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Pete Seeger: An appreciation

Pete Seeger’s influence on American popular music transcended genres and generations.

Pete Seeger performs at the 2009 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize special outdoor tribute at Hunts Point Riverside Park in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

He found initial fame in the 1940s alongside other seminal folksingers including Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. As a founding member of the topical folk group The Almanac Singers and then The Weavers, he helped bring songs like “On Top Of Old Smokey,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Kumbaya” and “Wimoweh” into the national consciousness.

Way to the left on the political spectrum, The Weavers endured blacklisting in the ‘50s, and Seeger continued to run afoul of the authorities in the ‘60s, when as a solo artist, his allegorical “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”—a thinly disguised protest against the Vietnam War—was famously banned, temporarily, from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.

But also in the ‘60s, Seeger gave The Byrds a major antiwar folk-rock hit in 1965 when they covered his “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which he had adapted from the Book Of Ecclesiastes.

More recently, Bruce Springsteen recorded an album of folk songs associated with Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, released in 2006.

Seeger was 94 when he died yesterday.

“For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger," tweeted President Obama.

Also via Twitter, Seeger’s fellow civil rights and antiwar advocate Tony Bennett said, “Pete Seeger brought the world together with truth and beauty more than anyone else.” Songwriter Cynthia Weil, whose classic hits include "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" and "Kicks," tweeted: “He was the inspiration for my belief that lyrics could be about things that mattered to me.”

John Mellencamp was also inspired by Seeger, both as a songwriter and as human being. He performed with the likes of Springsteen and Joan Baez at The Clearwater Concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009, which celeberated Seeger's 90th birthday and was later shown on PBS.

“Pete Seeger always tried to make the world a better place through his music and activism,” Mellencamp said in a statement. “His life-long commitment to the cause of peace and to addressing the plight of the downtrodden has been an inspiration to all those who have championed society's victims and have done what they could to combat injustice. His music and commitment was more powerful than a thousand armies. We are fortunate that he lit the way for so long.”

“Pete once gave me a bit of advice,” Mellencamp added, “and I've always tried to remember what he said: 'Keep it small and you will make a difference.'"

Carol Maillard, a founding member of the the renowned African-American female a cappella vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock, recalled how years ago, when she taught a vocal workshop at The Duke Ellington High School for the Arts in Washington, D.C., Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, who had been a member of the Civil Rights Movement’s paramount African-American singing group The Freedom Singers, had given her a book of folk and children's songs to use.

“I was always amazed that there was a note and signature from Pete Seeger to Bernice--that she knew him and he gave her the book, signed so lovingly,” Maillard said in an email. “I really wanted to keep it forever, but in my good mind, I said, ‘Bernice will want this back’--and that was almost 10 years after she gave it to me!”

Maillard, with Sweet Honey, performed at Seeger’s Clearwater Festival, which raises funds for his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater non-profit organization for protecting the Hudson River.

“It’s a lovely festival, and it was such a gift to be around him and Toshi, his late wife. It has been an honor to share the stage with him and be a part of his story.”

Few were as much a part of Seeger’s story as Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation.

“I’ve been reading so much stuff today,” says Guthrie, “and all I can say is, everybody’s right! He’s one of the few people with such a long and thick, international, encyclopedic legacy. I can’t possibly begin to explain him or say anything about him.”

But Guthrie can relate how Seeger was “that kind of guy who allowed himself to be known—which is why a lot of people knew Pete.”

And being the youngest girl in the family and surrounded by mostly male musician friends of her father and brother Arlo Guthrie, “I see things through a slightly different perspective,” she notes.

“My first awakening to the power of song came when I was 12-years-old at summer camp, and a young boy was sitting on a stone wall at twilight and singing [Seeger’s] ‘The Water Is Wide.’ I fell in love with that boy—and wonder how much the song had to do with it! Even though I’d known Woody’s and Pete’s songs my whole life, I hadn’t had the intimate experience with the power of this music until that moment. So I credit Pete Seeger as my Cupid in life and I bet thousands of young ladies out there have had similar kinds of experiences with that and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ and the other love songs Pete gave us—and sang better than anyone.”

Arlo Guthrie’s Facebook comments included, “I loved him dearly, like a father in some ways, a mentor in others and just as a dear friend a lot of the time.” Seeger was a mentor, too, to Stephan Said, whose post-9/11 antiwar song “The Bell” featured Seeger and was hailed in 2002 as “the first major song opposing the Iraq War.”

“Pete Seeger meant many things to many people, but foremost, he was someone who stood firmly like rock against the winds of injustice, holding the the dream of equality, freedom and justice for all without fear,” Said said by email. “Personally, he was my mentor as a young artist who had decided to put my own shoulder to the wheels of change for my generation."

It was Seeger "who first transcribed my songs and sent them to Joan Baez and Arlo and others to sing, who guided me through decisions on dealing with the music industry, on staying always at the forefront of change," continued Said.

"Pete gave me faith and courage to not be deterred or silenced in the face of of my blacklisting after 9/11 when I could no longer get a gig in the U.S. music industry [and was] stopped at every airport to be searched because I put out a song of global love.”

Seeger, said Said, “had been there himself.”

“He would teach me these things through his own stories and experiences. He convinced me to copyright my work on the hillside beneath his house as we chopped wood beneath an autumn snow, telling me that Woody had been likewise rebellious, but convincing me that if I didn't copyright my work, then people could use my songs for things to promote the wrong things."

Seeger, said Said, recounted how ABC-TV had named its '60s Hootenanny music variety show after the jam sessions Seeger and his friends held in New York--but without copyrighting the name. But whereas Seeger's gatherings involved people of all races singing social justice songs, ABC's show, Seeger informed Said, blocked performances of people on the basis of ideology and race.

“Anything I might face, he had faced it, and in that way, he gave me more courage than anyone else. There were no examples like him for my generation, and I knew I wanted to be like him.”

An event honoring Seeger with the first Woody Guthrie Prize, to be given annually to the artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life’s work of Woody Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate through music, film, literature, dance or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America, was set for Feb. 22 at New York’s Symphony Space. According to Nora Guthrie, it’s still on.

“It won’t be a tribute or memorial with speeches,” says Guthrie, “but there will be music. I know that’s what he would want.”

“How can we keep from singing?” she concludes, evoking Seeger’s joyous anthem “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

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