Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

The Young Turks remember Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in Social Change Central To The Inspiring Life Of Music Icon Pete Seeger 01/28/2014:

President Obama issued a statement after Pete's passing:

Once called "America's tuning fork," Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what's right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be. Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker's rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete's family and all those who loved him.
This strikes me as a statement that could be both heartfelt and a classic example of the "cooptation" that activists and hippies of the 1960s feared. Pete sang at Obama's first Inauguration. But that doesn't mean that he would have agreed with some of Obama's less inspiring policies, from the NSA spying to drone wars to his Grand Bargain proposals to cut benefits on Medicare and Social Security and veterans benefits.

I like to remember famous singers especially for their songs, although Pete was a remarkable person and public figure beyond his musical performances.

In the mid-1960s, when he was still considered too hot for the networks to touch due to his being smeared by McCarthyist controversies, he had his own TV show with limited distribution, Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest. This is an episode from 1965 or so, featuring some Spanish songs from two guests and three of them doing "Guantanamera, " for which he did the arrangement that is now so familiar. Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest - Elizabeth Cotten and Rosa Valentin & Rafael Martinez (Full Episode):

I'm pretty sure that neither of the two TV channels we could get growing up in Mississippi carried Pete's show.

This is another full episode, featuring Johnny Cash and June Carter. Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest - Johnny Cash and June Carter (Full Episode):

Again, this was when Pete was still considered outside the realm of respectable company. It's clear Johnny and June didn't share that opinion. This is an especially interesting piece, because he get a sense of the musical traditions and interests that linked the three of them, as well as the interest in the backgrounds and historical origins of the music that was a hallmark of the kind of folkloric/folksong research that Pete did with the legendary Alan Lomax in the 1930s.

Pete later returned the visit on Johnny Cash's show, Pete Seeger on "The Johnny Cash Show" complete and uncut:

This is one of the more interesting and provocative songs he did, and that's saying a lot, Pete Seeger All Mixed Up Rainbow Quest 1965 66):

This Gospel song he performed with Arlo Guthrie is one of my favorites, Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie - You gotta walk that lonesome valley:

This song about aging is cute, Pete Seeger - Get Up And Go:

There were a flood of obituaries and tribute articles on the occasion of Pete's death this past Monday evening.

This SF Gate piece focuses on his influence in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ronstadt, others honor Pete Seeger's legacy of activism by Aidin Vaziri 01/29/2014:

Mr. Seeger's death sent a wave of grief through the nation, but especially in the Bay Area, where his evocative songs and calls for social activism had a special resonance.

"We all got our politics from Pete Seeger," said the singer Linda Ronstadt, whose earliest musical memories were of listening to records by Mr. Seeger's folk revival outfit The Weavers. "He woke up my consciousness to the power of music to make people aware. People tried to discredit him. They tried to put him out of the limelight. They tried to say he was a communist. But while we would wring our hands, Pete Seeger would go out and change things. He set such a brilliant example for us at every age."

Armed with his 12-string guitar and five-string banjo, Mr. Seeger advocated for civil rights, the labor movement and the environment, and railed against war. He battled McCarthyism in the '50's and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the '60's. He used all the fame that came his way to affect change and impressed that power on others. He often recorded songs that he felt deserved a bigger spotlight.

"He was the only person to record my signature 'Vietnam Song' and he told me that he left Columbia Records over a dispute with them about releasing it as a single in 1972," said "Country Joe" McDonald, leader of the psychedelic rock group Country Joe and the Fish. "That says a lot about the man."

In 2009, after appearing with Bruce Springsteen at the Lincoln Memorial before Barack Obama's inauguration, Mr. Seeger celebrated his 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden featuring performances by Springsteen, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris and others, with proceeds going to the environmental group he founded to clean up the polluted Hudson River.

In the Bay Area, Seeger's influence and advocacy could be felt in any number of social and political moments over the years, from the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam War protests, civil rights and antiwar marches, right up to the demonstrations by the Occupy movement.

Pete was one of the founders of the long-time folk music magazine Sing Out!. This is the obituary tribute by Mark Moss from their blog, Sing Out! Mourns the Passing of Pete Seeger 01/28/2014:

It's well known that Pete always wanted to be a journalist – that’s what he studied in college, before his life’s works took over and moved him to another path – so it’s not really surprising that he took a leadership role in the founding of People’s Songs, first, and then Sing Out! which followed it as the publications of the musician’s and organizer’s cooperative People’s Artists.

I’m a relatively young guy, so, like many of you, I first “discovered” Pete as a young kid in summer camp … learning the songs and philosophy he so craftily took to camps and colleges in the 1950s and 1960s when the Red Scare and “proper” culture tried to sideline his voice. But when I met Pete in the early 1970s as a young enthusiast and volunteer for Sing Out! my world – much like the world of thousands of others like me – was changed forever.

Pete, empowered by his special humanity and genius, had, early on, happened upon a few basic truths: Change comes from community. We are all stronger together than apart. And voices raised together in song can inspire and teach. He disliked what he often called "the cult of personality" – the kind of celebrity culture that divides us into entertainers and consumers – and often bristled at awards and recognition that shined a light on his own “fame” instead of the work, and the broader efforts of the communities he inspired.
From the Smithsonian Folkways website, which has available a huge number of Pete's recordings: Jeff Place, A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014) n.d., accessed 01/28/2014.

Pete was an environmental activist, as this article by Harvey Wasserman in EcoWatch recalls, So Long, Pete & Toshi Seeger, It’s Been Amazingly Great to Know You ... 01/28/2014. Pete did an album of environmentalist songs back in 1966, God Bless the Grass.

In the 1982 Folkways release of the album, he included this note on the back cover:

This recording first appeared 'way back in prehistoric times, in the scintillating sixties, when some good folks in Columbia thought I might be able to make some records that "sell." But some others (in the sales department) thought otherwise, and they were right. The record has been out·of-print for many years.

But Folkways Records, praise the Lord and pass the polyvinyl chloride, has agreed to re-issue it, just as I did it then, even with the interesting words from the late Justice Douglas which appeared on the back of the original LP.

Malvina Reynolds, Richard Farina Pete La Farge, Phil Ochs, and other good souls have gone to rest, but their songs are still with us. I hope many of you who listen to this, will try out your vocal chords on them, and see how they can echo in the expectant eighties, the none-too-sure nineties, and who knows, the twinkling twenty-first (century).
This is from a Unitarian Universalist website, Warren Ross, Singing for humanity: The Pete Seeger saga UUWorld July-Aug 1996

This German obituary, Die älteste Stimme des linken Amerika Die Zeit 28.01.2014, refers to Pete in the headline as "the oldest voice of left America."

How left was Pete Seeger? He has himself talked about having been a member for several years of the Communist Party (CP, or CPUSA as Edgar Hoover's FBI always called it). He says that he left the CP around 1950 and I don't know of any reason to doubt that. He caught some legal flak from redbaiters in the 1950s. Dahlia Lithwick in When Pete Seeger Faced Down the House Un-American Activities Committee Slate 01/28/2014

My understanding of the legal issue is that he declined to testify on FIRST Amendment grounds, rather that the FIFTH. This was consistent with the strategy the CP demanded their members follow, which the Hollywood Ten did among others. I assume this is because the Party wanted people in that situation to become martyrs at least to the extent of going to jail, because taking the Fifth would have been a much stronger legal position. I do recall seeing somewhere that the Supreme Court much later, the 1970s I think, made a ruling on a completely different case that seemed to partially endorse the notion that someone could refuse to testify on First Amendment grounds. For whatever reason, he thought standing on the 1st Amendment was the more principled position.

As I recall, he did a few months of jail time eventually in the early 1960s. His testimony in 1955 was the one the controversy was over; that was when the Red Scare was winding down. Joe McCarthy, the Ted Cruz of the 1950s, had been censured by the Senate in August 1954 and was busy drinking himself to death. What made Seeger and his group the Weavers a target for investigations and got them blackballed from public performances for a while was reports of their supposed Red associations ("Reds" in those days were Communists, not Republicans) by a professional snitch named Harvey Matusow. As this obituary of Matusow explains, he wound up going to prison himself for perjury over his false testimony in other cases, though I don't know if his claims against the Weavers figured directly in that: Douglas Martin, Harvey Matusow, 75, an Anti-Communist Informer, Dies New York Times 02/04/2002.

The official Cuban Communist Party paper Granma published this brief obituary of him on its website, Gabriel Molina, Falleció Pete Seeger 29.01.2014.

Political Affairs, the journal of what little is left of the Communist Party USA of which Pete was once a member, has this brief piece by Norman Markowitz, Pete Seeger, Great American Peoples Artist, has passed Away 01/28/2014, who evaluates him this way, using some of the stilted rhetoric which Pete himself rarely employed:

I would call Pete Seeger a "plain Communist," someone who was a vital part of the larger Communist movement both as a member of the CPUSA in the past and as a non member who continued to perform in concerts and at events sponsored by and our supported by the CPUSA. Below I have cut and pasted an article a response from Rabbi Michael Lerner, leader of the Progressive Jewish group Tikkun about his memories of Pete and an article from the Guardian, a progessive British newspaper[.] These two statementswhich so far is the best early responses that I can find.

In the article, Pete is quoted as saying that he was "still a failed Communist." I would take issue with that. Joe McCarthy, Senators Dodd, Eastland, Thurmond and so many others are dead, along with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Foster Dulles, and so many others whom he fought with and through his songs. And what did they accomplish for humanity. There legacy is death and destruction for the people of the world and suffering in the form of increased poverty, racism, and imperialism for the American people. As Karl Marx if he were still alive might say, they were "failed capitalists," digging in the long run the grave of the capitalist system while they worked to search and destroy its enemies[.]

Fortunately, modern technology gives us the records and films and videos that will keep Pete alive as long as there is a civilization to appreciate him. In that sense, he was and will be still "a successful Communist"[.]
The Lerner piece to which he refers is Pete Seeger: A Personal Remembrance 01/28/2014:

Seeger understood that the kind of Judaism we espoused was rooted in the universalist and prophetic tradition that had led so many Jews to become deeply involved in the movements for peace and social justice—not the chauvinist nationalism that was becoming dominant in large sections of the organized Jewish community—and he told me that he had followed my case in the 1970s when the Nixon White House had indicted me (at that time I was a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington) for organizing anti-war demonstrations. The trial was called "The Seattle Seven," and eventually all charges were dropped after spending some time in federal penitentiary for "contempt of court" — a charge overturned by the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals court. ...

Seeger told me he particularly respected Tikkun‘s tone of respect for those with whom we disagreed politically and our refusal to demean personally those who had fallen into reactionary ideas (e.g., our refusal to make fun of Reagan’s intellect which was a popular move among lefties in the 1980s, our refusal to accept the notion that Americans were racist simply by virtue of voting for Reagan, and our commitment to try to address the rational needs that were leading people to support irrational politics). Seeger also said he respected our willingness to endure the hatred of the Jewish establishment (and eventually the boycott we faced from most synagogues in the United States) for being critics of Israeli policy toward Palestinians but without ever demeaning the desire of the Jewish people for the same security that most other people had obtained through a national state and an army. Like Tikkun, he too wanted that same protection for the Palestinian people.

... He persisted in an egalitarian democratic tradition that had led him to be a communist (though not an apologist for the Soviet union) and a cultural agitator.
The Guardian piece is by Edward Helmore from 2007, Pete Seeger: 'Bruce Springsteen blew my cover' 01/31/2014.

The Guardian's folk critic Robin Denselow quotes Pete casting himself more in a frame of classical liberal democracy (Robin Denselow on Pete Seeger: 'He was the great American radical hero' 01/28/2014): 'Every establishment in the world needs a good opposition, in order to be healthy,' he said. 'Just as the moose population needs the wolves to harass them. It's an old ecological principle. I guess that like the wolf I'm just doing what comes naturally.'

Also writing in The Guardian, singer Billy Bragg writes of Pete (Pete Seeger: folk activist who believed music could make a difference 01/28/2014):

Seeger was criticised as a Stalin apologist, but he was honest about it and regretted his own naiveté. Like many at that time, he saw that the idealism that seemed to manifest itself in the USSR had been totally undermined by totalitarianism. He wasn't afraid to admit he had been wrong, and – despite the insults people threw at him – he was a patriot. He believed in America and liberty – but not just in the liberty to make money, his idea of freedom was broader than that.
And yet another one from The Guardian, this one a more conventional obituary account of his life: Richard Williams, Pete Seeger: the road goes on for ever 01/28/2014.

German singer Nina Hagen shared this video of Pete on Facebook on the occasion of his passing. (And how did I miss her Facebook pages until now?!?) Where Have All The Flowers Gone? Pete Seeger:

She could probably identify with him both for the range of songs they both did - her recent Gospel album is great - and for the political static they took. Nina was educated as an opera singer in the former East Berlin, but got kicked out when he got into doing rock concerts. Her stepfather Wolf Biermann was also a folk singer and a famous East German dissident. They kicked him out, too.

In that version, Pete alludes to Marlene Dietrich singing the song. So I checked and found this seriously awesome video of her in 1962 reciting the lyrics to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" in French and singing it in German. Marlene Dietrich, Wo die Blumen sind?:

Wow! Now I see why she was kind of like the Shakira of her time!

Sag wo die Soldaten sind
Wo sind sie geblieben?
Sag wo die Soldaten sind
Was ist geschehen?
Über Gräbern weht der Wind
Wann wird man je verstehen?
Wann wird man je verstehen?

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