Pete Seeger was a complicated man with a simple message: Make the world better, and be kind while doing it. To accomplish these goals, he harnessed hundreds of years of musical tradition into a single banjo and a single, unyielding human voice.
It is tempting, from the short-memory vantage point of today, to see only the white-haired grandfather, mellowed with age, already accustomed to (if slightly uncomfortable with) being treated as an American icon. But that would be unwise. The belly fire inside Seeger — the one that drove the musical movement that propelled him, and that he propelled — was that of a young rebel unsatisfied with anything but energetically chasing his dreams of a more just America.
Make no mistake: He was a pacifist through and through, but music was his weapon.
“My own biggest thing in life,” he said once, “was simply being a link in a chain.”
Seeger, who died Monday, was many things. Sometimes he lived in the country, sometimes he lived in town. He was equally at home on the range and in the union hall, on top of Old Smoky and in the apartments of Greenwich Village as a skinny teenager making music on World War II’s eve with men who would become legends and end up on postage stamps.
From the beginning, everything about Seeger’s background seemed to point him toward his destiny. He was descended from dissent, from Americans who challenged authority. That stayed with him until the end, whether the authority was the mass media, large corporations or the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklists of the 1950s. He waited, kept singing, and outlasted it.
He was the son of a folklorist who adored music and who surrounded him with song from his earliest years (and who was just as political, publicly opposing the U.S. entry into World War I). He started young on the ukelele, his gateway instrument to the banjo. Before he was 20, he was making music with Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Lead Belly and Burl Ives and absorbing each one’s traditions. They all came out later in his work with the Almanac Singers, the Weavers and, for six decades after that, on his own.
The country’s foremost master of “folk music” didn’t much like the term. Seeger thought it relatively useless and generic. “There are as many kinds of folk music in the world,” he’d say, “as there are folk.”
Like his friend Woody Guthrie, he was an interpreter of culture during eras where such skills are desperately needed but, for the most part, unrecognized. But while Guthrie grew up amid much of what he sang about, Seeger was pure East Coast — born in Manhattan, educated at Harvard until he decided it wasn’t a good idea.
His combination of background and motivations became the template for many of the performers who drove the “folk revival” of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that brought traditional American music into the center stage of the rock and pop revolution. It helped produce, in its wake, everyone from Doc Watson to Dylan, from the Animals to Eric Clapton.
Urban northeasterners like Seeger, John Cohen and Ralph Rinzler — and, eventually, others such as Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman — embarked on spelunking missions into the musical past, drawing on the field work of nomadic researchers John and Alan Lomax, Carl Sandburg and Cecil Sharp to inhale the vapors of the American songbook and exhale them in entirely new forms. Some, like Seeger, hewed closer to the original traditions. Others, like Zimmerman, who had renamed himself Bob Dylan, went farther afield and created entirely new musical forms.
They shared one key trait. What emerged in the 1960s, through both American and British musicians, was a tapestry of reinterpreted traditions that reached back into America of the 1800s and 1700s, and Britain, Scotland, Ireland and West Africa before that. Even today, the reverberations of what Seeger and a handful of others began still echo in our perpetual hit factory that forever produces new takes on the oldest of riffs.
“Lawyers rearrange old laws to fit new circumstances, chefs rearrange old recipes to fit new stomachs. It is the same way with music,” Seeger said.
Ours is a personality-driven nation, and we sometimes attribute too much influence to one person. In Seeger’s case, though, there is truth in that instinct. So much coalesced around him, perhaps because he, in many ways, contained so many American contradictions. He was a patrician-born populist, a troublemaker who understood the establishment, a rural urbanite, at times both a communist and a patriot in an age when many thought those to be mutually exclusive.
Robert Cantwell, in “When We Were Good,” a history of the folk revival, described Seeger as “a system of paradoxes” — “hermetically private and gregariously public, a solitary wanderer and at the same time an entire movement, a richly heterogeneous cultural symbol. And this was his power: the power to arouse the need to speak.”
Speak he did. Most every major thread of American history in the past century passed through the human lightning rod that was Pete Seeger. He was a prominent voice on race, on poverty, on war and peace. He weighed in on the environment on behalf of his beloved Hudson River. In the 1950s, he stood firm against the anti-communist witch hunts that scuttled the career of many a performer, and suffered for it.
What happened after the folk revival is just as interesting. Songs dreamed up or adapted by Seeger, who channeled them in very political ways, over time became American standards — everything from “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to “We Shall Overcome.” If the measure of activism’s success is that its message gets incorporated into the larger narrative, then Seeger accomplished what he set out to do, even if the post-Occupy Wall Street world he left behind was not precisely the one he envisioned.
In 2006, Seeger got as good as he gave when his reinterpretations of the American songbook were reinterpreted by Bruce Springsteen in a raucous, joyful CD called “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” The album was the latest development in Seeger’s life of being a link in a chain, connecting songs that were sung on the Erie Canal in the 1800s with satellite radio, iTunes and Spotify. Yet somehow, the sheer Seegerness of it all — the unplugged sensibility of a man who lived long enough to see his entire world plugged in — poked through.
Now, with Seeger gone, the simple message that the complicated man carried remains just as important in a connected, wired, globalized world as it was in the patchwork of villages and farms and hollows about which he so often sang. “The human race,” he said, “is going to realize it’s going to have to start treating each other decently.” If they haven’t chosen an epitaph for Pete Seeger yet, that one might be worth considering.