Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fare-Thee-Well Pete Seeger: A Folksinger Who Really Cared

One summer at Camp Kinderland in the late 1950s my eight-year-old sister approached Pete Seeger, who often performed at this Upstate New York enclave that promoted politically progressive ideas and folk music . She mentioned that I – then about 15 – had met him on a recent boat cruise around Manhattan. He supposedly remembered. I have no recollection of such a cruise but will gladly keep that encounter in my mind’s treasure trove of those who went before. Seeger’s death this week at age 94 makes me think of a tune we used to belt out at Kinderland: “Passing through/passing through/ Sometimes happy/ sometimes blue/ glad that I ran into you/ Tell the people that you saw me passing through...” (Listen to "Passing Through" here.)

As adolescents, my friends and I went to every possible Seeger concert in New York City. It was the equivalent of today’s youngsters never missing, say, a Justin Timberlake show. But instead of singing about personal romance, our hero generally addressed the more universal “love between my brothers and my sisters/ all over this land ...” That snatch of lyrics comes from “If I Had a Hammer,” a leftie anthem Seeger co-wrote in 1949 that was made famous more than a decade later by Peter, Paul and Mary. Although he experienced blacklisting and censorship during the McCarthy Era, Seeger always maintained Americans had the right to express any views, however unpopular – or far ahead of their time – they might be. He was a Communist with a capital C before disillusionment about the Soviet Union transformed him into a lower-case communist. His celebrated unionization, justice, tolerance and peace, while fighting against dangerous signs of fascism. His weapons: a banjo and not-so-fabulous vocals driven to greatness by sheer passion. CBS didn’t allow broadcast of Seeger’s Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. After an outcry, he reprised it on the program the following year but the network excised the last verse. No matter how much the government or corporations tried to marginalize him, Seeger somehow went on to inspire generations of activists and just plain music lovers.

That boat cruise around Manhattan may or may not have happened but I did talk on the phone with Seeger in January 1981. The interview, conducted in advance of his performance at a Vermont benefit for peace and no-nukes organizations, surprised me with its gloomy outlook from a guy who always seemed to embody faith in the future: “I seriously wonder if the human race is gong to be around 100 years from now,” he said. “I don’t think we have as good as a 50-50 chance. Not just the human race, but all life on Earth. I’m very pessimistic, though my songs don’t sound it.” Yikes. Seeger had an uncanny ability to raise goosebumps on the collective flesh of audiences with plaintive melodies. The wave of his convictions simply uplifted them. Like a Johnny Appleseed – his professed alter ego – he spread hope to millions all over the globe. Yet here he was, alarmed by threats to the environment, talking doom. “Even though I don’t think we have much of a chance, any chance is worth fighting for,” Seeger continued. “I have made many mistakes in my life but i hope I never make the mistake of giving up.”

The Weavers reunite at TIFF in 2004 (photo by Roger Ebert). 

Seeger still hadn’t given up in 2004 when he reunited with the surviving members of The Weavers, his influential quartet founded in 1948 and hounded by right-wingers during the Red Scare. Their brief sold-out performance at the Toronto International Film Festival was preceded by the screening of a documentary about folk impresario Harold Leventhal, Isn’t This a Time? Critic Roger Ebert, who introduced the group, later wrote of a backstage conversation in which Seeger mused, “Time, time, time. A beautiful mystery.” After the show I joined a small gathering of fans outside the theater. Some asked Seeger to autograph old vinyl albums. We all applauded the aging folkies for their courage in persisting against all odds. I did not try to remind Seeger of our possible boat cruise around Manhattan together almost half a century earlier.

I‘m content to just tell the people that I saw him him passing through.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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