Pete Seeger: Guerrilla Minstrel
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.
Like all of us, Pete Seeger is the product, or the sum, of the road he has traveled – in his case a strange and often a lonely road. Even less than most entertainers can he be seen separately from the nonpublic part of his life, from his personal commitments; he is an integrated man.
Which means that we have to go back to the late Thirties and come forward, looking not only at a man but at a nation and a world going through some strange changes – and at a musical environment that crazily mirrored, as the music of a nation so often will, the meanings of those changes. That Pete Seeger has survived the past 30 years is in itself incredible; that he has survived with his humanity, his love and his integrity intact is, to a writer who himself lived far less commendably through the same years, very nearly beyond belief.
On the surface, it is strange enough that Pete Seeger turned out to be a folk singer at all, much less a folk singer whose political leanings have always been leftward. In the first place, his father was (and is) an eminent and successful musicologist, his stepmother a well-known concert performer and avant-garde composer. In the second place, his early life was spent in private schools well isolated from poverty and struggle. In the third place, he couldn’t be more of a WASP.
There were Seegers in America in the 17th Century. For a white man to be able to capture black audiences as Pete has done, and to make and maintain close friendships throughout the spectrum of black struggle, is unusual; it is even more unusual for a white man whose roots have nothing to do with recent immigration, whose personal heritage includes no Jewish or Italian or central European or rebellious Gaelic Strains.
But there is more to it than that, for Pete comes naturally by that erect stance and that proud and undaunted lift of chin. Those first Seegers came to America as religious dissenters, and there were fighting abolitionist Seegers in the middle of the 19th Century.
At the Berkeley Folk Festival in October, 1970, Pete’s father, Charles Seeger, was present along with Pete, and joined him in an afternoon symposium which (because of a bomb threat at the Student Union) was held on a grassy glade elsewhere on the campus. Charles Seeger, now 83, is very much the wise and gentle man; it seemed somehow right that there should be students sitting at his feet asking him questions.
Right – but ironic. More than 50 years ago, before Pete was born, his father was fired from the music department on that same Berkeley campus. A convinced intellectual Socialist, he was firmly and loudly opposed to World War I; and then as now, Berkeley was uneasy with radical professors. The elder Seeger was eased out. The Juilliard School of Musical Art, less concerned with politics, offered Dr. Seeger the chairmanship of its music theory department, and the family moved east. Pete was born in New York.
Born on May 3rd, 1919, he was the third child of Charles Seeger (Charles, Jr., and John are a radioastronomer and a high school principal respectively) and the last child of Charles and Constance Seeger (later Constance Seeger Dowding). Rather younger are the children of Charles Seeger and the pianist-composer Ruth Crawford Seeger: Mike, long the fiddle-playing mainstay of the New Lost City Ramblers; Peggy, also a singer and now married to Scottish singer-composer Ewan MacColl; Barbara, a secretary; and Penny, described by her father as a “housewife” but married to John Cohen, also of the Ramblers.
“I like to think,” says Charles Seeger, “that the children with whose rearing I had the most to do were the three who grew up to become musicians.” True or not (Penny has recorded as a singer), the effect of Charles Seeger on his son Pete is obvious to anyone who sees them together. There is an almost old-fashioned and courtly deference in Pete’s manner toward his father. He calls his father “Father.”
It is also clear that Pete, whose music when performed on a stage often achieves its success through its simplicity – he can do eight verses of an Appalachian folk song without ever changing the chord he’s playing on the guitar – is not the son of a musicologist and music theorist for nothing. He can slide easily and conversationally into a discussion of the use of the Mixolydian mode in the folk ballad, and once devoted one of his regular columns in the magazine Sing Out to a chattily erudite discussion of the complex melodic-rhythmic distinctions between Irish and German folk melodies.
We talked about that on the first night of the Berkeley festival. After a cross-country jet trip that he began already exhausted, Pete had closed the Thursday night show. After midnight we found ourselves in a second-rate restaurant (“Is there some place open in Berkeley where I can get a bowl of soup?”) otherwise occupied by only two or three groups of young people, all of whom had probably been at the concert.
While he ate his bowl of soup, and a huge salad intended to be served as a meal, and a steak, and some dessert (“He eats more,” says his wife Toshi, “than three men his size”), he explained, in answer to a question, that he was increasingly interested in the ways in which rhythm is contained in melody itself.
“Take ‘Cotton Fields,’ for instance,” he said. “I think Leadbelly wrote that one night off the top of his head in the middle of a performance – but anyway, you can hear that even if you keep the beat going with the guitar, there’s a real rhythm in the song that rides when you’re singing the words and stops when the words stop. Or this one.”
He put his head back and, in that clear, strong, familiar voice, started to sing the French World War I song, “Aupres de ma Blonde.” He had his back to the other people in the restaurant, and he didn’t see their heads come up sharply, or the quick excited whispered identifications. He went on, oblivious, into a fairly technical discussion of African rhythms (happy, I think, to have been asked a musical question instead of a political one). A little later, a girl passing the table on the way out dropped a piece of paper on the table as she went by. On a paper napkin, in purple ink, she had written:
“I don’t want to interrupt your conversation, but I want to thank you because you have brought me pleasure I can’t describe since I was a little child. I love you.”
Pete put the paper carefully into his pocket. “That’s really very nice, isn’t it?” he said simply, and went on to explain a couple of things I didn’t know about ragas. He was a long way from the ukelele his mother gave him on his eighth birthday.
In those days, the “Palmer raids” and their frantic anti-“Red” hysteria – forerunners of the Joe McCarthy era of 30 years later – were just coming to an end. The elder Seeger’s politics have never moved much further to the right (although the University of California vindicated itself in the Sixties by offering him a Regents’ Professorship of Music at UCLA, where he now guides an institute devoted to folk music and folklore), and the household in which young Pete grew up blended some more or less leftist politics in with the music and the general tone of culture.
During the Depression years, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger became involved with folk music through a government relief project, and, unknown to any of them, the lives of at least three of the children were thereby shaped forever.
“Pete was about 15 or 16 when he got into folk music,” his father said (Pete, standing nearby, nodded and said “fifteen” under his breath). “Mike was about two years old, I’d say, and Peggy was about two weeks old when she started.” Pete smiled, but Charles kept a straight face. It seems to be true, however, that Peggy could sing “Barbara Allen” complete with a great many verses – her father says 28 – by the time she was three.
By the late Thirties Pete had attended Spring Hill School and Avon Old Farms in Connecticut, and had gone on to Harvard. “But it wasn’t doing anything for me,” he says. “And besides, it seemed like the wrong thing to be doing during the Depression.”
His politics, then, were well ahead of his music. Still a student in the summer of 1938, he worked as a cook in the home of a teacher: a bachelor named Charles Olson who was active in the drive to form a Teachers’ Union (introduced later by Pete to Woody Guthrie, Olson persuaded Woody to begin the writing that led to his autobiography, Bound for Glory). By 1939 Pete had dropped out of Harvard, and during that summer he organized some friends into a traveling puppet-show troupe that earned its bread by touring the summer camps and resorts of New York State.
Also in that year, with the Depression still a major factor in the lives of most ordinary Americans, New York dairy farmers mounted a long (and ultimately successful) strike for higher prices – a strike that like many of the strikes of the Thirties involved genuine deprivation for the strikers and serious oppression by the powers-that-be. Passing up the opportunities for more paid engagements, Pete’s puppeteers traveled in their $25 car from strike camp to strike camp to entertain the strikers and – in Pete’s case anyway – to learn from them. They slept with farm families or, more often, in the fields.
Through his family and through his growing number of outside contacts, Pete met a number of people active in the politics of the Left, among them the actor Will Geer. He also, through his father and stepmother, met the Lomaxes.
John A. Lomax was a Dallas banker who lost his job during the Depression. He was also fascinated by the folk music of the southern states, and to feed his family obtained a contract from the Macmillan Company for a collection of folk songs. In those days the only reliable method of collecting folk songs – there were no tape or wire recorders – was to lug into remote hill areas and isolated communities the bulky machinery for cutting master disc recordings. But John and his 17-year-old son, Alan, set about the collecting – and began an effort that hasn’t stopped yet. As far as most of the American public is concerned, the Lomaxes invented folk music. A Lomax daughter, Bess, also comes into the story, but when her father lost his banking job she was still a high school student in Dallas.
The government became interested in the collection as a Depression project, and as one result, at least a thousand of the master discs wound up in the home of the Seegers, who set about transcribing them – which explains how Pete “got into” folk music at 15 and Mike and Peggy when much younger. Dozens of songs, familiar all over America today, existed then only in tiny rural southern communities and on the master recordings around whose existence the Seeger family was organized.
By late 1939 young Alan Lomax was busily organizing the increasingly sizable Lomax collection of folk songs for the Library of Congress. Bess Lomax was in New York helping Ruth Crawford Seeger with the transcribing. In Washington as a $15-a-week assistant to Alan Lomax (“and overpaid,” Pete says) was Pete Seeger. Three thousand miles away, Mike Quin turned on his radio in Los Angeles.
Mike Quin, an excellent writer, was also, among other things, a Communist – which leads me to an aside which will (I hope) be unnecessary for most readers but important for a few. Much of Pete Seeger’s story involves politics on the radical Left, and in the Forties and Fifties politics on the radical Left involved Communists. Some of us who were relatively young or whose roles were peripheral can say – with pride – that we were opposed to the repression of McCarthyism, that we tried to defend those who were attacked, that we recognized the validity of telling the Joe McCarthys to go to hell when they asked you whether you were a Communist or not.
But privately, some of us, this writer included, got sucked in to this extent: we got to caring about whether so-and-so was really a Communist, or just a good principled radical American like us. We got to believing that if they were really Communists, they were really, somehow, underneath it all, Bad Guys.
I, for one, look back now and find that I am ashamed of the way I then thought. From Communists to simple uncompromising liberals, the political leftists of the Depression years, the war years, the McCarthy years were good and courageous individuals who were on the right side. Hence I cannot tell you here what singers or musicians, in those days, were or were not members of the Party. Its influence on music, as I hope to show, was sometimes glorious and sometimes downright silly; but about individuals there is nothing to say but that they believed, whether naively or with sophistication, in peace and the people. They also didn’t worry much about what other people thought of their associations, which is where a lot of the confusion about “Communists” comes from in the first place.
Mike Quin (that was a pseudonym he used, but it doesn’t matter) was a columnist for The Daily People’s World, which was the Communist Party organ for the West Coast (and still is, except that it isn’t daily any more). He was also a friend of the actor, Will Geer. In Los Angeles in 1938, Quin turned on his radio and happened to hear a singer who had a 15 minute show on a local station (his only pay was a percentage of whatever advertising revenue he could himself drum up).
A wandering Oklahoman who had found himself jobless in California, the singer had begun his radio career with relatively innocuous folk ballads of the Southwest; but, increasingly angry about the Depression and about the political blandness of radio, he began to incorporate an increasing amount of protest into his material, and to use more of his own songs dramatizing the plight of the unemployed worker and the starved out farmer. His name was Woody Guthrie.
Quin found Guthrie and introduced him to Geer. Geer, in turn, brought Woody together with an actor who was appearing in various leftist little-theater productions around Los Angeles, but who also sang the songs of the Southwest: Cisco Houston. Financed by Geer, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston set out in a battered car to tour California’s migrant labor camps, not yet made famous by John Steinbeck. They sang and collected songs as they went, and Woody Guthrie produced a mimeographed anthology of the songs he and Cisco had picked up on the tour; some of Woody’s own songs were included in the collection.
Geer was on his way to New York (where he starred in the stage production of Tobacco Road and later in The Grapes of Wrath), and he urged Guthrie and Houston to go there too, convinced of their talent and of their ultimate future as singers. In the meantime, the actor sent a copy of Guthrie’s labor-camp songs to Pete Seeger, and urged him to meet Guthrie if the latter reached New York.
Woody made it in 1939, and stayed with Will and Herta Geer in an apartment whose rent was then fabulous: $150 a month (“I thought it was a year,” Woody later said; Manhattanites can understand the reaction if they know that the apartment was in the East Sixties just off Fifth Avenue). Almost immediately after his arrival, Woody appeared at a benefit, in a Broadway theater, for California farm workers. Geer was MC, and on the bill were Burl Ives, Leadbelly, Josh White – and Pete Seeger.
“He was a little bit of a fella,” Pete remembers – the phrase gets added emphasis from Pete’s height – “but he always stood very straight. Not stiff, you know, but straight and relaxed at the same time. He looked sort of the way he wrote. His writing is relaxed and laconic, informal and graceful. That’s how he looked. He stood in a laconic way. And he was very graceful when he moved.”
After that meeting, Woody spent part of his time, and wrote some of his songs, in an apartment on East Fourth Street that Pete Seeger shared with a friend. Cisco Houston made it eventually – he and Woody were to make some trips together as merchant seamen – and the black blues singer, Sonny Terry, was also a member of the group as a particular friend of Cisco’s.
But Woody Guthrie had left a wife and child in Oklahoma. They were staying now with relatives in Texas, and he wanted to go back to see them. In April, 1940, Pete Seeger quit his $15-a-week job, and in Woody’s far-from-paid-for car, with only a few dollars between them, they took off through Virginia, Tennessee and Oklahoma to Texas. The tired car was jammed with hitchhikers most of the way, because Woody and Pete would pick up anybody who would fit in the car.
Some of the last part of the trip was financed, if that’s the word, by one of them, a paregoric addict called Brooklyn Speedy. When they reached a town of any size, Speedy would take his hat and a few pencils and sit for a time in front of the local Woolworth’s, until there was enough for a tank of gas, a couple of hamburgers, and the two ounces of paregoric which Pete would buy for Speedy at the local drugstore. Paregoric, used in the treatment of diarrhea, is a camphorated tincture of opium, and druggists wary of Brooklyn Speedy’s looks would sell a couple of ounces to young, fresh-faced Pete – who followed Speedy’s advice and never signed his own name.
Back in Oklahoma City, the repossessors caught up with Woody’s car; he went back to New York, and Pete Seeger spent the rest of 1940 himself hitchhiking around America.
It sounds a little corny in these cynical days to say that he was making contact with The People, but that is very nearly the right way to express it. Today, too, that would be no easy job for a 20-year-old with leftist political sympathies, but in those days of Franklin Roosevelt and a nation not frightened by a Trumped-up Communist menace it was easier. There was no hip culture enabling a youth to work his way from freak pad to commune to head house; but there were hobo camps, and strike headquarters, and small bands of radical organizers, and people out of work, and a lot to be learned by a bright kid with some theoretical background to make it all fit together. And he had his banjo, which he was determinedly trying to learn to play.
Back in New York, Woody Guthrie got the best job he ever had – $200 a week for a radio stint sponsored by Model pipe tobacco. He lasted about two months. They kept telling him that he had to stop using such topical and politically loaded material, and that he had to quit taking left-wing bookings around New York City on the side. He finally told them what they could do with their tobacco pouches and their $200 a week.
Happily for music and for Woody Guthrie, some sharp and probably leftist public relations type hired him on behalf of the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency (its opponents, mostly private power companies, said “socialist”) that built the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and was then engaged in construction of the huge dam at Grand Coulee. On the Bonneville payroll, Woody wrote “Roll On, Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty” and several other less familiar songs.
Since his death, a number of “respectable” writers have tried to clean up Woody’s politics, either by ignoring them or by putting forth the thesis that he was an innocent artist victimized by the sly Reds. This is an insult to a thoughtful, well-read and committed man. Aside from his book, Bound for Glory, the best examples of his writing are in the column he wrote during most of 1940 for the New York newspaper he euphemistically called The Sabbath Employee; and he frequently wrote in the daily edition as well.
Pete, in the meantime, arrived back in New York. It was 1941. Europe was in flames. Spain had fallen to a ruthless dictator. Hitler had rolled over the continent, reduced France to an abject state, and was about to invade Russia. Concentration camps were filled with Jews (though we in America did not know much about that yet). Mussolini ruled Italy. Japan ravaged eastern China and southeast Asia, as her ultimate conquerors would later continue to do in Indochina. The enemy was fascism – and fascism did not exist only across the oceans. For Pete Seeger and his friends, the people’s own music, and newly created music clearly based on it, were obvious weapons.
Pete felt strongly then about standard American popular music, and the feeling was to be important later. It persists, in diluted and much less naive form, today. The love songs of the period, the Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey “hits,” were, Pete was convinced, conscious or unconscious mechanisms by which people’s eyes were turned away from their own condition. “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” had the effect, if not the design, of blurring the political and economic causes of the fact that there wasn’t much else in most people’s pockets. The music that came from the people, instead of from Tin Pan Alley, was, Pete felt, much more realistic, and provided what he saw as an antidote to the treacly nonsense which he believed helped to blind Americans to their own exploitation.
Coupled with this was his conviction – which he still holds – that “folk music” really means “home-made music.” “It’s better even to play ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’ at home than it is to pay five dollars a ticket to listen to somebody else sing ‘Barbara Allen,'” he told me recently. Despite the concerts he is constantly giving, he would rather see audiences dance to music than see them sit and listen to it. “That’s the European fine arts tradition,” he says, “and it should be ruled to be cruel and unusual punishment.”
Dedicated in 1941 to “the music of the people,” Pete joined another singer, Millard Lampell, in forming the Almanac Singers. It was not strictly a group, in the sense that the Jefferson Airplane or the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet are groups; sometimes the Almanac Singers were two people, sometimes six, depending on the needs of the particular job or the particular moment. But either in the Almanac Singers or around them were people who were to have much to do with American music for decades yet to come.
There was Lee Hays, son of an Arkansas Baptist preacher and in the Thirties an organizer for the Sharecroppers’ Union, an eventually abortive but important attempt to organize, together, the poor white and black tenant farmers of the South. There were Bess Lomax and Baldwin (“Butch”) Hawes and “Aunt Molly” Jackson and Agnes (“Sis”) Cunningham and Alan Lomax and Tom Glazer and Earl Robinson. There was Arthur Stern, who was later better known as a painter of murals. Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry were occasionally around. And there was Huddie Ledbetter – “Leadbelly,” who had come from a Texas prison as chauffeur to John Lomax, and who had already gone through several recording sessions, including the one that first produced “Bourgeois Blues.”
Shortly thereafter, Woody turned up again. He was of course a great singer, composer, poet and philosopher, but by some standards he wasn’t a very nice guy. He shamefully neglected his wife and family, he chronically declined to pay bills, he got bored with even the most desirable jobs and he hated to stay in one place.
He also has a reputation for having been a pretty heavy drinker during this period, but Pete Seeger says that the reputation is generally undeserved. “We’d all share a bottle of wine or have a few beers, but what we didn’t know then was that a relatively small amount of alcohol would bring on a mild attack of Huntington’s chorea. A lot of people thought it was the liquor affecting him directly, but it really wasn’t. He didn’t drink nearly so much as some people say.”
In any case, Woody simply decided that he had it with Bonneville (a decision that finally broke up his marriage). Back in New York, he joined the Almanac Singers in June, 1941. In the fall, they set themselves up in what they called a “cooperative apartment house” and we today would call a commune. Located on West 10th Street in Manhattan, it was called Almanac House, and it functioned for about a year – not without the tribulations that come to every commune, or at least to every commune full of brilliant, inventive and individualistic people.
“It was pretty much like some of the communes people live in today,” Pete remembers. “We’d put everything we made into a pot, and then we’d pay ourselves a few cents a day for personal things. A little more of the money was sent off to help relatives that lived somewhere else. Lee Hays used to bake some great bread – but I guess I did most of the cooking.”
They shared their politics, their poverty, their love for the music and their conviction of its importance. Some of the people who were there, and who are still alive, especially remember Bess Lomax as continually busy smoothing over the arguments and soothing the abrasions, but Pete doesn’t remember there having been much conflict, “except that once in a while we’d get into a howling argument over how to sing one of the songs or another. Actually, Almanac House lasted less than a year – maybe if we’d been together longer we’d have fought more.” When the war finally broke up the group, Bess Lomax married Butch Hawes and they moved their political base to Boston, where they also raised a family (which unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, became known as “All the Pretty Little Haweses”).
But there was some musical history to make first. For one thing, the newly formed and then still fairly radical CIO hired the Almanac Singers to write union songs, of which the best known today are probably Woody’s “Union Maid” (to the melody of “Red Wing”) and the adapted hymn, “Which Side Are You On?” – since used in a number of other contexts. Pete and Woody came up with “Talking Union,” not by any means the first talking blues but the one that made the form popular and thus serves as the forerunner to efforts as diverse as those of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
The Almanacs first introduced a number of Woody Guthrie’s songs. “Reuben James,” about the first American warship sunk in World War II, was written to the old folk melody “Wildwood Flower.” “Pretty Boy Floyd” (Woody said that he knew the outlaw and his family personally) made the group’s politics clear with lines like. “Some rob you with a six-gun, “Some with a fountain pen.” And there were two others that are still sung all over America, frequently by people who have never heard of Woody Guthrie and would be shocked by his politics: “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” and the stirring. “This Land Is Your Land.”
It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance, then and later, of Woody Guthrie. He was the giant of the Almanac Singers, as Pete Seeger was later to be the giant of the Weavers. His songwriting styles set patterns that have affected the work of all of his colleagues of the Forties, and many of their musical descendants, ever since. As a performer he was – and still is – virtually a model for a particular type of singer. Younger men as talented as Bob Dylan and Jack Elliott were his slavish imitators for a while, until they found their own styles. His astonishing ability to be simple without being naive is a maddening goal for the composers and poets who follow him.
Possibly just as important an influence was Woody’s integrity, in the exact sense of that word which means “wholeness” and is related to all of his parts’ being “integrated.” It is probably not an accident that Pete Seeger remembers Woody Guthrie as standing in a room with the same quality with which he wrote and sang. If in a more domestic sense he might have been called “irresponsible,” he never wavered in his ideas or in his art – and in this, too, he provided a model, for the less experienced Pete Seeger as for many others.
Talking Union was also the name of an album cut by the Almanacs – an album then, of course, was a bound collection of 78s – which may be most important now as the first time Pete Seeger’s voice was ever recorded (it was reissued as an LP in the Fifties – Folkways FH5285). The Almanacs traveled – or some of them did – to wherever there was a CIO organizing effort, and they sang at other political gatherings, like that of the American Youth Congress in July, 1941; they really began the close identification of the folk music scene with social protest which has never really died out, despite all the Kingston Trios and Glen Campbells.
On one CIO-sponsored trip, to Seattle, the Almanac Singers consisted only of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. There, they were asked to sing at a party-gathering which was one of a regular series held by the local group for fund-raising pruposes, and Woody and Pete were amused to hear the gathering called a “hootenanny.” When they asked why, a localite said, “Well, we tried to think of a name for them but we couldn’t, and we just kept saying ‘Come to our whichamacallit on Saturday night’ or ‘Come to our hootenanny,’ and the name ‘hootenanny’ stuck.”
Back in New York, the group got the idea for Sunday afternoon parties at Almanac House at which the residents (and some visitors) would perform, with the house being open to anyone who would pay 35¢. The money went to help pay the rent (similar rent parties were common among black jazz musicians in Chicago in the Twenties and probably earlier). Delighted with the word they’d brought back from Seattle, Woody and Pete persuaded the group to call their rent parties “hootenannies” – and thus the word for a gathering of folk singers was born (the dictionary which solemnly advises that the word is a corruption of “Hootin’ Annie” is simply wrong).
The Almanacs were not only performers; the Lomaxes and Pete Seeger, especially, were also scholars. They and Sis Cunningham began the Almanac People’s Music Library, then the only collection in the country of union songs and other music of the workers.
It should be noted, too, that the Almanac Singers sometimes performed as an interracial group (the CIO was a determinedly interracial union in its early days). Today, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal; but it was in 1941. It was ten years after that the Metropolitan Opera hired its first black: a dancer. And it was 22 years later that an interracial performing group first appeared on television, and then only after a bitter fight.
We forget easily. It seems worth noting, in these days of Julia and The Flip Wilson Show, that that historic appearance by a folk quartet called the Tarriers (one of whom was Alan Arkin) was only eight and a half years ago. The Almanac Singers lived not only in a world without atomic bombs, but also in a world in which black entertainers did not appear in uptown night clubs in Manhattan. Only jazz and, with the Almanacs, folk music demonstrated any racial integration at all; and both got most of what little support they had from the leftists and a few intellectuals.
Some of the singers would occasionally pick up radio jobs, and on one occasion an agent from the William Morris Agency heard a radio spot and got in touch with the group. He took the Almanac Singers to the Rainbow Room, high atop one of the buildings in the then still fairly new Rockefeller Center – built as a Depression investment for all that Rockefeller-Standard Oil money. The manager listened and said that he might be able to use the group, but they’d have to improve the act. The men, he said, should wear one-suspender overalls, and the women should wear sunbonnets and granny dresses. The group responded with another number, including some improvised verses:
The Rainbow Room, it’s mighty high, You can see John D. a-flyin’ by. At the Rainbow Room the soup’s on to> boil, They’re stirrin’ the salad with Standard Oil.
The agent dropped them.
But it was time to break up anyway; the war was on against fascism. Woody and Cisco Houston shipped out as merchant seamen (Cisco’s brother Slim was killed when his ship was torpedoed) despite the fact that Cisco couldn’t see well enough to recognize a friend across the street. The others scattered, and Pete wound up in the Pacific (it appears, I was interested to note, that he and I were on Saipan at the same time), where between battles he managed to put together two collections of soldiers’ songs, which he sent back to the People’s Music Library.
Back in New York in 1946, Pete was immediately back into the world of music as a political force. In his basement apartment on Macdougal Street, he became the central figure in the founding of People’s Songs, Inc., which took over the People’s Music Library and for three years put out a regular “bulletin” combining a song with a sort of folkmusic newsletter (People’s Song No. 1 was an old Wobbly tune, written by Ralph Champlin, which had become a CIO favorite and which is still sung in various forms: “Solidarity Forever”). The bulletin ultimately had 2000 subscribers.
Around People’s Songs were most of the performers who had been around Almanac House, and other, younger singers and musicians as well – notably Oscar Brand, Burl Ives, Betty Sanders, Josh White, Ronnie Gilbert and a young guitar player named Fred Hellerman. Important, too, was Moses Asch, who founded Asch Records before the war and later turned it into Folkways.
In folk music, though, there wasn’t much work to be had in 1946; Joan Baez was six years old and Bob Zimmerman only five. Josh White was a popular entertainer at Cafe Society Downtown, then located on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, and he sometimes shared his microphone with his friends and fellow singers. Leadbelly was perhaps the best known of the group and often worked, though his color kept him out of uptown clubs (on one gig at the Village Vanguard, Leadbelly worked alternate sets with a struggling girl singer named Carol Channing). His health, however, was failing; he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1949.
By then, of course, he had written “Midnight Special,” “Take This Hammer,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight, Irene,” and all the People’s Songs group knew Leadbelly’s songs. He taught young Pete Seeger the 12-string guitar, and Woody Guthrie writes of a night on which Leadbelly sang verses to “John Hardy” for three solid hours and ended by chuckling, “Man, man, just wait till Mister Alan Lomax hears about that!”
But it was four other people from the People’s Songs group, all of them still unknown to the American public, who were to change the course of the country’s entertainment; and Pete Seeger was one of them. It was in his basement apartment, in 1948, that he, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert decided to form a quartet. Hellerman was reading Hauptmann’s play The Weavers, about a peasant revolt in Europe, and suggested the name for the group; it fit with a folk song about six weavers of Dorset and another about the Carlton weavers.
It was an unusual vocal group in a number of respects one of them being the combination of voices: an alto, two baritones and (Pete’s own term) a “split tenor.” Hays’ baritone was deep enough to sing a bass part, though not all the way down into the bass range. Ronnie Gilbert’s alto had a startlingly rich quality, and it was possible for their arrangements to be written so that the voices crossed and recrossed continually – giving a different and singularly appropriate meaning to the group’s name.
They sang the Almanac songs and Woody Guthrie’s songs (most notably “So Long” and “This Land”) and Leadbelly’s songs. From a black South African they got a chant-song called “Mbude” (“The Lion”), including the nonsense word “zhiowe,” which they somehow misheard or twisted around until it became “Wimoweh.” From Indonesia came the lovely lullaby Pete still sings, “Suliram.” Lee Hays and Pete wrote “Tomorrow Is a Highway” and, in 1950, a song that nobody paid much attention to until several years later: “If I Had a Hammer.” Hays contributed “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” “Lonesome Traveller” and “Wasn’t That a Time?” with help from poet Walter Lowenfels.
From an upstate New York apple farmer, Les Rice, they got “Banks of Marble,” and from Los Angeles newspaperman Vern Partlow they got “Talking Atom.” From the blacks of the Georgia Sea Islands came two songs, “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” And of course there were traditional folk songs as well: “The Wreck of the John B.,” “The Roving Kind” (also known in other versions as “The Fireship”). “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Down in the Valley” and others.
Forming a quartet in 1948 did not, of course, produce jobs after the Weavers’ Thanksgiving Day debut at Irving Hall in New York. They worked when they could, where they could, in the anonymity of unknown and newly formed groups everywhere. But they weren’t amateurs, either; they did get jobs. Finally, in 1949, Max Gordon booked them into his Village Vanguard for a short gig. The date lasted six months, and suddenly it was as if everyone in Manhattan simultaneously discovered folk music.
It is difficult to describe the Weavers to anyone who has never heard them, but they added to fine voices and excellent arrangements an unusual drive and excitement. Hays’ bottom line was an inspiring foundation that could never be duplicated; and Pete Seeger, as Irwin Silber was to write later, “was the fire, the flames leaping from his driving banjo, his passion welding the group.”
With all respect to the contributions of the others, it was Pete who made the group, with his soaring tenor, his love for what he was doing, the combination – which he still displays – of high professional skill with the enthusiasm and joy of the amateur. “If there is one thing,” Sam Hinton said much later, “that makes Pete Seeger the best performer of American folk music, it is his attitude toward his material. When he sings, it is clear that he loves a song not only for itself, but he loves the people who made it as well.” His attitude, Hinton said, is one of “respect and delight.”
Records then, of course, were records, singles, 78s (the first LP was introduced in 1948, and most people didn’t have the phonographs that would play them). Albums were considerably rarer. The Weavers had made one record for Charter, “Dig My Grave” backed with Hays’ “Wasn’t That a Time?” (“The Fascists came with chains and hate…”), the latter a song which was to figure later in a Congressional hearing. But through Gordon Jenkins they were signed to a Decca contract.
Their first, all-but-forgotten record for Decca contained” the folk song “Around the World” and a song made up of Hebrew words set to a Polish dance melody, “Tzena, Tzena.” Almost simultaneously, however, they released another record on which they were backed by an orchestra under Jenkins’ direction; one side was “Tzena, Tzena” with English lyrics, the other side was Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” That one sold two million copies, a fantastic number for the time.
They never duplicated the then-fantastic sale of “Goodnight, Irene” (the two songs were one-two on the Hit Parade for months), but four more of their records were major hits: “John B.”/”Roving Kind,” “So Long”/”Lonesome Traveller,” “Old Smoky”/”Wide Missouri,” and “Wimoweh”/”Down in the Valley.” If you know any of those songs today, it’s almost certainly because of the Weavers. There were others almost as big.
Decca, however, would go only so far with the Weavers; 1949 was near the end of the line for the public freedom of the Left in America, and the Korean War would begin in the following year. When the Weavers wanted to record “Banks of Marble” and “If I Had a Hammer,” they didn’t even bother to ask Decca about it (“We just knew,” Pete remembers now, “that there was no point to it – they wouldn’t record those songs”), but recorded them on a small label, at a time when small labels were a tenuous, in-group proposition at best. In all, there were only 16 Weavers singles during that period (including one on which they backed up Jimmie Davis singing “You Are My Sunshine”), and two albums, one of which consisted of traditional Christmas songs.
In the wake of the Weavers’ success, other folk musicians gained some public, nationwide attention. Josh White and Burl Ives became at least minor stars in their own right. Earl Robinson commanded the attention of the country with his dramatic “Ballad for Americans,” recorded by the great Paul Robeson (since they were both committed leftists, that cantata, as widely known in the late Forties as “Born Free” or “This Land Is Your Land” are now, has virtually disappeared). Robinson also, in 1950, set to music a poem written 25 years before by Alfred Hayes, and created for Robeson a song still sung, at least in some places: “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”
But pressures were developing far more serious than any that had disturbed the tranquillity of Almanac House before the war; and they came from within as well as from without.
One pressure was envy: The Weavers were making it, and some of their former friends who didn’t share in the glory and/ or the money found a number of reasons, some of them pretty silly, to attack the group for violating either the purity of the music or the political principles underlying it. But it was more complicated than that.
For on the lower levels of any committed political movement there are always doctrinaire sorts, eager for lengthy and nit-picking debate over the political “correctness” of every line of every song, of every public act, of every casual statement. The Weavers were accused of “selling out the people,” of going “commercial” and consequently “bourgeois.”
Women interested in today’s liberation movement, incidentally, may appreciate knowing that from the beginning of the Almanac Singers, one of the major concerns of most of the loosely associated group around Almanac House and later around People’s Songs was “male supremacy,” a concept they tried as best they could to purge from their songs (the semantically indefensible phrase “male chauvinism” is a Communist Party term from the Thirties). “If I Had a Hammer,” as first written, referred to “love between all of my brothers”; pressure forced the change to “all of my brothers and my sisters” (Lee Hays, who thought the change was silly, tried satirically singing “love between all of my siblings,” but eventually gave up). Even so, the Weavers were criticized at one point for adding a verse to “So Long” which some thought reflected male supremacy.
Since this was only one of dozens of issues (most of them far less important) which any good Jesuitical Marxist can bring up, there was for a time a lot more arguing than singing. To add to the difficulty, the success of the Weavers made it impossible for Pete to devote his attention to People’s Songs, and the organization broke up formally in 1949. Sis Cunningham began a new publication, Broadside, which took up the function of printing up and distributing one new song at a time at regular intervals (other publications with the same name that appeared later in other cities were not connected with the influential New York Broadside).
The formal successor to People’s Songs, however, was People’s Artists, Inc., which in 1950 – sparked by Pete Seeger – began publication of its own song-and-article magazine, Sing Out (“If I Had a Hammer,” then brand new and still male-supremacist, was on the cover of the first issue in May, 1950; if you know the lyrics, you know where the name of the magazine came from). In those days Sing Out was a frankly and exuberantly leftist publication; Volume 1 Number 3 included the Song of Proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Korea – which was a pretty clear political statement for the middle of 1950.
There was also, a little later, a song called “Tuomni.” That was the name of a Korean village near which an American patrol was ambushed. In retaliation, the entire village was wiped out by Americans. (No one was ever court-martialed.)
It was People’s Artists, founders of Sing Out, who also set up the Hootenanny label on which the Weavers recorded the songs that Decca wouldn’t record. In 1950, the Weavers (wearing formal dress) did two shows just before Christmas at Town Hall in New York, and sold them both out; but on Christmas Eve they were together at Webster Hall doing a benefit for People’s Artists. That, too, sold out, and a crowd stood in the street; Pete Seeger came out on the steps to sing for yhose who couldn’t get in.
Pete was making records on his own, too, by then – his LP Darling Corey was released in 1950 – and the Weavers weren’t working every day. In 1951 Pete, his wife Toshi, Hellerman and Alan Lomax were in Texas, collecting songs from black inmates at a prison farm. One of them, since recorded several times, was “Old Hannah.”
By then, however, the mood of the country had changed, never – at least so far – to revert. Churchill’s calculated phrase “the iron curtain” had become part of the rhetoric of every editorial writer, and Our Gallant Russian Allies had again become The Red Menace.
Late in August, 1949, Paul Robeson was booked for an outdoor concert at Peekskill, north of New York City on the Hudson River. In a superpatriotic outburst that far outdid anything today’s hardhats have yet come up with, a group of American Legionnaires and some other Fascists – the word is apt – broke up the concert.
Differences on the Left were quickly forgotten. New York City labor unions (those were the days) sent squads of men to Peekskill, and on September 4th, Robeson held his concert before an audience of 25,000 – while lines of workers formed a protective cordon around the outside of the gathering, and Legionnaires carrying rocks and clubs waited outside the cordon. Police, standing by in numbers, resolutely looked the other way.
When the concert was over, the audience – and the performers – left, mostly in buses, and ran a gauntlet of clubs and rocks. The police stood and watched as the buses were stoned; but despite many minor injuries and a few that were fairly serious, the Left had defied the Fascists and – for that moment at least – had won.
The Weavers, of course, sang at the Peekskill concert, and after that their repertoire included Hays’ “Hold the Line” (“As we held the line at Peekskill, we will hold it everywhere”). But America had stronger weapons than rocks and clubs of hoodlums. It had the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe McCarthy and the blacklist.
In 1951 the Weavers suddenly had a job canceled at Iceland Restaurant; it was the beginning of disintegration. At the same time, a well-known actor suddenly lost his job on a popular radio serial. A prominent actress abruptly found that she couldn’t get work. A rightist publication, Counterattack, named the Weavers as part of the international Communist conspiracy – apparently to subvert America by singing American folk songs. A musician in another field, after a period of suffering as a blacklist victim, asked whether he was being accused of trying to overthrow the government by force or violins.
The nation slowly slid into hysteria; publications like Counterattack and a later media oriented hatchet job called Red Channels became bibles for radio and eventually television executives. Even the sacrosanct Ed Sullivan got into trouble with his network bosses and sponsors, because he used Lena Home on a show (she was not only black but active in the NAACP – which was enough). Sullivan never transgressed again.
It is difficult to talk about what is generally called “the McCarthy period” when I know that for many readers, knowledge of it is largely academic; It was not the things about that period which can be analyzed that were terrifying. It was the total preoccupation of America with a myth, a myth that somehow inspired fear and near-hysteria. It had a function, of course: it buried far beneath the surface the strong veins of liberalism and radicalism that had cropped out in America during the Depression and the war, fired by the need of people to help each other, by the apparent idealism of Franklin Roosevelt, and by the dramatic menace of Fascism aboard.
What was a more or less respectable minority opinion one year became a truly frightening heresy the next. To favor peace, or international control of atomic weapons, made one genuinely suspect of being a spy or a traitor or both.
We call it the McCarthy era, but it should really be called the HUAC era. McCarthy’s targets were mostly in the executive branch of the government. It was the House Committee on Un-American Activities which reached out into the rest of the country, emasculated the movies and the stage and radio and television and the world of music as well as universities and science and libraries and publishing and a dozen other fields. A book like Henry Steele Commager’s The American Mind – which can be read today as a collection of routine, superficial liberal remarks about dissent with which even Spiro Agnew sould probably agree – was hailed during the HUAC era as a work of vital courage. And it was.
HUAC (which of course still exists under another name – the House Committee on Internal Security) operated from a basis provided by a few professional witnesses, who either were or claimed to be ex-Communists. Matt Cvetic (I Was a Communist for the FBI). Herbert Philbrick (I Led Three Lives), Harvey Matusow, Louis Budenz and a few others reeled off seemingly endless lists of names – the more prominent the better – that far exceeded what even the most sincere infiltrator could conceivably have learned (they were literally professional; they got paid by the day, and the more “information” they came up with, the longer they held the witness stand and the more money they made). The people named were then subpoenaed and asked about their associates – thus providing the Committee with more names, resulting in yet more subpoenas and yet more names.
It mattered not whether the subpoenaed were actually Communists (although this, of course, was the impression the Committee tried to give to America, with the help of news media who were themselves afraid of Committee attacks). Everybody has associates; and America had been allied with Russia only a few short years before, so that any war relief work might be twisted into pro-Communism.
Beyond that, it was not really Communists they were after. Their purpose was to crush the Left, including the liberal Left, and they did a good job. Nor did they care too much about the questions. It was enough that you were subpoenaed; that was the stigma, and stigma was their purpose.
If you finked, fine; you were “cleared” and magically disappeared from blacklists. But if they didn’t expect you to fink, you were called anyway. Your refusal to answer, even on legal grounds (the Fifth Amendment), was enough to brand you in the public eye. Once branded, you couldn’t get a decent job nor make a decent living. You were punished when the subpoena was served.
And still beyond that was the myth itself, which all too many of us were brainwashed into believing: that singing folk songs or selling subscriptions to The Daily Worker or writing articles providing a Marxist analysis of public events (all legal, all aboveboard, all done right out in public) was somehow evil. All too many of us opposed HUAC because of the injustice of smearing non-Communists with the Communist brush; far too few of us had the simple good sense to see that the Communists themselves weren’t doing anything wrong. They were trying to organize people and to enlighten them about a particular point of view. So were the Presbyterians.
But even some of the finest writers and thinkers were caught up in the fear: If you defend them too strenuously, the Committee will get you, and that might mean your job, your livelihood (they used to like to serve their subpoenas on people where they worked instead of at home, to make sure the boss knew about it), and even a year in prison if you refused to cooperate. It could mean the loss of a job, or public vilification, or both, just to defend them, even if the Committee itself didn’t notice; the boss was afraid too.
Those who took the Fifth Amendment were slandered in public until much of the public came to believe that only a Communist had a valid legal reason to use that defense (there are actually several excellent reasons why perfectly innocent people might claim that privilege even to an apparently innocuous question). Those who relied on the First Amendment as a defense of their freedom of speech and assembly were prosecuted – successfully (the Supreme Court refused to recognize the defense in contempt-of-Congress cases).
Subpoenaed early were two executives of People’s Artists, Inc., and – though those particular subpoenas were later dropped without explanation – the repercussions spread quickly through the still tiny world of folk music. Oscar Brand, an early and eager associate of the People’s Songs group who had moved up to a local New York City radio program with a considerable following, suddenly issued a hysterical blast against the influence of Communists in folk music. Josh White went to the Committee and blurted out a long list of names.
In 1952 the Weavers finally had to give up – they couldn’t record, they couldn’t get on the radio, they couldn’t get a job even though the records already made were still selling. By the way, though, Pete Seeger, the Weaver who sang the high part on “Wimoweh” and the one whose name was best known, was able to work on his own, though not too often and not for much money. He began to tour college campuses, where resistance to HUAC hysteria was highest. Some campuses wouldn’t allow him to appear (he was banned from the campus at UCLA only a short time before his father went to work there), but slowly, and without help from the media, his fame was spreading.
Despite a great deal of difficulty. In Ohio, a woman was subpoenaed by a HUAC because she had held a hootenanny in her house in order to introduce Pete Seeger to other local people. In his own upstate New York, sponsors of a concert were physically threatened.
But Pete was for peace, and for the brotherhood of man, and for fighting the Fascists, long before the HUAC era, and he was for them all through that era – as of course he still is. He proudly sang at the 1952 convention of the Independent Progressive Party – and then, as earlier and later, he sang songs that showed his love not only for the songs, but for the people who made them, and the people to whom they were sung.
Woody Guthrie had written a slogan on his guitar: “This machine kills Fascists.” Then (as now) there were those who saw such a position as a cop-out; one of them sent Woody a detailed drawing of a machine gun, with the caption, “This machine makes music.” But Woody believed that he, at least, was more useful with guitar than with machine gun, and he stuck to his slogan.
On Pete Seeger’s five-string banjo today – a demonstration of how, though he is in some senses Woody’s heir, he is not at all his counterpart – is the legend, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Somehow, through all of the HUAC nonsense, Pete Seeger kept singing that message; and somehow, he did it without bitterness or rancor.
Well, almost. A rare exception turned up in the pages of Sing Out (for which Pete has written regularly since its beginning), directed at one of the most prominent of folk singers, one who had been one of the original sponsors of People’s Songs, Inc., and had recorded with Pete a duet version of “Mule Train.” Obviously Pete Seeger was deeply hurt when Burl Ives decided to go before the Committee and spill his guts about his old friends.
There were other indications then, as there are now, that Pete can be acerbic on occasion; it was also possible then, as it is now, to find odd blind spots in his perception. Before the rise of rock, he occasionally sneered in public at ordinary American dance-band music as “the pop songs of the plush cocktail lounges” – an odd way to describe the songs which were known to more Americans than any others. Sing Out, on which his influence was strong, was doing stories on Muddy Waters and Little Milton when most of us were first beginning to hear of the Beatles, but Pete has never shown any knowledge of or feeling for urban black blues. He cannot sing blues at all, nor play them well.
Perhaps most surprising, he has never seemed to know much about other forms of jazz; he once referred in print to “excellent jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson.” He has certainly known jazzmen; Charlie Parker signed a peace petition during the Korean War by way of an approach from the folk music group, and Pete has appeared with Dizzy Gillespie. When it first appeared on the jazz scene, what was then called “bebop” seems to have had some small interest for Pete Seeger the scholar. And he once wrote of his admiration for “Fats” Waller. But the impression persists, from his conversation and from his writings, that his understanding of jazz is startlingly superficial.
Startlingly, because jazz has as much claim to being called native American music, arising from “the folk,” as does any Appalachian ballad or chain-gang work song; the argument is even stronger if the category “folk song” includes the compositions of Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays and Pete himself. Nor is it politics; on the West Coast at least, the radical Left, at the time of the Almanac Singers, was very much involved in the revival and presentation of traditional jazz. Yet for some reason, the remarkable musical mind that can with excitement and delight admit an Indonesian lullaby, a Hindu hymn or a Liberian chant does not seem to have absorbed Billie Holiday, or even Django Reinhart. Carmen McRae and Miles Davis I’m sure are little more than names to him, if that.
Looking back, it can almost seem that through the dark days of the early Fifties, Pete Seeger kept folk music alive by himself. It’s not true, of course; Oscar Brand stayed on the radio, and Burl Ives taught everyone the story of the blue-tailed fly. The impression comes from the association of folk music with political integrity, and from the fact that Pete alone among the committed leftists was able to keep working and – thanks to Moe Asch and Folkways – recording (by 1954 Pete was on 29 albums).
In 1953 he seems to have been everywhere, and probably he was, for during the following year Irwin Silber wrote that Pete’s “banjo has been heard in every one of the 48 states and all over Canada” – and he meant in person, not only on records. Nor was it all on campuses.
In St. Louis, for example, he appeared at a gathering of the Negro Labor Council, which at the time was conducting a crusade against the local Sears, Roebuck outlet for discriminatory hiring practices. At the meeting, Pete enthusiastically taught the crowd (which included members of an organized chorus) the various parts to the South African chant, “Baleka” – and then, banjo and all, joined the black pickets on the street. To the astonishment of passersby, they beheld a single tall, skinny white man with a long-necked banjo leading the pickets in a complex African chant, interspersed with rhythmic phrases in English about Sears’ bigotry.
For where there was a battle against injustice – and in those days there were many – there, if he could make it, was Pete. In 1954, in the midst of the Cold War hysteria, he appeared in Manhattan as one of the performers in a “joint concert” of American and Rumanian folk music. In 1955, the men with the subpoenas finally nailed him.
If I seem to go on about the hysteria of the HUAC era, it is partly because of a scene from last October, when Pete and his father were talking to a number of students out on the grass on a sunny afternoon. “I think,” Pete was saying, “that new dimensions always appear in a song if you keep singing as you grow older and gain more experience. If used to sing a song about a man going up before a judge, and I understood it as an abstract song about justice. Then, when I was up in front of a judge, the song took on new meaning for me – and since then, of course, I have found other meanings as I’ve changed and the world has changed.”
“Mr. Seeger,” interrupted an earnest young woman of perhaps 19, “what were you in front of a judge for?”
He answered with a wry and offhand phrase, but the real answer to the question is perhaps the central fact about Pete Seeger, perhaps even the central key to understanding his uncanny rapport with audiences of every kind, everywhere. For he was in front of the judge because of his integrity.
Harvey Matusow, one of the Committee’s professional finks (and one who later admitted that much of what he had said was untrue), had named Pete and Lee Hays. Hays’ anti-fascist song, “Wasn’t That a Time?” was specifically cited in the testimony as proof that the two were determined to subvert America on behalf of the Soviets. Both men were called, and both refused to answer any questions whatever.
Pete did not claim the Fifth Amendment or the First Amendment or any other Amendment (although his attorney later put his case on First Amendment grounds among others). He simply – though not literally – told the Committee to go to hell.
There is another thing which is generally forgotten about the HUAC era: one of the forms of persecution that was common was to let things hang over you, unresolved, so that you never knew just where you were. Pete’s refusal to testify was in August, 1955. He was cited for contempt of Congress by the Committee in July, 1956. He was not indicted until March, 1957. He was not tried until March, 1961.
The penalty for contempt of Congress was and is a year in jail. It was not until May of 1962, when his conviction was reversed, that Pete knew definitely whether he would spend that year in jail. When he refused to answer, he did not know whether he would be cited. When he was cited, he did not know whether he would be indicted. When he was indicted, he knew that he might be tried at any time – and waited three years for the trial. And it was 11 months after his conviction that the reversal came. All in all, his refusal cost him not only the prominence (and the money) he might otherwise have achieved but six and a half years of overriding uncertainty.
The reversal, incidentally, was on a legal ground that was of great importance to the liberals and radicals joined in fighting the other about the stigma they tried to attach to Pete Seeger. That smear still hangs over him, and is still dragged out on occasioon when some group of silent majoritarians is looking around for someone to attack.
But it is because at no time during those six and a half years did Pete Seeger so much as waver in the direction of expediency (for right to the end, willingness to give the Committee some names would have ended the matter for Pete) that those of us who are old enough, when we hear his name, think of words like “courage” and “integrity” almost as soon as we think of his singing.
Pete did not answer the questions for the court at his trial, either, by the way. Because it had been mentioned, he asked to sing “Wasn’t That a Time?” Refused, he told the judge. “Well, I hope you hear it some time. It’s a nice song.” And he added – of course with perfect truth, as we all would have known had we not been insane: “I have never in my life said, or supported, or sung anything in any way subversive of my country. I stated under oath that i had never done anything conspiratorial.”
During those six and a half years, not incidentally, Pete often sang at his concerts a hymn he learned at Christmas, 1956, from a Doris Plenn – one which was apparently sung for generations in North Carolina. I can remember his singing it at a benefit for the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, at Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco, somehow putting a hopeful lilt and a touch of triumph into its doleful 3/2 time:
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death knells ringing; When friends rejoice both far and near, How can I keep from singing? In prison cell and dungeon vile Our thoughts to them are winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, How can I keep from singing?
“If I have a talent,” he told me nearly ten years later, “it’s for picking the right song to sing to the right audience.” He picked it that night; and it is characteristic that while under sentence, he chose a song that seems to remember the many less prominent, equally courageous men and women who also told the Committee to go to hell, but didn’t win their appeals. Some fine people (including Ring Lardner, Jr., who wrote the screenplay for M* A* S* H) spent that year in jail rather than fink on their friends.
And today, when we respond to Pete Seeger’s presence on a stage, it is, I think, for a similar reason: we know that he is singing what he thinks, what he feels, what he is right then and there – and we feel the liberating impulse to respond to openness with openness, to unshakable honesty with whatever honesty we can command in return.
It was in August, 1955, that Pete Seeger and Lee Hays refused to answer the Committee’s questions. At about the same time Harold Leventhal, who had managed the Weavers, had the bright idea that they might be reunited for another Christmas-season concert. Ronnie Gilbert returned from California, where she had been in retirement and raising a family. Lee Hays had been writing mystery stories, and Fred Hellerman working alone as guitarist, accompanist and composer. Hastily, they rehearsed a number of their old songs and even prepared a few new ones.
They easily sold out Carnegie Hall for two shows; and sagely, Leventhal taped the shows. Selling them was not so easy; few wanted any part of the politically suspect Weavers in the hairy days of 1955. Finally, a then tiny company. Vanguard, decided to take a chance. The LP, which includes the militant (but untranslated) “Venga Jaleo” from the Spanish Civil War, is still available – and the Weavers don’t sound hastily rehearsed at all.
During that same year, something else began in Montgomery, Alabama: liberal white America descovered the plight of the American black in the South. Earl Robinson had written “Death House Blues” about the Scottsboro case long before; Lee Hays had worked with the Sharecroppers’ Union before he was an Almanac Singer, much less a Weaver; the third issue of Sing Out included a song about Willie McGee. The radical Left has always been active on that particular front. But the white students of the north, and the liberals who helped mightily in the fight against McCarthyism, seemed not to know that the South and its vicious discrimination were there.
Pete Seeger knew. He knew, too, about the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, an interracial undertaking that fought for years against both the hatred and the ignorance of the South. Robert Shelton of The New York Times wrote in 1962 of the school (then finally closed by the smear attacks of right-wingers and bigots) and “its pioneer work over two decades in using folk songs as an instrument of organizing, proselytizing and propaganda.”
Miles and Zilphia Horton ran the Highlander School for years. In 1948, Zilphia Horton wrote for People’s Songs about a union song she had heard some years before on a picket line manned by the CIO’s Food and Tobacco Workers Union. Later research turned the song up in an old Baptist hymnal, and it seems to have been sung on a world tour by the black chorus of Fisk University before the turn of the century. But it was the union version, via Zilphia Horton, that was to get to the rest of us; folk singer Guy Carawan got it at Highlander, he and Pete Seeger worked it into its present form, and Carawan took it to the Montgomery bus boycott whence it spread to a kind of musical immortality.
It is, of course, “We Shall Overcome” – and it was as much Pete’s doing as anyone’s that the song spread as rapidly as it did in the north. When it was obvious that the song was going to be performed throughout America, Pete, Carawan and others quickly copyrighted an “arrangement” (you can do wondrous things with old songs and copyrights), and assigned the copyright and the attendant royalties to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They’ve changed the second word of their name to “National” now, but they still “own” the song.
The Christmas concert and the subsequent success of the Weavers’ Carnegie Hall LP led to something of a revival of their fortunes. There was still no radio or television work, and there were no more big hits; disc jockeys continued to refuse (or be forbidden) to play their records and the trade papers to report on their activities. But there was work enough in clubs so that the Weavers continued to exist until 1963.
Not, however, with their star tenor and banjo player. Pete Seeger’s own career, and the tribulations of his political persecution, gradually took too much time, and he dropped out in 1958, to be replaced by Erik Darling. Darling eventually left to form the Rooftop Singers (“Walk Right In”) and the Tarriers, and Frank Hamilton was the third banjoist-tenor for the group. Bernie Krause, who worked only briefly, was the fourth and last (there was one Carnegie Hall concert in the early Sixties at which Pete, Darling and Hamilton all appeared).
In 1955, too, Pete’s first records for children were released on Folkways. To see Pete give a concert for children is an experience difficult to believe even as you watch it, for he has the rare knack of not exceeding the comprehension of five-year-olds while never either condescending to the audience or diluting his material. He sometimes draws delightful animals on huge sheets of newsprint as he sings about them. Betty Sanders, herself a folksinger and an early associate of People’s Artists, said in her review of those first two records that Pete “treats your child with the respect due the fine adult that he shall be. Sure, there’s fun and foolishness, but there are also the sad facts of life, like death or sorrow, and the lovely facts of life like tenderness and beauty and pure unrestrained joy.”
The word “he” in the first sentence is ironic. In that same year, Pete acutally had Folkways withdraw an LP so that he could substitute a song. He had included a song in Spanish on the original without having heard a translation that was completely clear, and discovered later that it was strongly male supremacist. None of this kept his wife, Toshi, from gently chiding him in public ten years later because of “all those anti-woman songs he sings.”
He made up for a great many of them at Berkeley last year, when in the opening night concert he sang a feminist version of an old folk song, now titled, “There Was a Young Woman Who Swallowed a Lie” (he didn’t write it; he took it, with the poet’s permission, from a women’s liberation newspaper in Boston). But it was his Saturday morning children’s concert, with Sam Hinton, that demonstrated how easily, now, he can do in person what Betty Sanders described him as doing on his first children’s records.
For he not only sang delightful children’s songs. He sang somber and delicate songs as well. He taught his exuberant, floor-sitting audience the chorus to “Guantanamera” – first clearly explaining its origins (“It was written by a poet from Cuba who loved his country very much and wanted it to be free”). In the introduction to another song, he used simple “pie charts” to explain (somehow without preaching) how much of “your father’s and mother’s money that they have to pay to the government” goes to support war and killing. And when he was finished, he stood patiently beside the stage to answer the dozens of questions that dozens of children had to ask.
He has of course appeared several times on Sesame Street: his finest moment at his children’s concert (to one observer anyway) came when a five-year-old tugged at his trouser leg, very near the bottom, to get his attention and solemnly asked him, “How did you get out of the television?” Without even a twinge of a smile he folded his tall frame down to the small boy’s level and carefully, but briefly, explained television images in terms of projected shadows – while the child’s father shook his head and told bystanders, “I had no idea the kid thought the people in the television set were real.”
Slowly with the revived Weavers and then on his own, Pete could see his reputation as a singer grow even as the political clouds continued to hang over him. His singles and albums were no more played on radio than the Weavers’ were – but more and more people bought them. He was far from a financial success; he may have made $20,000 in some of those years, but not in most of them. He and Toshi could not afford to buy a house, so they bought a lot near Beacon, N.Y., and built their own. It’s been improved a little since, but it’s still basically a two-room cabin and they still live there (he finally got an unlisted phone in the early Sixties, when a stranger called him at 3 AM from Ohio to ask him to suggest a name for a new folk singing group).
He continued to travel the campus circuit, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum he gave it much of his time, either going to the South himself or appearing at benefits for the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, and at rallies and benefits for other causes, notably the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (usually called simply “SANE”), which led the fight to abolish nuclear testing during the Eisenhower and early Kennedy years.
What happened next is dramatically illustrated on my desk, where I can look at the pile of Sing Out magazines I borrowed from Malvina Reynolds. During their first ten years they grow a little in thickness but, alas, not much. Then, suddenly, there is a healthy, prosperous fatness. Suddenly, in the early Sixties, folk music was “in.”
It wasn’t even folk music as we have so far defined it. If it must have a name, you’d have to call it “pop folk” – the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four, the Gateway Singers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, the Limelighters (a little better than most), the Tarriers, and one group that lasted rather longer than the others: Peter, Paul and Mary. There was also Harry Belafonte, and there were about 700 sweet young girls with long straight blonde hair, guitars or dulcimers, and thin reedy voices.
As one after another folk song hit the top of the charts, Vanguard and Folkways and the others of course reissued the Weavers records and all the Pete Seeger they could round up, and Pete signed with Columbia for new records (while still retaining a connection with Folkways; those things, too, get complicated). A Decca release, Weavers’ Gold, was made up of horrible old cuts never intended for release and sold despite repudiation by all the performers, including Pete. But more important to him, he began hearing some of his songs in strange new guises.
First of these was the Kingston Trio’s version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – a top hit for months in America. Marlene Dietrich, of all people, recorded it in Europe in six languages, and it swept the Continent. Close behind that unexpected bonanza came another, in which Lee Hays was able to share (and still shares – he is able to live modestly on his royalties, mostly from this song): Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer.” Much later, of course, Trini Lopez gave the royalties another boost.
Below the charts, folk musicians suddenly found that they could get work; a number of tiny clubs in Greenwich Village, for instance, were willing to put up a small amount for a singer with a guitar (a New York letter-to-the-editor in Sing Out during this period asks for attention to some of these talented but unknown folk singers, “like Steve Stills”).
Most of them now are forgotten. But not all. A girl in her teens who liked the more or less plastic “white rock” to which her contemporaries listened decided that she preferred the folk songs she was now hearing, and opened unpretentiously at the Gate of Horn in Boston: Joan Baez. And a lad a year younger whose idol was Woody Guthrie discovered that Sis Cunningham’s Broadside would print his better songs, and began to get attention from the older folk music audience that recognized a genuine talent amid all the fakery; he was calling himself Bob Dylan then.
Ralph Gleason had a conversation with Pete Seeger in 1963 in which Pete told him about “a great, new young poet named Bob Dylan,” but that was late in the game for Pete. Sing Out did a cover story on Dylan in 1962, and hailed his poetry before that. Pete recorded “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War” and “Who Killed Davey Moore?” among others. There is a record of Pete singing “Masters of War” in Japan in 1963, with a running translation by an interpreter as he sings.
Judy Collins first came to prominence then also, and the folk music circuit included a number of others who were later better known, including John and Michelle Phillips, Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian. It looked for a time as though, despite the obvious phoniness of most of the groups at the top of the charts, folk music was about to receive a new infusion of young talent from the bottom.
Pete of course was still writing (he has never stopped). Sis Cunningham came back strong in 1958 with “We Were Born in Fayette County” – a stirring song rooted in a black voter-registration drive in Tennessee – and Malvina Reynolds continued to demonstrate her apparent immortality; but contemporary sources had seemed for a time to be drying up. Now there was not only Dylan but others – Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk (of whom Sonny Terry once said, “Yes, I know, but the boy can’t sing”), Phil Ochs, Richard Farina. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had appeared on the scene. And there was the funny and very political satirist Tom Lehrer, who eventually became famous, wealthy and not so political.
Remember that those were still the worst of the HUAC years; the audience for genuine folk music was relatively small and relatively militant, as Josh Dunson recalled some years later: “Folk music and guitars were definitely considered Left, and to be shunned unless you wanted to feel the various reprisals of McCarthyism…Their names are known now, but when Dylan, Ochs, Paxton et al. started writing, theirs was a politically dangerous and commercially unpalatable vocation.”
It was probably with some feeling that perhaps the dream was coming true after all – that perhaps the music of the people, the songs of injustice and outrage, would reach out and unite us after all despite the obvious commercialism of a few groups – that Pete and his family left on a world tour in 1963-4.
Two men, Rockwell Kent and Walter Briehl, had had their passports revoked because of political associations, real or alleged; the Supreme Court, however, ruled that the State Department can’t do that, and with that ruling Pete, too, was free to travel outside the country (it is a shame that we remember, if only in encyclopedias, the names of Secretaries of Defense, but forget the names of those who have fought to retain what freedoms we still have). He went to Britain in 1959 (and fell into the River Kelvin in Glasgow), and then Leventhal arranged the 1963-4 tour.
It was on that tour that Pete sang “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in Moscow and “Masters of War” in Japan (he also made a minor headline in The New York Times by singing what the paper called “an anti-Vietnam war song” in Moscow; they didn’t say what it was, and it might have been any of several). In India, he sang “Raghupati,” a hymn he had learned ten years before from an Indian student at MIT and which was said to be a favorite of Ghandi’s; a delighted audience of 25,000 sang with him in New Delhi.
Also in India, he met the renowned sitarist Imrat Khan. The Columbia LP Strangers and Cousins (still available) has a short track on which Imrat Khan is demonstrating sitar technique to Pete, who in turn shows the Indian how to play “Sourwood Mountain” on the banjo. Pete rarely plays anything but his banjo and 12-string guitar in public (he played a recorder and, rarely, a mandolin with the Weavers), but he loves to play anything.
In Berkeley last year, he was carrying a piece of carved bamboo someone had given him in the Philippines, which was played something like a Jew’s-harp; he proudly displayed it to all his fellow performers (the conversation with Sam Hinton quickly got into such technical areas about harmonics and so on that I couldn’t follow it), and played it briefly at one concert. He has written a book on how to play the chalil (an Israeli flute), and he and Toshi made a film on the steel drums of Trinidad.
In the half-year he was abroad, it’s doubtful whether Pete Seeger learned all that much about any of the countries he visited; but he came back more convinced than ever of the oneness of humanity. The LP commemorating his trip is Strangers and Cousins, and it is Pete’s title, not Columbia’s. He found that a children’s “concert” at a boys’ camp in Kenya is not all that different from one in upstate New York, that musicians love to talk about and share music whether they understand each other’s words or not, that there are common themes in the “down home” music of every folk. None of this surprised him particularly; he had of course known it for years.
But back in the United States, it was clear that while music might mean brotherhood on a 28-week world tour, it meant no such thing on a day-in-day-out basis around the jungles of Manhattan.
The word “hootenanny,” which Pete and Woody had brought back from Seattle and put to use at Almanac House, had of course passed into common folk music usage to describe a gathering of folk singers, “a healthy mixture,” in Pete’s words, “of the old and the new.” In 1962, two ex-admen who owned a Greenwich Village coffee house, The Bitter End, turned its Tuesday nights over to singer-composer Ed McCurdy, who arranged what amounted to folk music jam sessions known as the Bitter End Hoots.
They were hugely successful, a fact which considerably impressed The Bitter End’s owners. It would make a good television show they decided; and since much of the audience was made up of students, they sold the American Broadcasting Company the idea of doing the show at a different college each week, with a folk music “headliner” and a number of guests. The show, of course, would be called Hootenanny.
With the plastic-folk boom in full swing, ABC was eager – but neither they nor the two bright young men knew anything about folk music, and if they had it probably wouldn’t have mattered. They quickly lined up a sponsor (Proctor and Gamble) by way of an advertising agency (Ashley, Steiner), and made it clear that what they wanted was an audience full of enthusiastic, screaming kids, a show with excitement, verve, pace.
Obviously they were not looking for, say, Bessie Jones and her quartet of singers from the Georgia Sea Islands. A few groups aside, it was clearly to be plastic. It was on this show, incidentally, that the Tarriers appeared (on the first program) to break the interracial-group barrier, but a lot of obscenities were shouted and a lot of hair torn around Proctor and Gamble and Ashley, Steiner before the show was virtually forced by performer pressure to make that concession.
And it quickly became evident that there would be no invitation to the man already universally recognized as America’s leading folk singer, nor to the group with which he first came to public attention. As far as ABC’s Hootenanny was concerned, Pete Seeger and the Weavers did not exist. They were on that list which no one ever sees but which is as real (even yet) as the Great Smokey Mountains.
One journalist after another tried to dig out the facts of the blacklist against Pete and the Weavers. One journalist after another foundered on the endless round of “it isn’t us, it’s them,” the buck passing from network to agency to sponsor and back again. After several months of pressure, ABC announced that if Seeger and/or the Weavers would sign a “loyalty oath,” they could appear. They knew, of course, that Pete and the others would not sign “loyalty oaths” as a matter of principle, and that it was just a device to make sure that they stayed off the program; but it helped to quiet some of the politically naive critics.
It cost the program, and ultimately the people of America. Joan Baez, who by then had risen to some prominence particularly among the college students who were the show’s presumed audience, flatly refused to appear unless Pete were invited (she has never knowingly appeared on any program or at any function which blacklisted another performer for political reasons). some others taped appearances before they learned of the blacklist, but refused to return a second time. In all the show was ultimately turned down by at least two dozen performers or groups, including Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, the Greenbriar Boys, Tom Paxton, Barbara Dane, Jack Elliott, and Odetta.
What few Americans realize about the blacklist that still operates against Pete Seeger in America is that he is truly an international star. On that tour in 1963, he did a one-man special for Japanese television, and another for All-India Radio. Oscar Brand, who had a television show on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (and who apparently decided that left-wing influence in folk music wasn’t so sinister after all), invited both Pete and the Weavers to appear. Pete sang cowboy songs for the Canadian Film Board’s Cattle Ranch, and in the middle of the Hootenanny period did his own half-hour on Canadian TV – using the only sound film of Leadbelly, which Pete had worked for months at editing and synchronizing.
Somebody of course produced a movie, Hootenanny Hoot, which starred Peter Breck and Ruta Lee on the acting side and featured a down-home hootenanny in Missouri or someplace with such down-home characters as the Brothers Four and the Gateway Singers. Unfortunately it is necessary to report that it also featured a pretty fair country singer named Johnny Cash.
There was a great deal about this popular interest in what the audience thought was folk music that the genuine folk musicians didn’t particularly like, even though some of them, Pete included, were making a few bucks in royalties. Some of it, again, was pure and simple envy; after singing the stuff for years and scrabbling for any two-bit jobs they could get, they felt a little pain when they saw non-dues-paying kids raking in the thousands with a plastic version.
Some of it was outrage. A few of the top groups, not about to let a buck slide by, took to copyrighting traditional material, and some at least are still collecting on performances of songs that were both old and widely known before they were born. A Hootenanny magazine came out, with all the songs in each issue copyrighted to the editor.
The practice of hanging on to royalties was nothing new, of course (record companies for the most part prefer paying royalties to being told that a song is in the public domain; once they’ve paid the royalty then any trouble is somebody else’s). The early “bop” jazzmen around Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker had quickly discovered that if you want to record a series of improvisations on “Whispering” it’s just as easy to write a new melody and call it “Groovin’ High.” But there was some justice to the idea that a jazz performance was really a creation by the artists rather than a performance of a particular song; the “folkies” had no such excuse.
Most of all, though, what was resented was the violation of the spirit of the music itself – in both the political and the ethnic areas (the word “ethnic” took on, for a time, meaning whatever the Brothers Four weren’t and Pete Seeger was). With the exception of a few songs whose messages were acceptably broad – “Flowers,” “Hammer,” and Woody’s “This Land” – the pop performers stuck to the songs that were politically sterile, and thus robbed the field (for the moment) of much of its richness and density. Beyond that, one was apt to hear things like the blatant racism of the Kingston Trio’s Frito-bandito Mexican-dialect jokes and a Hootenanny satire that made fun of Leadbelly for his “ignorance.”
Still, the division was clear. The fad would pass (and in fact did), and folk music would remain, flourishing with the new performers who didn’t tell dialect jokes or politically emasculate their repertoires. What happened next is much more difficult to explain.
When it happened, at least symbolically, is very clear: the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, when Bob Dylan appeared backed by what could only be. described as an electronically amplified rock group and sang “Like a Rolling Stone” and two other numbers. Though a sizable part of the audience cheered for encores, an even larger (or at least louder) contingent howled Dylan off the stage. He returned in tears, carrying his acoustic guitar, to sing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” And it was.
Memories of the rest of that final Newport night are so varied and dimmed by time (and by the desire in some cases to prove that “I was right all the time”) that it is impossible to piece together what happened. It is clear that Pete Seeger was involved; it is clear that something about Dylan’s performance bothered him; it is clear that there was a lot of backstage activity; and it is clear that a great many music journalists chose to play it up as a symbolic split in which Seeger and Dylan were set in opposition.
In Berkeley in 1970, though Pete was generous with his time, no clear picture of that night emerged in our conversations; when Pete returned to San Francisco in May, 1971, I asked for more detail, but he said only that there had been a dispute over Dylan’s sound system, and added that a great deal of journalistic exaggeration was involved in the way the Newport episode had been reported. Possibly because I find myself liking him too much to push him (I can conduct a relentless interview only of people I don’t like or people I know comparatively well), we let the conversation slide to a discussion of Dylan as a performer.
But a few days later, I was astonished to get an early-morning (Pacific time) call from Beacon, New York, at Pete’s own expense. “It’s not completely honest of me,” said the familiar Seeger voice, “to say that I wasn’t upset that time in Newport. I’ve never tried to answer most of the silly things that were written then, but it wasn’t as simple as I made it out to be.”
Newport, 1965, was nearly a quarter century after New York City, 1941, but Pete’s feelings about pop music hadn’t changed much (nor had pop music, at least as far as lyric content is concerned); he still thought of it as a commodity largely designed to lure people to sleep when they needed to be awakened and made to look about them. In 1965, a lot of that feeling had been transferred to music made with electrified instruments, increasingly the pop medium but carrying the same apolitical, or anti-political, messages about moons, Junes and dreams to wrap your troubles in.
Besides that, the Newport Folk Festival itself was – as every concert still is – a compromise for Pete, who believed and still believes that there is something unnatural in simply sitting still and listening to music. So that when Dylan appeared with his rock band, Pete was upset – and disappointed. Still, he says, he felt that Bob had a right to his experiment, and Pete insisted at the beginning that the sound system was turned up far too high, so that the experiment was being ruined.
“Albert Grossman stood in front of me and said no, that was the way Bob wanted it. I said you couldn’t hear anything, but he wouldn’t change it. A lot of people were booing Bob because they just didn’t like the idea of rock and roll or electronic music, but a lot of others were yelling because they couldn’t hear enough to know what Bob was trying to do.”
And so Pete was upset (probably upset enough so that his disagreement with Grossman flared out of proportion), and he did make some backstage effort to rally other performers for a finale that would be from his point of view an affirmative one. One writer described the result as “an orgy of phony social significance,” and another as “more ugly and hysterical than anything in a Dylan song.” Pete describes it as an attempt to heal a split in the audience which he felt contained a great deal of anger, but concedes that it probably wasn’t successful.
Today, Pete has changed his mind a little about the whole episode. “I didn’t understand ‘Maggie’s Farm’ at all then,” he says. “I thought it was a trivial song – I don’t think I really paid attention to it. Now I’ve listened to it over and over again – and I remember Earl Scruggs singing it to 500,000 people at the Moratorium rally in November of 1969. I think now that it’s a magnificent, uncompromising song, and that I was just wrong before.
“My opinions about pop music have changed, too. A lot of it is still commercial junk, of course – but there’s a kind of underground pop music that’s grown up, too, and it’s the best of the music. And I think Bob Dylan is mainly responsible for the improvement.”
Pete believes that Dylan is more poet and composer than performer – in contrast to Seeger himself. “When he has written a song, and sung it or recorded it, then he’s through with it, he wants to move on to something else. He’s not basically a performer, an entertainer, like I am. I like to sing my songs, and other people’s, over and over again, to change them and grow with them and get people to sing them with me. I don’t think Bob is temperamentally a performer at all.”
As might be expected, Pete’s favorite Dylan record is John Wesley Harding, “especially ‘Dear Landlord’ and ‘Poor Immigrant.’ I’ve tried to sing those two, but I can’t do them to my own satisfaction – I won’t perform them. When I first got the record, though, I used to put it on and turn on the outdoor sound system – we’ve got a little pond behind our house that freezes over, and I like to go out there and skate sometimes. I’d go out and skate around on the pond and listen to Bob sing those songs over and over.”
Slowly, since then, some of the political barriers have come down. In 1964 and 1965 Pete made another visit to Russia (although, also in 1964, his sister Peggy and her Scottish husband, Ewan MacColl, were denied US visas for a tour here, on political grounds). In November, 1965, he debuted his own local show, Rainbow Quest, on WNJU-TV. In September, 1967 – to the accompaniment of a joyous editorial in The New York Times hailing the end of the blacklist – CBS permitted Pete to be invited to perform on The Smothers Brothers Show.
The New York Times – in whose pages Pete’s name did not appear at all during 1959 and only once in 1962, and which during that same period once refused an ad with the word “hootenanny” in it because of the word’s left-wing connotations – was a little premature with its praise. CBS refused to let Pete sing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song with indirect but very clear application to the war in Vietnam. After a tumultuous internal fuss (in which the stars of the show vehemently backed Pete), CBS finally gave in, and in February, 1968, let him sing all six verses. He has sung on no major network shows since.
He has often been on “educational television.” NET never enforced the blacklist against Pete, although local stations sometimes refused to carry the programs he was on. In 1965 the entire NET series Room Full of Music was cancelled on WETV, Atlanta, because Pete appeared on the first show. Ironically, there was only one complainant, whose beef about Pete was that he had composed “Wasn’t That a Time?” – actually written by Hays and Walter Lowenfels.
Today, though network television is still generally unwilling to let him sing – one of his current ambitions is to sing Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’ to Die Rag” on a network show – he appears occasionally on talk shows and frequently on Sesame Street. Otherwise, he simply goes on doing what he has been doing; like a minstrel of the Middle Ages, he is a traveling professional entertainer whose songs are often concerned with the events of the day.
Pete loves the land, and particularly the land near the Hudson River, where he grew up and where he lives. And he loves its history. Having finally attained some affluence, he enthusiastically joined a group of his neighbors in 1966 in a plan to build a replica of a 19th century Hudson River sloop. The group had no political or social goal; it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
Since then the “sloop” has taken an increasing amount of his time. The group became intertwined with Pete’s growing interest in ecology. An avid reader who is usually carrying a book wherever he goes (in Berkeley it was Herbert Aptheker’s The Urgency of Marxist-Christian Dialogue), he read a number of books dealing generally with the environment, and became closely associated with the Scenic Hudson Preservation Society, leaders of the fight to stop Consolidated Edison from building a power plant at Storm King Mountain on the Hudson.
The two concerns were bound to come together, and today the sloop Clearwater sails up and down the Hudson, stopping at the small communities along the way – some of them lush and wealthy and relatively tolerant, others small-townish and highly conservative – where Pete and others offer concerts and recruit local aid in the battle to clean up, or at least to stop further defiling of, the horribly polluted river.
In the meantime, he goes on singing. He was in Washington to sing for demonstrating Vietnam Veterans in April, and in May he came all the way to San Francisco to do a benefit for The People’s World, only to return immediately to New York (at that benefit for the Communist paper, he sang all four verses to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the only time I’ve ever heard of their being performed publicly as a song). Listening to his concert, I thought again, as i have before, that every singer ought to spend some time listening to Pete Seeger, and everyone who plays a stringed instrument should spend even more.
Of his voice, in 1971, the same things can be said that Harold Berne said in 1950: that it “is not sweet, but it is tender and sensitive…It is not mighty, but it is strong and lusty…It is not demure, but pensive and blue.” What is perhaps more important are the ways in which he can use it to catch both the mood and the rhythm of the song, to put himself fully into it so that it becomes an act of participation shared with the audience, or to remove himself from it so completely that the listener hears the words and music almost as though they existed independently.
His accompaniment is certainly not remarkable for its musical complexity. “After 25 years I have finally learned to play ‘Old Joe Clark’ to my satisfaction,” he said recently – and it turned out that what he had decided to do was to omit the one chord change he had been using. Rather, it’s notable because it is very nearly perfect – so much so that the listener is unlikely to notice it at all.
Pete says that after months with a song, “I get it broken in. It starts changing to shape itself to my individual bumps. After a time it’s as comfortable as any old shoe.”
After years of listening to him and to his records, I recently obtained one I hadn’t heard, and listened to it two dozen times before I realized that two of the tracks are sung completely unaccompanied. Startled, I went back to listen to the others, and was amazed at the complex variety of styles and approaches that exist on them – each suited so well to the song that it has to be listened for to be heard at all. Sam Hinton says: “Pete’s forte is the selection, from his tremendous store of knowledge, of the ideal relation between words and music, between form and content. He knows the techniques of American folk song so well that he is able to express his own thoroughly artistic nature without doing any violence to tradition.”
Somewhere near the beginning of all this, I suggested that Pete Seeger, as a performer, is unique in his ability to contact a variety of audiences, and that that ability is somehow, in my opinion, connected to his integrity. Most of these words, a few dozen digressions aside, have been concerned with an attempt to report, to people who have forgotten or who weren’t there, on the context of that integrity. For it is Pete Seeger – as everyone who knows him, or has ever talked with him, seems to agree.
“Listen,” Ralph Gleason advised me when I began, “it’s all straight ahead with Pete. Everything’s up front.” I asked Sam Hinton the most important thing about Pete. “I would say honesty,” he said immediately. “His honesty just stands out in everything he does. But you should ask Bess – she’s known him since the Almanac days.” And he called over Bess Lomax Hawes, who was standing nearby. “Pete?” she said. “It’s his absolute integrity. He’s just totally honest.” She in turn consulted a young woman beside her – Sam’s daughter. “You’ve known him all your life – what would you say?” “Oh, the same thing,” the girl said instantly. “You can always trust him completely – he’s just the kind of person you’d want to be.”
And so apparently it’s not only my perception. Pete has more than once written of Woody Guthrie that Woody’s personal style was that of Popeye in the old movie-house cartoons: “I Yam What I Yam.” Pete is what he is, and he always has been (asked once whether a song was authentic, he replied, “It’s authentic me”).
His eyes still snap when he talks of oppression in the society – whether it is imperialist war or racial discrimination or simple injustice to an individual. He still has no use for those who didn’t have the courage to stand up to HUAC, or for those who don’t have the courage today to stand up to the war in Vietnam, or for those who drop out of the fight.
“Want to know the most political song I ever heard?” he asks. “It’s that old Bing Crosby song, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.'”
I have been reading the work of Doris Lessing, that exceptional novelist who was a Communist in Rhodesia and then in England, who is still a dedicated fighter for freedom and who is almost exactly the same age as Pete Seeger. “The individual – democracy, liberty – I am concerned now with these more than with anything,” she wrote in 1967. “One has to choose one’s battleground, limited for every one of us.” And in what I think can be read as a comment on the history herein presented, she goes on:
“I think the most valuable citizens any country can possess are the troublemakers, the public nuisances, the fighters of small, apparently unimportant battles. No government, no political party anywhere cares a damn about the individual…So I believe in the ginger-groups, the temporarily associated minorities, the Don Quixotes, the takers-of-stands-on-principle, the do-gooders and the defenders of lost causes. Luckily, there are plenty of them…If we don’t fight every inch of the way, we’ll find ourselves with our numbers tattooed on our wrists yet.”
Pete Seeger has chosen his battleground: his songs and what he does with them. “It may seem a farfetched comparison,” he wrote in 1961, “but for many years I figured I pursued a theory of cultural guerrilla tactics.” And on another occasion, about the songs: “Some may find them merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I.”
This story is from the April 13th, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.