For the longest time, I thought Pete Seeger would live up to the refrain of Earl Robinson’s famous song about Joe Hill: “I’ll never die, said he.” Seeger seemed to go on and on forever, his lean, beanpole frame, bobbing Adam’s apple and increasingly raspy voice somehow immune from elevation to the great Hootenanny in the Sky. Just last year, there he was at Farm Aid, age 93, getting everyone, including Willie Nelson and Neil Young, to sing along to Woody Guthrie’s evocative classic, This Land is Your Land. Ever the activist, rickety Pete tossed in a new verse about fracking. Yet the sad, inevitable news came late Monday night that Pete was no longer keeping on and had finally passed over to the great beyond.
What a long, amazing life. During his 94 years, Seeger touched every era of post-World War I America, a part of so many pivotal events. He hung out with Woody Guthrie, knew Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, sang on picket lines during the Dirty Thirties and post-war Forties, organized the seminal, union activist folk group The Almanac Singers which evolved into the famous Weavers, who, much to their anti-commercialism shock, became huge stars, selling millions of records, was blacklisted into a decade of oblivion, godfathered the folk music revival that gave us Bob Dylan, spearheaded a prolonged conservationist campaign to clean up the Hudson River, famously threatened to use an axe to cut the sound during Dylan’s barrier-shattering “electric” performance at Newport, marched with everyone, including the recent Occupy Wall Street folks and never lost his life-long drive for peace and justice. Inscribed on his battered, old banjo were the words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
The legions of those who celebrated Pete Seeger ranged as far back as Carl Sandburg (“I would place [him] in the first rank of American folk singers.”), through Dylan (“He had this incredible ability to look at a group of people and make them part of the song, and it would be beautiful.”) to Bruce Springsteen (“He saw himself as a citizen/activist. He believed in a song’s ability to empower, and that’s the power of Pete Seeger.”). President’s Obama’s tribute was particularly apt: “Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation. And he always invited us to sing along.”
Seeger was a radical, but once he shunned the shackles of the American Communist Party, he spoke out far more effectively on a myriad issues without an ideological strait-jacket. Through it all, he remained an incurable optimist, forever convinced that somehow, if we all got together, preferably by singing, we could yet create a better world. His fight for that kind of universal change died only in that New York hospital bed. He really did hammer all over this land.
Amid his activism and singing so many songs of others, Seeger also found time to write some terrific songs, himself. You’ve heard it a hundred times, but Where Have All the Flowers Gone remains a masterful composition of message and poetry. This is a particularly lovely version.
While I don’t have the Pete Seeger memories of some, I was in the crowd at Stanley Park when Pete and Woody’s son Arlo sang together as part of a free concert to raise money for Downtown Eastside residents evicted by unscrupulous landlords hoping to cash in on visitors to Expo 86. The concert, which also featured a vintage, acoustic set by DOA, was hastily arranged once Seeger, who was slated to play with Arlo at Expo 86, learned of the evictions.
More significantly, I was also present for a celebrated Pete Seeger moment at the 1989 Vancouver Folk Music Festival that has become lore among those who were there. Pete’s appearance was a dream come true for Festival founder Gary Cristall, who brought so many great artists to Vancouver, but, until then, never the great man Cristall had loved since he was knee high to a grasshopper. I can attest to that from personal experience. Life being what it is, my family happened to be living upstairs from the Cristall family for a time in Toronto during the 1950’s. Young Gary was a rambunctious little sucker, but he loved folk music, and most of all, he was crazy about Pete Seeger. When Seeger showed up to play at Camp Naivelt, the legendary, left-wing, Jewish summer camp near Brampton, Gary was beside himself. He met his hero, and, I believe, secured his autograph. If only he had stopped talking about it….but I digress…
At that year’s folk festival, it rained. Really rained. By the time Seeger took part in a Sunday workshop with Billy Bragg, the area in front of the stage was a sea of slick, wet mud. No one wanted to sit down in the goo, so we all stood, much to Pete’s annoyance. People at the back can’t see, he complained. No one moved. Finally, Pete noticed a great big puddle on stage. You people out there seem to be afraid of getting a little wet, so I’ll be first, Seeger said. Whereupon he plunked his butt right down in the middle of the puddle. Seeing this 70-year old folk legend getting soaked shamed us all, and down into the mud we went. It was a wonderful, spontaneous gesture by a guy who had been sticking up for those at the back all his life. The 1989 folk fest has been known as The Wet Ass Festival ever since.
For the first time in nearly a hundred years, there is no Pete Seeger on this blessed earth, crusading to make it better. But the death of a 94-year old, even one as valorous as Seeger, is cause for sadness perhaps, but not for sorrow. Besides, he’s probably already hanging out with Joe Hill and Woody, organizing the angels and getting them to sing along, too.
RIP, Pete. It’s been a hell of a ride.
P.S. I’d forgotten this: Pete Seeger’s concert at the Orpheum in 1986 on behalf of the Haida struggle to preserve Lyell Island. This is a great look back at the event by organizer Janos Maté, which includes an illuminating exchange between Seeger and, of all people, Jack Munro.