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RIP Pete Seeger

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He was 94.

 

 

Pete Seeger, who helped create the modern American folk music movement and co-wrote some of its most enduring songs such as "If I Had a Hammer," died on Monday at the age of 94.

 

Seeger, a Woody Guthrie protege whose songwriting credits included folk classics "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!," died of natural causes at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, his grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson told the New York Times and the Associated Press.

Seeger also was known for his liberal politics, working as an environmentalist, protesting against wars from Vietnam to Iraq and being sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to Congress about his time in the Communist Party.

He performed at a concert marking Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in January 2009.

Seeger's life of music and political activism could be summed up in "The Hammer Song," the enduring anthem he wrote more than 60 years ago with his good friend Lee Hays to support the progressive political movement in the U.S.

 

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When I first heard of Pete Seeger, I was simply unaware of his sordid history with politics.

 

I was a teenager who went to youth group, and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” was in constant rotation in our worship circles.  This was in the early 80s, before there was a mass synthesis of what made the worship song playlist, and secular folk songs of the 60s occasionally trickled down into the repertoire.  IIHAH was nothing other than a song about “love between my brothers and my sisters” and there was nothing faulty about that.

 

Years later, on a whim, I had purchased a double-cassette of a Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie concert.  It became a favorite collection, as songs like “Sailing Up Sailing Down,” “Guantanamera,” and “Precious Friend” showed his remarkable tendency to get people to sing along with him, without them ever having heard the song before.  Again, I couldn’t care less about his politics, just the fact that he established community, right there on the spot, with just his trusted banjo and the gumption to actually needle us to sing along, between the musical phrases.

 

For me, this was the essence of Pete Seeger.  Even though he was oftentimes an isolationist, living off the grid in a wood cabin in upstate New York state, he was a communitarian at heart.  He saw that music could play a part to change the world.  Some of his battles he would lose (and rightly so, as he would later admit, once he saw the extent of the carnage left behind in Communism).  Some of his battles he would win (like his efforts to clean the Hudson River).  But he knew that nothing would spark a movement faster than a well-written song that was in the hearts of those who sang it.

 

(Read More...)

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Coincidentally, Mark Steyn's Song of the Week a few weeks ago was 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', and in that article Steyn looked at how Seeger basically ripped off this tune:

 

Mr "Campbell" was the name Pete Seeger and the Weavers put on the sheet music when they'd recorded a folk tune and decided they'd like to cut themselves a piece of the songwriting action. And Mr "Stanton" was the name Al Brackman at the Richmond publishing house put on the music when he wanted to do the same for his bank account. Messrs "Campbell" and "Stanton" thus became successful mid-20th century songwriters who apparently hadn't written anything since the mid-19th century. So the minute Huge and Luge saw those names on "Wimoweh" they knew it was a plum just ripe for a second picking. If it ever came to court, Huge, Luge and George Weiss' defense would be yes, they'd plagiarized it not from Campbell & Stanton but from the same 19th century Zulu natives Campbell & Stanton had plagiarized it from. And, because Pete Seeger, the Weavers and the Richmond organization well understood that, they never did bring it to court.

 

The trouble was, whether you call it "Wimoweh" or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", the tune that sits under those words wasn't a traditional Zulu work chant. It was the melodic inspiration of one man - a man who, unlike "Paul Campbell" and "Albert Stanton", actually existed. And we can date the point of creation very precisely, to the third take on a recording session at Eric Gallo's studio in Johannesburg 75 years ago. . . .

 

A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more "authentic" "traditional" "vernacular" "folk music" for the Weavers to make a killing with. He misheard "Mbube" and transcribed it as "Wimoweh". That's a great insight into the "authenticity" of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951. Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank. . . .

 

The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist - supposedly. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to "Mbube" cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to "Wimoweh". And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. He says now that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn't in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. . . .

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It would be a shame if this kind of grousing was the latest word on Pete Seeger.

 

Here's Pete Seeger in 200 words:

"Seeger's career was marked by controversy. From the start, he aspired to use folk music to promote his left-wing political views, and in times of national turmoil that brought him into direct confrontation with the U.S. government, corporate interests, and people who did not share his beliefs. These conflicts shaped his career. At times, his exposure through the mass media was extremely limited, and he was even threatened with imprisonment. That he accepted such challenges was a measure of his commitment to his ideals, which completely superseded any interest in being a conventional entertainer. Indeed, he scorned the trappings of mainstream popular success; his goals were to inspire and instruct, not merely to entertain. So, it might be most accurate to say of Pete Seeger that he devoted his life to such causes as building unions, ending wars, supporting the rights of the oppressed, and saving the environment, and that his means of expressing that devotion took the form of singing and playing on the banjo and the guitar old songs that had been revised to address those causes."

But the whole article, from my friends at All Music Guide, is worth reading.
http://www.allmusic.com/artist/pete-seeger-mn0000266160/biography

 

Cynicism is fashionable these days, so it's hard for many people to fathom the impact that music -- simple little ditties -- had on changing the world. Pete Seeger's music changed the world. No kidding, it did. That's a big statement, but Pete wrote big songs, and there were people who cared, and cared deeply, and who carried those songs with them to Civil Rights rallies and campus sit-ins and all over the world where they saw injustice. The world is a more just place because Pete Seeger lived. Of how many people can that statement be made?

He was huge. His loss is huge. If I had a bell, I'd ring it in the morning.

 

Other than that, he might have ripped off a South African musician. 

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Other than that, he might have ripped off a South African musician. 

 

 

I feel like we covered that topic fairly recently in regards to... Bob Dylan... Plagiarist?

 

In American folk music, it's been a long-standing tradition to cut and paste from the songs of preceding generations. It's not only encouraged, but expected, and upon his 1961 arrival in New York, Dylan quickly proved his mastery at the form, borrowing left and right not only from his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, but from old folk songs and American blues in the public domain. For instance, 1962's “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” owes it's melody to the 1920s ballad, “Pretty Polly,” while the arrangement for “Masters of War” was taken from Jean Ritchie's “Nottamun Town,” an English folk song whose roots date back to the middle ages.

[emphasis mine]

 

I maintain that Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album is the only Springsteen album I find fully satisfying. It's the one in which production doesn't get in the way, the one in which I feel like Springsteen has tapped into the strongest material, and the power in the voices and the music and the house in which they recorded it is palpable. 

 

I'd be curious, Andy, to know what Seeger recordings you'd call essential.

Edited by Overstreet

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I maintain that Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album is the only Springsteen album I find fully satisfying. It's the one in which production doesn't get in the way, the one in which I feel like Springsteen has tapped into the strongest material, and the power in the voices and the music and the house in which they recorded it is palpable.

 

Agreed 100 percent-- with no disrespect intended to Bruce's fine originals. The Seeger disc is the one that really blew the hat off my head.

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I'd be curious, Andy, to know what Seeger recordings you'd call essential.

 

I'm not Andy, but I would say his Carnegie Hall concert is a great place to start, and then "Precious Friend", the first live album he did with Arlo Guthrie.  I've never been a fan of his studio recordings; he was made for the live setting.

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Andy Whitman wrote:
: Other than that, he might have ripped off a South African musician.

 

Well, there's also Seeger's Stalinism, which didn't exactly contribute to making the world a better place (and which doesn't exactly sit well next to phrases like "commitment to his ideals"). (Yeah, yeah, I know that Seeger wrote a song that criticized Stalin years later -- even decades later -- when it made no difference, but still.)

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Well, there's also Seeger's Stalinism, which didn't exactly contribute to making the world a better place (and which doesn't exactly sit well next to phrases like "commitment to his ideals"). (Yeah, yeah, I know that Seeger wrote a song that criticized Stalin years later -- even decades later -- when it made no difference, but still.)

 

When I saw Seeger in concert, he said "in America, you have a right... to be wrong." 

 

He also wanted to get an axe to chop the microphone cords during Dylan's Newport Folk Festival set.  Sin #3. 

Edited by Nick Alexander

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Nick Alexander wrote:
: He also wanted to get an axe to chop the microphone cords during Dylan's Newport Folk Festival set.  Sin #3.

 

Well, as with his Stalinism, that appears to be something that Seeger repudiated later in life when it was all a fait accompli ("I was at fault. I was the emcee, and I could have said to the part of the crowd that booed Bob, 'You didn’t boo Howlin’ Wolf yesterday [and] he was electric!'").

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Other than that, he might have ripped off a South African musician. 

 

 

I feel like we covered that topic fairly recently in regards to... Bob Dylan... Plagiarist?

 

In American folk music, it's been a long-standing tradition to cut and paste from the songs of preceding generations. It's not only encouraged, but expected, and upon his 1961 arrival in New York, Dylan quickly proved his mastery at the form, borrowing left and right not only from his musical idol, Woody Guthrie, but from old folk songs and American blues in the public domain. For instance, 1962's “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” owes it's melody to the 1920s ballad, “Pretty Polly,” while the arrangement for “Masters of War” was taken from Jean Ritchie's “Nottamun Town,” an English folk song whose roots date back to the middle ages.

[emphasis mine]

 

I maintain that Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album is the only Springsteen album I find fully satisfying. It's the one in which production doesn't get in the way, the one in which I feel like Springsteen has tapped into the strongest material, and the power in the voices and the music and the house in which they recorded it is palpable. 

 

I'd be curious, Andy, to know what Seeger recordings you'd call essential.

 

 

The World of Pete Seeger, from 1974, is a good compilation of Pete's best-known songs and best-known covers. I agree with Josh that Pete Seeger was probably best in a live setting, but I'd still recommend the compilation as a good first purchase. 

As for the politics, they're part and parcel of who Pete Seeger was. If one doesn't like his political views then it's probably best to skip his music, because there's nowhere in a vast 60+ year catalog where you'll escape them, including the numerous children's albums he recorded. Like Woody Guthrie, with whom he can be justly compared, Pete Seeger was a dyed-in-the-wool leftist. It got him in a lot of trouble. it was also what motivated his entire life, including the songs he wrote and which songs he covered. One may not agree with his single-minded focus, but it never wavered. 

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