11 April 2012

Icons of our time - Pete Seeger.

Beardy men with funny hats, floral shirts and carefree style, yep, too cool for Christmas. Even better when there's a good story behind it. How about the story of one Pete Seeger, American folk singer and someone who sticks to his guns. Now 92 years young (maybe even a bit older as I started doing this last bloomin' year) has been performing since 1932 and still pickin' the banjo today. Folk'n marvellous.
He was a member of the band The Weavers for several years before eventually re-emerging on the scene as a musician of protest music for civil rights and environmental causes. He is famous for penning songs that later became big hits for several artists, most notably Where have all the Flowers Gone?, Turn Turn Turn! and If I had a Hammer, all politically motivated and with a common provoking theme throughout. Seeger is famous for both playing a banjo and the art of yodelling. He went on to invent his own style banjo - a long neck banjo that eventually became known as 'the Seeger banjo' improving it as he went along it became a bona-fide instrument of classic folk music.
His more recent work includes a performance with Bruce Springsteen during the Obama Inaugural Celebration in 2009 an appearance on The Letterman Show which was a rarity as he'd previously been banned from television! In October last year he also took part in the Occupy march of Wall Street.

Earlier in his career he immersed himself in activism, joining the Young Communist League in the mid 1930s and became a member of the Communist Party USA in the early 1940's before eventually drifting away.
His political music caused a stir in the early 1940s as part of The Almanacs 'Songs for John Doe' with both the FBI and the president determined the Almanacs were endangering the war effort.
Seeger himself served in the war and initially trained as an airplane mechanic he was later reassigned to entertain the troops with his music.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. During the Vietnam war - which he was a staunch opponent of, his songs 'Beans in My Ears' and 'Waist Deep In The Big Muddy' were again to cause a stir, referencing then president Lydon B Johnson and some of the problems of that merciless ongoing war. His banjo was emblazoned with the motto "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender!" which was inspired by fellow folkie Woody Guthrie's guitar, labelled with "This machine kills fascists."

His environmental work in the 1960s saw the setup of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater which he co-founded in 1966. This organization has worked since then to highlight pollution in the Hudson River and worked to clean it. As part of that effort, the Sloop Clearwater was launched in 1969 with its inaugural sail down from Maine to South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, and thence to the Hudson River. This is celebrated with an annual two day festival of music known as The Great Hudson River Revival.

Seeger was a senior part of the big folk music revival of the 60s with travelling partner Woody Guthrie who was by this time a legendary figure in folk music. His previous ban from television ended when he presented his regional show Rainbow Quest which also featured famous guests like Johnny Cash and his later wife June Carter.
Seeger, a folk purist once clashed with Bob Dylan who "went electric" with his folk music citing it was spoiling the good songs and tarnishing the genre within.

In November 1976 Seeger wrote and recorded the anti-death penalty song "Delbert Tibbs" about then death row inmate Delbert Tibbs, who was later exonerated. Seeger wrote the music and selected the words from poems written by Tibbs. In the early 1980s he performed for Poland's Solidarity Resistance Movement, this the first public manifestation of Seeger's decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form.
In the mid 1990's, he insisted that "I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it." In recent years, as the aging Seeger began to garner awards and recognition for his life-long activism, he also found himself attacked once again for his opinions and associations of the 1930s and 1940s by opposing voices.

Seeger has had many tribute albums for his music and work, three collective albums entitled 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger' with contributions from the likes of Billy Bragg, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen. In 2001 "If I Had a Song: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2." was also released and finally in 2003 Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Volume 3 to complete a trilogy. In April 2006 Bruce Springsteen released a collection of folk songs associated with Seeger's repertoire, titled, We Shall Overcome : The Seeger Sessions . Springsteen and his band also toured to sellout crowds in a series of concerts based on those sessions.
Seeger has been the recipient of many awards including a Kennedy Center Lifetime achievement a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, The National Medal of Arts and induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Some may find my songs merely diverting melodies. Others may find them incitements to Red revolution. And who will say if either or both is wrong? Not I."

1 comment:

  1. love his music but his role as Stalinist apologist/lapdog during the worst years of the 30s-50s always taints him a bit in my eyes