Pete Seeger: Guerrilla Minstrel

Pete Seeger
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
April 13, 1972

Pete Seeger," a well-known critic pointed out somewhat whimsically, "is the only man who could ever put a Russian poet, a Cuban revolutionary poet and the Bible on the American hit parade."

It's almost true. Actually, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is pure Pete Seeger, and did not, as a surprising number of people seem to believe, come from a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. There is a Russian folk song called "Koloda Duda," some lyrics of which were quoted by Mikhail Sholokhov in his novel And Quiet Flows the Don. The quoted lines gave Pete the idea for his song, but there is no musical or other connection between one song and the other, and the circular point of Seeger's lyric is not in the Russian song.

Pete Seeger, Folk Legend, Dead at 94

"Guantanamera," however, is indeed a poem by the Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti, and "Turn, Turn, Turn" is indeed a lyric from Ecclesiastes, with a few additional lines by Pete himself. And of course Pete has had a lot of songs on the charts, notably (twice) "The Hammer Song," also known as "If I Had a Hammer," which Pete wrote with Lee Hays in 1950. None of these songs, alas, ever put a Pete Seeger record on the charts. The only time one of his records ever made it that big was in 1964 with somebody else's song: Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes." It was so popular that Malvina has been cursed ever since with people telling her that she's singing it wrong.

A very few artists in any branch of music may have as many records behind them as Pete Seeger – one thinks of Duke Ellington, who started in the Twenties and who is 20 years older than Pete – but trying to assemble a complete Seeger collection would be a lifetime undertaking. A July, 1964, ad for Folkways records listed 50 Seeger albums on that label alone – and he had already started to record for Columbia. By now there must be 75 or 80 – not counting Weavers albums, one by the Almanac Singers, and a raft of brief appearances on Newport Folk Festival LPs and other anthologies.

A lot of them are live concert appearances (his first "live" recording was a school assembly concert issued on two 10-inch LPs by Stinson in 1954), and the same song may appear a dozen times – but it is always different and almost always better. The man doesn't stop growing.

Look back at Pete Seeger's remarkable life in photos

"He will move the audience," Marty Muns wrote in 1961, "into a mood of such 'reluctance' to remain silent, that it follows that they join in the choruses." It's true. Certainly many entertainers, from Barbra Streisand to Bob Hope to the Rolling Stones, can turn on an audience as well as Pete can. What they can't do is turn on any audience the way Pete can.

He can, all alone, bring excitement and delight to a group of sophisticated collegians on a campus, to a group of black children in a small Mississippi town, to another group of black children in a kids' camp in Kenya, to a handful of friends in a living room, to a roomful of longshoremen or hardhats, to an audience of "senior citizens," or to general, mixed audiences in Nairobi, Moscow, New Delhi, London, Berkeley or Omaha.

A few years ago in Moscow – standing by himself on the stage of the Tchaikowsky Concert Hall, with a piece of paper containing some conversational Russian words taped to a microphone stand (and ignoring the cautious interpreter who thought the word "hallelujah" had unsavory religious connotations) – Pete had an audience of 10,000 people who didn't speak English singing four-part harmony to "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." I doubt whether Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger together could do that.

Pete bounces out on the stage, tall and skinny (he's not really that skinny up close). Until recently he was clean-shaven and shorthaired and wearing work clothes that sometimes looked as though they were hand-me-downs from someone two sizes smaller; he might have been a gas station attendant in middle America. Now he has a beard, reddish brown with gray, and a saucy little Hudson River cap that can only be described as a beanie with a tiny bill. His shirt is full and flowered but relatively subdued; his black denim pants flare just a little at the bottom, above heavy, high work shoes.

Read our 1979 profile on Pete Seeger

He's carrying a big 12-string guitar that Huddie Ledbetter taught him to play, and a Vega five-string banjo with the longest neck you've ever seen. He starts to sing, and just about the time you begin to tap your foot, he breaks off and says cheerfully, "Hey, I can teach you that, even if you don't know a word of Spanish." In two minutes the audience has divided itself according to voice ranges and is gleefully belting out what it doesn't even know is a Puerto Rican revolutionary song.

It might not be Spanish. It might be German or Hindi or some Bantu language or Indonesian. It might even be English, or it might be a nonsense word like "Wimowch." All that is certain is that if you're there, you'll be singing. The British musician and critic, Sidney Carter, said that "when he sings, you feel, in a sense, that he is singing part of you." And he makes the singing part of you sing.

How does he do it? Nobody knows. He doesn't know himself, though he will answer a question on the subject with a vague phrase about picking the right song for the right audience. But there is one thing that seems clear; his amazing rapport with audiences is somehow closely connected to his personal integrity. And that, in turn, is hard to write about.

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