four-part harmony. It was his real political genius: his music made people feel like having peace.
In the 1940s, he also taught music in New York. 'I came down to the school and we sang union songs, peace songs . . . The Cold War was coming in, people on both the left and right were convinced that World War III was going to take over and we were struggling against it. And so we sang songs like (he sings): 'Last night I had the strangest dream I'd ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war' .'
The music, the style and politics invested in it turned into the folk-music craze that began in the late 1940s with Seeger's group, the Weavers, and their concerts, which Seeger called hootenannies. (Years later, there was even a television show called Hootenanny; ironically, because of his politics, Seeger never appeared and was banned from network television for 17 years.)
The music flourished in the coffeehouse culture of Greenwich Village where people in sandals listened to newcomers like Bob Dylan. It also spawned popular superstars like the Kingston Trio. Among those who recorded 'If I Had a Hammer' were Peter, Paul and Mary, Trini Lopez, Aretha Franklin and Perry Como.
In the late Sixties, when folk music went electric, Pete Seeger quit, more or less, and launched Clearwater. He yearns for a simpler time. He worries that 'technology is destroying our ability to create on our own'; he worries about its power. 'For instance, with world television, a talented person could dance a little dance or sing a little song and next day be a billionaire or at least have people wanting to do whatever they say.'
After the interview, Seeger sings 'This Land is Your Land' and a couple of others for the camera. There is foot-tapping among the crew and a powerful nostalgia for an America that probably never existed, except in as much as it was invested in this joyous noise. Then, with everyone helping out, we sit down to a communal lunch of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup from the Seegers' trees and the peaches Toshi Seeger put up last summer.
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