January 28

Simple, complicated Seeger changed American music

From the beginning, everything about Seeger’s background seemed to point him toward his destiny.

The Associated Press

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In this May 5, 2006 file photo, Pete Seeger talks during an interview in Beacon, N.Y. The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died Monday, Jan. 27, 2014 at the age of 94.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

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In this Aug. 28, 1948 file photo, Henry A. Wallace, Progressive Party presidential candidate, listens to Pete Seeger on a plane between Norfolk and Richmond, Va. Seeger died on Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at the age of 94.

AP Photo/File

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They shared one key trait. What emerged in the 1960s, through both American and British musicians, was a tapestry of reinterpreted traditions that reached back into America of the 1800s and 1700s, and Britain, Scotland, Ireland and West Africa before that. Even today, the reverberations of what Seeger and a handful of others began still echo in our perpetual hit factory that forever produces new takes on the oldest of riffs.

“Lawyers rearrange old laws to fit new circumstances, chefs rearrange old recipes to fit new stomachs. It is the same way with music,” Seeger said.

Ours is a personality-driven nation, and we sometimes attribute too much influence to one person. In Seeger’s case, though, there is truth in that instinct. So much coalesced around him, perhaps because he, in many ways, contained so many American contradictions. He was a patrician-born populist, a troublemaker who understood the establishment, a rural urbanite, at times both a communist and a patriot in an age when many thought those to be mutually exclusive.

Robert Cantwell, in “When We Were Good,” a history of the folk revival, described Seeger as “a system of paradoxes” — “hermetically private and gregariously public, a solitary wanderer and at the same time an entire movement, a richly heterogeneous cultural symbol. And this was his power: the power to arouse the need to speak.”

Speak he did. Most every major thread of American history in the past century passed through the human lightning rod that was Pete Seeger. He was a prominent voice on race, on poverty, on war and peace. He weighed in on the environment on behalf of his beloved Hudson River. In the 1950s, he stood firm against the anti-communist witch hunts that scuttled the career of many a performer, and suffered for it.

What happened after the folk revival is just as interesting. Songs dreamed up or adapted by Seeger, who channeled them in very political ways, over time became American standards — everything from “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to “We Shall Overcome.” If the measure of activism’s success is that its message gets incorporated into the larger narrative, then Seeger accomplished what he set out to do, even if the post-Occupy Wall Street world he left behind was not precisely the one he envisioned.

In 2006, Seeger got as good as he gave when his reinterpretations of the American songbook were reinterpreted by Bruce Springsteen in a raucous, joyful CD called “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” The album was the latest development in Seeger’s life of being a link in a chain, connecting songs that were sung on the Erie Canal in the 1800s with satellite radio, iTunes and Spotify. Yet somehow, the sheer Seegerness of it all — the unplugged sensibility of a man who lived long enough to see his entire world plugged in — poked through.

Now, with Seeger gone, the simple message that the complicated man carried remains just as important in a connected, wired, globalized world as it was in the patchwork of villages and farms and hollows about which he so often sang. “The human race,” he said, “is going to realize it’s going to have to start treating each other decently.” If they haven’t chosen an epitaph for Pete Seeger yet, that one might be worth considering.

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This Oct. 14, 1994, file photo shows President Clinton presenting folk musician Pete Seeger with a 1994 National Medal of Arts, in Washington at the White House. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94.

AP Photo/Joe Marquette

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This Feb. 10, 1971, file photo shows American Folk singer Pete Seeger, left, with Spanish singer Raymond, at Madrid’s Barajas airport enroute to a concert in the southern Spanish city of Seville. The American troubadour, folk singer and activist Seeger died Monday Jan. 27, 2014, at age 94.

AP Photo/L. Gomez

 


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