A few years ago on searching through folk records and videos, I stumbled across an interview with a man who I’d never heard of before. In this interview he was asked if he had any thoughts for someone who isn’t so hopeful trying to find their way. “There’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand-fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.”
Folk music was a way of remembering, of recycling and improving
In an ideal situation, I would say that, at the moment which I heard Seeger’s words, I was full of despair for the world, for myself and for my place within it. I wasn’t. I was a teenager finding a love for folk music. I was aware of the Bob Dylans, the Leonard Cohens, the Man in Black, and the Woody Guthries, but for the first time I had been captivated by the man and the message behind the music. I was even more captivated by the precedence that he placed specifically on folk and the individual song. Folk music was a way of remembering, of recycling and improving. Above all, it was a window into the vast enormity of great music in the world. Seeger’s folk became less a personal experience than it did a worldwide discovery, singing cowboy rants, old pirate chants, Dan Emmett’s 1840s pop songs, Indonesian lullabies, and melodies sketched by Chilean sailors, where learning a language was, in his words, like learning the soul of another people.
Seeger’s influence was far from limited to music for the sake of music, and he sought to use it to change the world: “if there’s something wrong, speak up.” Throughout the 1930s and 40s, his music embodied a strong political charge. He was one of the founders of the Almanac Singers alongside Woody Guthrie, writing anti-war ballads from his roots in the American Communist Party to songs of Republican support in the Spanish Civil War, preceding the outbreak of World War II. Seeger more or less had the evolution of his political life documented in song, which came to haunt him in the early 1940s when the Nazis broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union and, more iconically, bombed Pearl Harbour. From this point onwards, public denouncements of the Almanacs were only slightly repudiated by his later war efforts in records Six Songs for Democracy and Dear Mr. President, with Woody Guthrie’s ‘The Sinking of the Reuben James’ becoming a wartime anthem.
Disbanding in 1942, Seeger went on to co-found his most commercial success with Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and former Almanac, Lee Hays. The Weavers became one of America’s most commercial bands in the 1950s, and recorded a version of Lead Belly’s song ‘Goodnight, Irene’ following Huddie Ledbetter’s death. The song went on to last 25 weeks in the charts, of which 13 were spent at the top spot. They rejected warnings by their manager, Pete Cameron, to abandon their more politically radical songs, which would have caused fans to criticise their reservation. Being ‘held back’ was never one of Seeger’s strong points (the origin of the activists’ name was from Hauptmann’s play Die Weber: “I’ll stand it no more; come what may”), leading to the blacklisting of The Weavers, and to their split in 1953.
Seeger then became one of the leading activists fighting for peace and for freedom, notably taking an important role in the African-American civil rights movement in the late 1950s, in which he coined the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Following decades saw him satirise Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency over the Vietnam War and refused to testify in front of Congress on the grounds of his political views being his to share as he wished.
“the greatest American folk singer” – Peter, Paul & Mary
Musically, the 1960s saw Seeger’s biggest impact in the folk revival scene. Folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary became a continuation of The Weavers, famously recording The Almanac’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ The likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell have declared him a folk legend, while aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary described him to simply be “the greatest American folk singer.”
In Seeger’s quest to find the greatest pieces of music, his records have embodied a genuine modesty and kindness. There is often a deliberation to explain that he does not know what a song means. He plays folk songs for the simple love of music. He himself was not the world’s most remarkable songwriter; he didn’t have the depth of Dylan’s descriptions or the bitter sarcasm of Cohen’s lyrics. His songs were simple, and modest, and were often not even his: “It’s important to remember the old in writing the new”. He wanted to spread folk music around the world, and let it give others what it gave to him. He did not profess to foresee the world’s problems, but spoke when he wanted to speak. And, importantly, spoke when he thought there was a need for a change. As Einstein said, 90% of all problems can be solved by asking the right questions. Seeger started to ask these questions.
Much of his life can be found in his articulation between education and experience: “education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.” For me, the work and actions of this one folk rebel and his complete love of song and tradition was so endearing that all I wanted to do was to soak myself in this folk music. Rest in peace, Pete Seeger. 1919 – forever.