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Another Side of Pete Seeger

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A banjo player dies at 94 and, for a moment, millions of graying Americans are young and idealistic again.

Pete Seeger was a tall man, and he left a long shadow. He was born in 1919, in a nation which was born in 1776. That made him one third as old as the United States, a span of time which suited the timelessness of his music and the eternal optimism of his character.

Wait. The analyst in me rebels. Pete wasn't "one third" as old as this country. He was precisely 0.39495798319 percent as old -- 40 percent, if you round up. But Pete Seeger knew that what comes first is the poetic reality, the reality of the heart. The other work -- whether it's crunching numbers, challenging lies, or marching in the streets -- comes afterwards. First the heart must be inspired toward the work by the beauty of the dream. And the beauty of the dream is the cadence of the song.

So one-third it is. And for now we'll let "round up" mean a musical meet up, not a mathematical maneuver. (Here's a clip of Pete appearing on the 1946 radio show Dinner Bell Round-Up Time with Chill Wills.)

"He didn't separate his music from his politics," Pete's friend and colleague Happy Traum told us today. "Even when he sang a lullaby it was a political act."

Traum, a legendary folk performer himself, now publishes music instruction materials. "For Pete performing always involved activism of some kind," he says, "whether it was political change or building an audience for the music he loved."

It hurts to lose anybody that good. It especially hurts to lose a truly progressive cultural icon, when that rara avis becomes rarer with every passing year.

"Pete was a teacher just as much as he was a performer," says Happy Traum.

Those of us who became musicians in the late '60s learned a lot from Pete Seeger. And some of us had a problem with him. Young and proud, we set about using music for selfish and vain reasons. We learned electric guitar and bass licks, wrote psychedelic or punky songs, studied with avant-garde jazz musicians -- all noble endeavors when done in the right spirit. But ours was not the right spirit. We were trying to make musicianship feel like an inaccessible act of genius, which seemed like a better way to meet girls -- or boys, or celebrities, or record reviewers, or anyone else we wanted to meet.

"Pete didn't care whether you had talent or not," Happy Traum says. "He wanted everybody to experience the joy of playing and singing."

Pete was a true son of the folk tradition, where music is a part of daily life -- like cooking, or hunting, or handicrafts. His book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, taught generations of players.(Traum, a longtime acquaintance of Pete's, developed a stronger relationship with him after becoming the publisher of that book and an accompanying video.)

Pete Seeger made music accessible. He even made it seem wholesome. Darn him! To realize that this salubrious and upright character was a great performer and songwriter was a little bit like finding out that your parents have had sex. It threatened to take the excitement and magic out of it.

But a great teacher motivates his students and gently guides them toward the light. Years later I taught music to young people myself for a little while -- poor kids, rich kids, kids who thought they had talent and kids who didn't. I hope they got something out of the experience. I know I did.

Thanks, Pete.

Here's something else about Pete Seeger: If you grew up in the New York area during a certain era, he was always around. His voice and banjo and guitar were always available when needed to do battle for a good cause -- and they were needed a lot. His "Rainbow Quest" television show brought legendary folk musicians from the land of myth into our New York living rooms. (The Atlantic has some clips here.) Bessie Jones, Roscoe Holcomb, Rev. Gary Davis (with Donovan -- and a sitar player, no less!) And all in glorious black-and-white.

Then Pete decided to clean up the Hudson River by buying a sloop and sailing it from town to town, holding concerts and rallies along the way. Some of us, idealistic high school and college kids, pitched in when he came to our home town of Nyack, an experience which taught us two things: first, that political activism is hard work, and second, that you don't approach Pete Seeger when he doesn't feel like being approached.

"He was always the same guy," Happy says, "whether he was hanging out in his back yard or headlining Carnegie Hall. If he was stand-offish in a situation like that, that's probably because it was hard for him to handle being the center of so much attention."

Pete Seeger wasn't just a musician. He was a radical. And yes, he was a Red for a while too. ("Small-'c' communist," is how he described himself later years.) As much as it pains the Ayn Rand crowd to be reminded of it -- (now there are some real subversives) -- a certain kind of socialism is as American as a quilting bee. There's a straight line from Tom Paine writing "Common Sense" to Pete Seeger leading a crowd in "This Land Is Your Land" (Including the "banned" verse about private property). That same line runs from the Diggers reclaiming the Commons in Old England to farmers organizing in the Midwest, and then to Pete Seeger reclaiming a river in the name of the people who lived beside it.

Then there were the songs. Pete wrote songs that were as folksy and sincere as he was -- and yet sometimes, somehow, became hits. I was always a little embarrassed by the sweet, folksy sincerity of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" But it took on new meaning for me when a group of Vietnamese refugees asked me to sing it. Gen. Wesley Clark asked me to sing it, too, when I performed at a political fundraiser. Then he based his impromptu speech on the lyrics. Soldiers have seen the human cost of war, said Clark, and will never forget it.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!" became a great rock 'n roll record in the hands of the Byrds. Pete used words from the book of Ecclesiastes for that one, making him the only songwriter in history to share a Number One credit with King Solomon.

"Pete shared part of the royalties for that song too," says Traum. (Seeger donated 45 percent of the song's royalties to an Israeli peace group fighting house demolitions.) "He didn't have to do that, but his philosophy was that these things don't come out of nowhere. Someone else should share in the rewards."

Pete didn't just write songs. He built them, the way the tradespeople he admired built furniture or sold clothing. He was a genius at choosing a beautiful poem and then finding a melody that suited it perfectly. That's how we were given the most popular version of "Guantánamera." Pete added a verse by Cuban national hero José Martí to a song that was popular on that island in the 1930s.

The same craftsmanship is how Pete created "I Come and Stand at Every Door." He set a Turkish poem, which was written in the voice of a seven-year-old girl killed at Hiroshima, to a haunting minor-key melody written by an MIT graduate student. Before there was "mashup culture," there was Pete Seeger.

A couple of years after I left New York I found myself stranded in a little town in Mexico, way down the Baja Peninsula, many years before the big highway was built through there. I had a guitar, and I thought I had a friend with a car. But my friend had disappeared, and I was getting cold and hungry. Some children saw the guitar case and waved for me to follow them. We climbed up a small hill on the outskirts of town, where a church steeple was visible at the top.

The sun was setting red and long shadows were falling across the cobblestones. As we got closer to the church I heard music echoing through the empty streets. A chorus of children's voices from inside was singing Pete's version of "Guantánamera." It was enough to make a grown man cry, and I was no grown man.

Traum reminded us that two years ago, at the age of 92, Pete walked from 96th Street to Columbus Circle in Manhattan and then gave a midnight concert for the Occupy movement. "I guess his job was over," Happy Traum said today.

But, at least in one way, Pete's work will never be over. Somewhere in some corner of the world, at this very moment, somebody's singing one of his songs.