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October 8, 2014 / Erik Ritland

Legend: Reflections on Pete Seeger

by Erik Ritland

Rambling On is a seriously fun blog and podcast covering sports, music, culture, and more. Check us out on Twitter, Facebook, or at our website.

When Pete Seeger died in January 2014 Rambling On published a series of tributes to him. They are combined into one piece below.

A True American Hero
Pete SeegerI love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent the implication that some of the places that I have sung, and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, make me less of an American.
– Pete Seeger

Legendary singer, songwriter, banjo player, music scholar, song collector, and all-around good guy Pete Seeger died Monday. Coincidentally all day I was reading the early chapters of Sean Wilentz’s wonderful book Bob Dylan in America which mentions Seeger a lot. I was thinking all day about how great it is that Seeger, one of the last living links to Woody Guthrie, was still around. I found out about his death from a post by one of the Band’s only living members, keyboard guru Garth Hudson, who is also mentioned in Bob Dylan in America.

How well Seeger presented himself, and how strongly he stood by and defended his beliefs, was admirable regardless of whether or not you agree with his sometimes radical leftism. During the McCarthy blacklist he repeatedly stood by his First Amendment right to believe whatever he wanted, even though it cost him his livelihood. He lost his popular TV show Hootenanny! and couldn’t get work at any musical venues that paid any money. He was forced to play for small paychecks at college campuses to survive.

Seeger was a quiet, well-stated man. If you watch any interviews with him you wonder how he was ever considered a threat. He expressed his views, sure, but he wasn’t an anarchist that wanted to overthrow the government or anything. He was simply a perceptive man who, like a true patriot, tried to influence the country he loved in what he thought was the best way. Anybody who finds freedom important, and respects people who are strong in their beliefs at any cost, have no choice but to see Seeger for what he is: a true American hero.

Love Each Other
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.
– Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (left) and Woodie Guthrie

Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie

Honestly, I’ve never had an unequivocal love of Pete Seeger. He does represent, to some degree, the sort of one-dimensional political singer that the folk scene desired Dylan to never grow out of. Even on his last album of new material, Pete Seeger at 89, he preached about endangered whales and zero waste resolutions.

But that’s only part of his story.

Seeger sang and collected a diverse selection of American folk music: slow, minor key murder ballads, negro spirituals, funny and upbeat story songs, instrumentals of all sorts on many different instruments, blues, country, and so much more. Though he never strayed from folk music his repertoire had an endlessly entertaining amount of variety.

The contemporary left can learn from Seeger’s willingness to reach out to people regardless of their political, religious, or philosophical beliefs and affiliations. In addition to the inspiring quote above Seeger also said “It’s a very important thing to learn to talk to people you disagree with.” Being open to the ideas of others, and reaching out to them, is infinitely more useful than surrounding yourself only with people you agree with and shutting yourself off to the other side.

That Seeger was willing to reach out to those he disagreed with was one of his greatest attributes. Even though his left-leaning views were sometimes radical hehad a patient, charitable attitude towards those who disagreed with him. His example will always be inspiring.

The Long-Awaited Reunion of the Almanac Singers
Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.
– Woody Guthrie

almanac-singers

Seeger and the Almanac Singers

Pete Seeger was a great man. To say anything less is a lie.

It’s particularly sad that he’s gone because he was one of the last living links to the legacy of Woody Guthrie, the most highly revered songwriter of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Seeger and Guthrie, together with an impressive group of friends that included Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and so many others, created the most enduring American music of all-time. Although firmly left-leaning in their political views their music is so broad, creative, funny, and just plain cool that it appeals to those on all sides.

Woody Guthrie, of course, was one of Bob Dylan’s biggest influences. In the early ‘60s he traveled to New York solely to visit an ailing but still living Guthrie, which he eventually did. Seeger, for his part, became one of Dylan’s biggest mentors and earliest supporters.

Guthrie was a more talented writer but Seeger was more serious and knowledgeable. Guthrie was more himself, was more creative, was less linear. Seeger was more rigid and less flexible, but this was only because he knew clearly and exactly what he believed and why.

Dylan loved them so much, and was so influenced by them, because their music speaks across boundaries. It speaks deeply to human experience. You don’t find this sort of depth and uniqueness anymore, and that is why it’s such a tragedy that Seeger is gone. The world will miss such a strong, independent thinker.

Visions of Pete Seeger
At some point, Pete Seeger decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture.
– Bruce Springsteen

seeger4

The man.

To end my appreciation of Pete Seeger I highlight some songs, videos, and websites that illuminate his life. I also include some loving tributes.

Pete Seeger on Appleseed
Seeger spent his twilight years on Appleseed records. On this lovely site learn about his work with them, get information about the movie about him, and check out other cool links.

Pete Seeger: The Power of a Song
Speaking of the Seeger movie, here you can watch it in its entirety. It follows Seeger through his life and highlights how powerful music was in his life.

“We Shall Overcome” – Bruce Springsteen live, 1/28/14
In 2006 Bruce Springsteen released one of his best albums, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which was all covers of songs Seeger popularized. Hear him play his friend’s most popular song in tribute the night after he died.

The Pete Seeger Appreciation Page Jim Capaldi, drummer for Traffic among others, started this Seeger tribute page years ago and it’s still the best on the web. Includes a bio, discography, songs, articles, reviews, and so much more.

“Playboys and Playgirls” – Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan
Although Dylan’s “going electric” caused a rupture in their friendship Seeger was one of his biggest inspirations. Here’s a track featuring them together from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

The Last Word
“Forever Young” – Pete Seeger
Everybody is going crazy about this video for good reason. Elder statesman Seeger sings Dylan’s “Forever Young” and the results are lovely. A great tribute to a great man.

The legacy of Pete Seeger will undoubtedly live on forever in American folk lore. That isn’t a highfaluting  statement; it’s a simple truth. The work he put in to collecting and spreading the word about America’s folk music is unmatched, his willingness to defend himself even during unfair circumstances, and the songs he wrote and sang will live on forever. He is truly an American hero.

seeger guthrie

One more for the road. Thanks, Pete.

Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik’s music via his Patreon account, reach him via emailor find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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