Pas­sion and ideals

Leg­endary folk singer and ac­tivist Pete Seeger had a gift for in­spir­ing peo­ple to sing along with him.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OBITUARY - By MICHAEL HILL

PETE Seeger, the banjo-pick­ing trou­ba­dour who sang for mi­grant work­ers, col­lege stu­dents and star-struck pres­i­dents in a ca­reer that in­tro­duced gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans to their folk mu­sic her­itage, died Mon­day at the age of 94.

Seeger’s grand­son Ki­tama CahillJack­son said his grand­fa­ther died peace­fully in his sleep around 9.30pm at New York Pres­by­te­rian Hos­pi­tal, where he had been for six days. Fam­ily mem­bers were with him.

“He was chop­ping wood 10 days ago,” re­called Cahill-Jack­son.

Seeger – with his lanky frame, banjo and full white beard – was an iconic fig­ure in folk mu­sic. He per­formed with the great min­strel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Oc­cupy Wall Street pro­test­ers in his 90s, lean­ing on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote If I Had A Ham­mer, Turn, Turn, Turn, Where Have All The Flow­ers Gone and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. He lent his voice against Hitler and nu­clear power. A cheer­ful war­rior, he typ­i­cally de­liv­ered his broad­sides with an af­fa­ble air and his banjo strapped on.

“Be wary of great lead­ers,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press two days af­ter a 2011 Man­hat­tan Oc­cupy march. “Hope that there are many, many small lead­ers.”

With The Weavers, a quar­tet or­gan­ised in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a na­tional folk re­vival. The group – Seeger, Lee Hays, Ron­nie Gil­bert and Fred Heller­man – churned out hit record­ings of Good­night Irene, Tzena, Tzena and On Top Of Old Smokey.

Seeger also was credited with pop­u­lar­is­ing We Shall Over­come, which he printed in his pub­li­ca­tion Peo­ple’s Song, in 1948. He later said his only con­tri­bu­tion to the an­them of the civil rights move­ment was chang­ing the sec­ond word from “will” to “shall”, which he said “opens up the mouth bet­ter”.

“Ev­ery kid who ever sat around a camp­fire singing an old song is in­debted in some way to Pete Seeger,” Arlo Guthrie once said.

His mu­si­cal ca­reer was al­ways braided tightly with his po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, in which he ad­vo­cated for causes rang­ing from civil rights to the clean-up of his beloved Hud­son River. Seeger said he left the Com­mu­nist Party around 1950 and later re­nounced it. But the as­so­ci­a­tion dogged him for years.

He was kept off com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion for more than a decade af­ter tan­gling with the House UnAmer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee in 1955. Re­peat­edly pressed by the com­mit­tee to re­veal whether he had sung for Com­mu­nists, Seeger re­sponded sharply: “I love my coun­try very dearly, and I greatly re­sent this im­pli­ca­tion that some of the places that I have sung and some of the peo­ple that I have known, and some of my opin­ions, whether they are re­li­gious or philo­soph­i­cal, or I might be a veg­e­tar­ian, make me any less of an Amer­i­can.”

He was charged with con­tempt of Congress, but the sen­tence was over­turned on ap­peal.

Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was de­nied broad­cast ex­po­sure, the high point of his ca­reer. He was on the road tour­ing col­lege cam­puses, spread­ing the mu­sic he, Guthrie, Hud­die “Lead­belly” Led­bet­ter and oth­ers had cre­ated or pre­served.

“The most im­por­tant job I did was go from col­lege to col­lege to col­lege to col­lege, one af­ter the other, usu­ally small ones,” he told the AP in 2006. “... And I showed the kids there’s a lot of great mu­sic in this coun­try they never played on the ra­dio.”

His sched­uled re­turn to com­mer­cial net­work tele­vi­sion on the highly rated Smoth­ers Brothers va­ri­ety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the cof­fin of the black­list. But CBS cut out his Viet­nam protest song, Waist Deep In The Big Muddy, and Seeger ac­cused the net­work of cen­sor­ship.

He fi­nally got to sing it five months later in a stir­ring re­turn ap­pear­ance, al­though one sta­tion, in Detroit cut the song’s last stanza: Now ev­ery time I read the pa­pers/ That old feelin’ comes on/We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on.

Seeger’s out­put in­cluded dozens of al­bums and sin­gle records for adults and chil­dren.

He also was the au­thor or coau­thor of Amer­i­can Fa­vorite Bal­lads, The Bells of Rhym­ney, How To Play The Five-String Banjo, Hen­scratches And Flyspecks, The In­com­pleat Folksinger, The Fool­ish Frog, Abiy­oyo, Carry It On, Every­body Says Free­dom and Where Have All The Flow­ers Gone.

He ap­peared in the movies To Hear My Banjo Play in 1946 and Tell Me That You Love Me, Ju­nie Moon in 1970. A re­union con­cert of the orig­i­nal Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Wasn’t That A Time.

By the 1990s, no longer a party mem­ber but still styling him­self a com­mu­nist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with na­tional hon­ours.

Of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton sang along – the au­di­ence must sing, was the rule at a Seeger con­cert – when it li­onised him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton hailed him as “an in­con­ve­nient artiste who dared to sing things as he saw them”.

Seeger was in­ducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early in­flu­ence. Ten years later, Bruce Spring­steen hon­oured him with We Shall Over­come: The Seeger Ses­sions, a rol­lick­ing rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the al­bum, Seeger said he wished it was “more se­ri­ous”. A 2009 con­cert at Madi­son Square Gar­den to mark Seeger’s 90th birth­day fea­tured Spring­steen, Dave Matthews, Ed­die Ved­der and Em­my­lou Har­ris among the per­form­ers.

Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nom­i­nee in the Best Spo­ken Word cat­e­gory, which was won by Stephen Col­bert.

Seeger’s some­times am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with rock was most fa­mously on dis­play when Dy­lan “went elec­tric” at the 1965 New­port Folk Fes­ti­val.

Wit­nesses say Seeger be­came fu­ri­ous back­stage as the amped-up band played, though just how fu­ri­ous is de­bated. Seeger dis­missed the leg­endary tale that he looked for an axe to cut Dy­lan’s sound cable, and said his ob­jec­tion was not to the type of mu­sic but only that the gui­tar mix was so loud you couldn’t hear Dy­lan’s words.

Seeger main­tained his reedy 1.88m frame into old age, though he wore a hear­ing aid and con­ceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He re­lied on his au­di­ences to make up for his di­min­ished voice, feed­ing his lis­ten­ers the lines and let­ting them sing out.

“I can’t sing much,” he said. “I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl some­where in be­tween.”

None­the­less, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best tra­di­tional folk al­bum, Pete.

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artis­tic fam­ily whose roots traced to re­li­gious dis­senters of colo­nial Amer­ica. His mother, Con­stance, played vi­olin and taught; his fa­ther, Charles, a mu­si­col­o­gist, was a con­sul­tant to the Re­set­tle­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which gave artistes work dur­ing the De­pres­sion. His un­cle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote I Have A Ren­dezvous With Death.

Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk mu­sic when he was 16, at a mu­sic fes­ti­val in North Carolina in 1935. His half brother, Mike, and half sis­ter, Peggy, also be­came noted per­form­ers.

He learned the five-string banjo, an in­stru­ment he res­cued from ob­scu­rity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked ver­sion of his own de­sign. On the skin of Seeger’s banjo was the phrase, “This ma­chine sur­rounds hate and forces it to sur­ren­der” – a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who em­bla­zoned his gui­tar with “This ma­chine kills fas­cists”.

Drop­ping out of Har­vard in 1938 af­ter two years as a dis­il­lu­sioned so­ci­ol­ogy ma­jor, he hit the road, pick­ing up folk tunes as he hitch­hiked or hopped freights.

“The so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor said, ‘Don’t think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,’ ” Seeger said in Oc­to­ber 2011.

In 1940, with Guthrie and oth­ers, he was part of the Almanac Singers and per­formed ben­e­fits for dis­as­ter relief and other causes.

He and Guthrie also toured mi­grant camps and union halls. He sang on over­seas ra­dio broad­casts for the Of­fice of War In­for­ma­tion early in WWII. In the Army, he spent three years in Spe­cial Ser­vices, en­ter­tain­ing sol­diers in the South Pa­cific, and made corporal.

Pete and Toshi Seeger were mar­ried July 20, 1943. The cou­ple built their cabin in Bea­con af­ter WWII and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hud­son River for the rest of their lives to­gether. The cou­ple raised three chil­dren. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.

The Hud­son River was a par­tic­u­lar con­cern of Seeger. He took the sloop Clear­wa­ter, built by vol­un­teers in 1969, up and down the Hud­son, singing to raise money to clean the wa­ter and fight pol­luters.

He also of­fered his voice in op­po­si­tion to racism and the death penalty. He got him­self jailed for five days for block­ing traf­fic in Al­bany in 1988 in sup­port of Tawana Braw­ley, a black teenager whose claim of hav­ing been raped by white men was later dis­cred­ited. He con­tin­ued to take part in peace protests dur­ing the war in Iraq, and he con­tin­ued to lend his name to causes.

“Can’t prove a damn thing, but I look upon my­self as old grandpa,” Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to re­flect on his legacy. “There’s not dozens of peo­ple now do­ing what I try to do, not hun­dreds, but lit­er­ally thou­sands. The idea of us­ing mu­sic to try to get the world to­gether is now all over the place.” — AP

Moun­tain of a man: The leg­endary Pete Seeger, the banjo-play­ing folk singer, in his early days in 1948. He was re­garded as ‘a liv­ing ar­chive of amer­ica’s mu­sic and con­science’ who in­spired the likes of bob dy­lan and

bruce Spring­steen.

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