For Pete’s Sake: The Life and Songs of Pete Seeger

When I was 15, I learned to play guitar from Pete Seeger. At the time, Pete was not aware that he had a new student. I was sitting in a living room in Pennsylvania, plunking along with a record, called “How to Play Folk Guitar.” Once he taught me to move my fingers smoothly from the D chord to the G and the A7, which took about a month, I could play honest-to-goodness folk songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I knew which side I was on.

I soon moved on to other records. But in my memory, I can still hear Pete singing, “You get a line and I’ll get a pole, We’ll go down to the crawdad hole, Honey, Baby, mine.”

Thus did Pete Seeger enter the soundtrack of my life. Mine is not the only life that has danced to his clawhammer beat. Pete wrote a large part of the soundtrack for the ‘Sixties. From Peter, Paul and Mary singing “If I Had a Hammer” to The Byrds jangling their way through “Turn, Turn, Turn” to the theme song of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” America marched, protested, prayed and dreamed to songs that Pete had a hand in creating.

Four decades later, I heard another one of Pete’s songs, up the road from the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. A silver-haired Joan Baez was singing to families who had lost soldiers in Iraq, and they were singing back to her, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

I confess that I used to think that song was unbearably corny, back when I was a teenager in the ‘Seventies. The Vietnam War was over, and I had no conception that future generations could make the same tragic mistakes all over again. Pete knew better. He summed it up, in five haunting words: “When will they ever learn?”

It’s no accident that Pete should sing about flowers. In the early days of Sing Out! Magazine, he wrote a column called “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.” His seven decades of musical evangelism have fertilized a wide swath of American culture. But his music has been just one strand in an interdependent web, woven together with history, peace, politics and spirit. This morning, I’d like to draw out for you a few of those strands, and share with you some things that I’ve learned from Pete, as a musician and as a citizen.

When I start telling stories about Pete Seeger, I could go on for a long time – as long as one of those British ballads that Francis Child collected in the 1880s. That’s when the whole concept of  “folk music” was being born. England was a century into its Industrial Revolution, and traditional songs of the countryside were being preserved on paper, before they could go extinct. The movement soon spread to America, as folklorists like John Lomax of Texas went gathering in Appalachian hollers, in Deep South prison farms and Old West cowboy camps.

What they discovered was not just isolated songs, but a process: the Folk Process. A ballad like “Barbara Allen” had crossed the ocean and evolved into a bewildering array of forms, each mutation the work of many anonymous songsters.

Explains Pete, “Maybe we should say that folk music is not so much any particular group of songs or singers, but rather it is a process, an age-old process of ordinary people making their own music, reshaping old traditions to fit new situations.”

Here in America, the nation of immigrants, the folk process went into overdrive. Alien traditions collided to create wonderful musical hybrids. West African songs evolved into blues, which crossbred with the offspring of Scotch-Irish ballads to produce country music.

Pete himself grew up straddling two musical traditions. His stepmother Ruth was a classical composer, while his father Charles was a musicologist and collector. On one of his dad’s excursions, to Asheville, North Carolina in 1935, Pete had a life-changing experience. He heard his first five-string banjo. He ended up dropping out of Harvard, working in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and hopping freight trains west with a folk songwriter named Woody Guthrie.

Woody was the Folk Process come to life. He was taking old songs and turning them into new ones, retrofitting well-worn melodies with lyrics about current events. His point of view was from the bottom looking up, from dust bowl tales of his native Oklahoma to strikes and labor massacres. As the two sang in migrant camps and union halls, Pete learned that music and politics were a continuum. The Folk Process was not just an academic exercise. It was a tool for helping working people to organize. Singing together could lift their spirits while stiffening their spines, and the art of the singalong became a trademark of every Pete Seeger concert.

A decade later, after Pete came home from World War II, he found a new mission for folk music. Radio and TV had begun their relentless push to homogenize American culture. Folk music offered a way to push back. It was a do-it-yourself ethic that encouraged people to turn off the tube, pull out guitars and relearn the art of entertaining one another. On a less-conscious level, the old songs connected suburbanites with the struggles of their ancestors, who had shed their blood to win the forty-hour week and the eight-hour day.

In 1948, with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman, Pete formed a quartet called The Weavers. For the first time, they put folk classics onto the pop charts. Their biggest record spent 13 weeks at Number One: “Goodnight Irene,” written by the East Texas blues singer Leadbelly.

Unfortunately, The Weavers were soon caught up in the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. Pete had sung for the Communist Party, and he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unlike some of his colleagues, he refused to name names. Instead, he testified, “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers.”

Pete was charged with contempt of Congress and left The Weavers. For the rest of the ‘Fifties, he was blacklisted from national TV and radio. But he eked out a living playing college campuses, and he kept scattering seeds. The soil appeared rocky, but in a few short years, the folk music scene was looking like springtime in Texas. Peter, Paul and Mary, a group inspired by The Weavers, made the Top Ten in 1962 with “If I Had a Hammer.” That same year, an appeals court overturned Pete’s conviction.

The succeeding four decades have been no less eventful. Pete has championed young songwriters like Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie. He’s helped clean up his native Hudson River, sailing the sloop Clearwater to concerts and teach-ins up and down its banks. The prophet has finally been honored in his own country, winning Grammy awards, the National Medal of Arts and even being inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

Above all, he’s kept on performing. When there’s been a peace protest, a civil rights march or an environmental rally, Pete’s been there to sing his part.

It was at one of those rallies, back in 1980, that I got to sing onstage with Pete. Back home in Pennsylvania, it was the first anniversary of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. I had worked hard to get Pete to the rally, and backstage, I wangled an introduction. His ears perked up when I told him I’d written some Three Mile Island verses to “This Land is Your Land,” and he insisted on writing them down. Later on, as he was wrapping up his set, he launched into “This Land.” Then he called me up to lead a singalong – with 18,000 voices joining in. One of those voices was a backup singer named Linda Ronstadt.

It was 1999 before I had another run-in with Pete. By then, I was writing songs for Jim Hightower’s political talk show on national radio. Every week, I was composing a new song about something in the news, and naturally, I was thinking a lot about Pete. The week of his birthday, I took a break from Bill and Monica and wrote a ballad called, “The Weaver.” What I didn’t know was that Hightower and Pete were old friends. As I prepared to sing the song on the air, I heard Pete’s unmistakable voice coming over the phones.

Now, Pete has a streak of the cantankerous Yankee, and he’s never been comfortable with the cult of Saint Pete, but he reluctantly stayed on the line and gave the song a listen. I guess he ended up being touched, because he asked me to send him a copy. And before I melted into a puddle on the floor of Threadgill’s, I promised I would.

That was 12 years ago. I’m grateful that in the year 2011, Pete Seeger is still singing out. He’s 14 years older than Willie Nelson, and he still climbs onstage several times a year.

So Pete, to answer your question about the flowers, they’ve gone all over this land. The Folk Process that you handed down is alive and well and cross-pollinating, and not just on stages and CDs and around campfires. New generations are writing fresh lyrics to old tunes, and they’re sharing them around the virtual campfires of the Internet. I’m sad to say that young men are still marching off to war, and that now there are young girls marching beside them. But there is still a time for peace, and Pete, as you reminded us, it’s never too late.

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