Pete Seeger, 1919 – 2014

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It’s probably apt that I was thinking about Pete Seeger last night (he shows up in Murray Lerner’s documentary about Bob Dylan, The Other Side of the Mirror, which I watched). In my post last night I called him the “greatest living American”, and then I woke up to learn the sad news that that appellation was no longer fitting.

Pete Seeger definitely shaped my life and attitudes much more than Dylan did. Dylan, for instance, never led me to try my hand at guitar, but I own seven banjos and that’s entirely because of Pete Seeger. I bought my first banjo, which is now in my office at the University, in 1992. Actually, my parents bought it for me as a Christmas gift – I just picked it out at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (when it was still on Bronson). When I went into the store to pick one out the guy asked me what kind of banjo I wanted to play. Not being aware that there were multiple banjo styles I think I said “Ummmm”. He asked if I wanted to play bluegrass like Earl Scruggs (which he then demonstrated) or claw hammer like Pete Seeger (which he could also play). “Seeger,” I assured him, “I want to play how Pete Seeger does”. So I bought the banjo and Pete Seeger’s How to Play the Five String Banjo book and tried to teach myself how to play. Anyone who has ever tried to self-learn the claw hammer strum in the pre-YouTube days will know how impossible that is. It took me almost twenty years before I found Barry Luft, and he taught me how to actually play the instrument properly.

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Pete Seeger made me want to play the banjo because he made the banjo look like the coolest instrument in the world. “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender” he had written on his banjo. How unbelievably cool was that? Seeger seemed like a man who done it all and seen it all and come through it all with a sense of optimism about the human spirit that was nearly unparalleled. He was saintly, but in all the best ways.

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I never met Pete Seeger, though I saw him play live a number of times. I visited Beacon, NY once, but he wasn’t protesting that day. I have a friend who owns an island in the Hudson River not far from where Seeger lived. Seeger dedicated a few decades of his life to helping the cause of cleaning up the Hudson. My friend, who is a bluegrass banjo player (but don’t hate him for it), wrote a letter to Seeger, asking permission to rename his little island Seeger Island, explaining that they were both banjo players, and that my friend felt he should be honoured for his contributions to saving the river. Seeger wrote him back, of course, and, naturally, declined. I read that letter, in which he explains that nothing would make less sense to him. He offered two suggestions: name the island with a word from one of the tribes who originally owned that land, or, failing that, invite a class full of local school children to the island and let them decide on the name. It was the most Pete Seeger-ish thing I have ever read.

Reading Twitter and FaceBook this morning I was struck by how many Seegers there were. There are the people who remember him from “Little Boxes”, or his children’s songs. There are people posting links to his work with The Weavers. Friends on the left are posting “Which Side Are You On?” and “Talking Union”, while others are posting his anti-war and civil rights material. Some remember him only because Bruce Springsteen remembered him, and that’s fine too. For me it’s the Seeger of American Industrial Ballads that I like best, but, really, I love them all. I love that when he appeared on The Smothers Brothers show, putting an end to fifteen years of blacklisting, he was so uncompromising and simply picked up the protest where he’d never left it off.

If you’re only somewhat familiar with Seeger, do yourself a favour and watch the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. It will fill you in on what a great life the man lived, and what a powerfully positive attitude he had. The story of the time he converted his own assassin to his way of thinking is one of the most remarkable stories you will ever hear, a story full of the hope that music can change minds.

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