The political slant of Pete Seeger’s songs was not accidental: he viewed songs as a cement helping glue communities together when they were under stress, and he tirelessly spread the word in person, playing in local union halls, assembly rooms and schools – even when blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
But there was a conservative streak to Seeger’s leftism. Where his firebrand friend Woody Guthrie’s guitar was emblazoned with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”, Seeger’s banjo bore the more ameliorative claim: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” – an indication of a less confrontational attitude.
Only when Bob Dylan transformed the folk scene in the mid-’60s was Seeger’s dominance threatened. It’s unarguable that without Seeger swaddling folk music in a chunky-knit Arran sweater of activist righteousness, it would not have flourished as it did in the later 20th century; nor that the course of ‘60s radicalism would have effected such sweeping changes.
It’s a fitting tribute to his ornery spirit that Seeger may be the only performer to be awarded the highest cultural honours of both the United States and Cuba.
Andy Gill is The Independent’s music critic
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