It was with some sadness that I heard of Pete Seeger’s death this morning. It seemed strangely coincidental with the showing of the Coen Brothers’ latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, which focusses on a folk singer (loosely modelled on Dave Van Ronk who also produced an LP called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”) in the folk music scene in the 1960s – as Seeger was one of the most influential people in American folk music.
Born during the May Day riots in 1919 and the first “Red Scare”, Seeger later appeared before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in the McCarthyite period because of his left-wing associations. Typically he offered to sing to the committee, literally, but he refused to “sing” metaphorically by naming names, and was charged with contempt of Congress. Fortunately his conviction and possible jail sentence was thrown out by a Court of Appeals. He had joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s or 1940s as many did in the Depression years, but he left it in 1949.
In many ways Seeger was the embodiment of an a-political American radical tradition – despite his own privileged background (he was a Harvard drop-out), he identified with the ordinary working people and became a repository of their music and linked different generations of folk musicians through his knowledge, enthusiasm and personality. He sang with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers in the 1940s, achieved popular success with the Weavers with hits like “Goodnight Irene”(a Leadbelly song), “Wimoweh”, and “If I had a Hammer” in the 1950s, was instrumental in the folk revival of the sixties (famously being furious with Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Festival), and contributed to the civil rights protests both in person and through the song “We Shall Overcome”, and to the Vietnam peace movement in “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.
Always an optimist, Seeger expressed a great love and belief in America and its most fundamental values. As he said “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.”
Where have all the flowers gone? – “Long Time Passing”: RIP Pete Seeger, Great American.