Pete

Pete

Dad called him “Pete.” All the other Greenwich Village musicians we knew he’d usually call by their full names. But Pete Seeger was always just plain Pete. I used to think dad was alone in this, but I discovered some time later that everyone who knows Pete, everyone who reveres him, refers to him by his first name.

I remember him singing in our apartment on Bleecker, Street many times, alone and with the Weavers. I remember him playing 4-hand piano with Lee Hays on my mom’s Chickering piano. Our families moved from the Village, ours to Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, and his to Beacon,
New York. There, Pete built a log cabin home for his family on a mountaintop. Broke his leg doing it. I remember going to the housewarming that Pete and his wife, Toshi, hosted.

When Pete came into the city for a gig, he’d sometimes stay with us in Queens. When I saw his coffin-shaped banjo case sitting in the dining room next to mom’s piano, I knew there would be some good music in the house that evening. Dad was his biggest fan, a great admirer. Pete once sent dad one of his books for copy editing. Dad went to the task with his usual focused fervor, and sent the document back to Pete when he was done. Pete said that of the three copy editors he had sent the book to, my dad had caught by far the most errors. Dad couldn’t have been more pleased.

So who is Pete Seeger? The many books about him, plus the video, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, take an inspiring look back at Pete’s long career. The film mentions an important part of who he is: Seeger’s penchant for playing a peace-making role, of wanting and working for peace between all. In it, Pete says of two old political adversaries, “I’d really like it if I could get them both in the same room talking to each other.” Peace is central to Pete Seeger’s thinking and wishes.

The movie also captures a telling moment as Pete and Toshi are walking hand in hand through New York City’s Washington Square. A woman, also walking through the Square, recognizes Pete. It is clear she is not an acquaintance, just one of millions who has seen him perform, who knows his work.

She rushes over to him, puts her hand on his back, looks up at him and says, “Thank you. I have to thank you for everything: for your life; for my life; for my children’s life. Thank you. You have been absolutely extraordinary. Thank you so much.” Then she walks away.

This is an example of what may be Seeger’s greatest accomplishment, his inspiring of people to better lives: inspiring them to sing out in harmony, to fight for peace and justice, to do good. It is his effect as an inspiration that is hardest to tally and tell, and it is monumental.

Pete Seeger is a singer and songwriter of inspiring songs. Alone or with others, he wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Oh Had I a Golden Thread,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “The Water is  Wide,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And incredibly, especially in this era, he never introduced any of his songs with a nod to his own authorship. I never head him say, “Here’s another one I wrote.” I didn’t know he penned most of these songs until I started researching them.

Pete co-wrote, “If I Had a Hammer” with Lee Hayes in 1949. Although the tune was not a “hit” for the Weavers when they recorded it, it was nonetheless a very popular song in America and elsewhere. It has been recorded by well over a dozen artists over the years, including Trini Lopez, whose recording reached number one in 36 countries. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded “If I Had a Hammer” in 1962. In their hands it eventually reached number 10 on the Billboard charts. They did a great job with this song, an excellent job, but I always liked Pete’s original version better, probably because I heard it first. But this is what Pete had to say, in his usual self-deprecating, self-effacing manner, about “The Hammer Song,” as it is sometimes called: “I made up a tune, but it wasn’t really that good a tune. Seven years later Peter, Paul & Mary rewrote my tune and then it took off.”

“It wasn’t really that good a tune,” he said. It was and still is a great tune, and for its time – singing
about justice, freedom, and love, as it did – a daring tune. But Pete, true to his humble self, transferred the glory to someone else.

Seeger is a master instrumentalist, fearless, confident and driving in his playing. He knows the 5-string very well, and has poured thousands of hours into unlocking its secrets. He has shared his knowledge of the banjo as a writer of the first modern 5-string banjo instruction book (100,000 copies and still counting). He is a master of the 12-string guitar. By his playing Pete showed us how to play this two-fisted instrument, and he co-wrote an instructional book about the 12-string as well. His book, Steel Drums: How to Make Them and Play Them, played a pivotal role in bringing the pans (as steel drums are called), out of their obscurity in Trinidad and into the world of music from Broadway to jazz fusion.

Pete is America’s first and foremost folksinger (he has been called “Mr. Folk Music” and “Folk Music’s High Priest”), and was a founding member of both the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. The latter are America’s first contemporary folk music group and are acknowledged as the founders of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s. So, Pete was the creator of that renaissance, and by extension the folk revivals of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, double-aughts and beyond. He is the person most responsible for showing America the music of her roots.

He is a social and anti-war activist (on the rim of his banjo head he has written, “This machine surrounds hate and causes it to surrender”), environmentalist, outspoken political progressive, member of the US Army from 1942 to 1945, peacemaker – I already said that – and, importantly,
American patriot. On this score, Johnny Cash said, “The Pete Seeger I know, and the Pete Seeger that [my wife] June and I have come to love, is one of the best Americans and patriots I’ve ever known.” The television show Pete hosted in the mid 1960s, Rainbow Quest, featured some of the most outstanding country and city folk of the era. It was the first time I ever saw bluegrass
greats The Stanley Brothers on television, possibly the first time I saw them anywhere. Other guests included Johnny Cash and June Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotton, and Judy Collins – all icons of that rich ’60s folk era.

Pete created a style of banjo picking that had never been heard before, “Seeger picking.” The truth is that he created a number of right-hand techniques, most of which have not been given names. He added three frets of length to his 5-string banjo neck, enabling him to play in more keys, and in keys that were more compatible with the guitar. It’s called the “Seeger neck.”

My wife and I saw him perform on June 15, 2008, at the Beacon Strawberry Festival in upstate New York, when Pete was 89. He took the stage and started to play the melody to “This Land Is Your Land” on the 5-string banjo; the audience broke into applause. Then he led us through singing the song, feeding us each line before it arrived so we could sing it back to him. He told about two new verses, recently re-discovered, while he kept his banjo ringing. Through the choruses sung by the crowd, you could hear his voice singing, wobbly but confidently urging us on. He roused us to a fortissimo final chorus, and brought the house down with a hammered “this land … is made … for
you and me.”

It was a bravura performance by a senior artist who put every fiber of his body into his art. And it showed off Pete’s special talent with the sing-along. What he did with the crowd – teach the words, lead the singing, teach the harmony, teach the song’s history, teach about Woody Guthrie, get everyone singing along, bring the tune to a round-house finale – is something that no one else does
so successfully. It was a master class in leading a sing-along, led by a master teacher, the Dean of American Folk Music.

Pete has also perfected a technique of segueing songs together during his shows, one that robs him of applause in the short run: After he has sung the last chorus of a song, he keeps the banjo going and starts talking to the audience about that song, or about the next song and how the two are related. Then, still talking, he stops playing, re-capos and re-tunes the banjo, and launches into the next song. By making this move, he misses out on applause for the first tune. He finishes this second song similarly, and segues into a third tune, depriving himself of applause yet again. Finally he brings the third song to the close the audience had been waiting for, one they greet with explosive cheering.

I believe this practice stems from Pete’s humility, and a wish to avoid repeated applause. But it also puts the focus on the songs, their words and messages, which is where Pete wants it, I’d imagine.

Pete was responsible for adding music to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, popularized “We Shall Overcome” and introduced it to Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement with verses that Pete had created (“We’ll walk hand in hand,” and “The whole wide world around”). With Toshi, Pete started “Hudson River Sloop Clearwater,” a non-profit that cleaned up New York State’s Hudson River (after the Federal government had declared it an industrialized river). He doesn’t smoke, drink, or chase women (just political causes), and he has never sold out. But he has also taken it on the chin for his beliefs and lefty politics. Pete was hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, branded a “Red,” blacklisted from TV, and marginalized by the mainstream
media. But he was an outsize personality, and he made his voice heard from outside the main, until the main finally recognized him.

In 1994, Pete was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contributions to American culture and the performing arts, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Introducing Pete for the award, President Bill Clinton said: “He was an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them. He was attacked for his beliefs; he was banned from television. Some artists make musical history. Pete Seeger made history with his music.” Times have certainly turned when a United States President gives Pete Seeger an award.

I can’t imagine that anyone has memorized more tunes than Pete, or played more benefits. The last time I saw him perform was at a benefit for the Woody Guthrie Foundation, in September 2009, when he was 90. He played standing up, proud, brave, and true to his generous convictions. It was as memorable as the first time I saw him play, in our living room on Bleecker Street in 1946.