Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Adventures in Parenting
Celebrating Pete Seeger
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Celebrating Pete Seeger
Our songs are like you and me, the product of a long human chain...
Ever since the radical tradition of American folk music incubated in the 1930s, a loosely defined, loosely tied "folk music community" has inspired strains of popular music linked to radical politics and struggles for social justice. In musical forms such as blues, gospel, work songs, traditional ballads and old-time country sounds, left-wing musicians, and activists have discovered and cultivated authentic "people's music" giving voice to the experiences of ordinary men and women.
The progressive social tradition embedded in American folk music is, however, much more than a body of songs or musical style. The folk community has long been defined by certain attitudes about how music should be made. In "true" folk music there are no superstar celebrities or hits, no big distinctions between performers and audience, no elaborate musical productions. Folk places emphasis on lyrics and the human voice. Its subject matter is the totality of real life. The aesthetic measure of quality is more emotional honesty than musical technique. In sum, the left folk tradition is explicitly opposed to the conventions of "commercial" or mass music making.
At the end of the 20th century with historical amnesia rampant, no popular political rebellion on the horizon, and so many of the songs of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly circulating in the mainstream of American cultural life, it is difficult to recall a time when folksingers or folk music could be considered subversive or worthy of repression. But with the release of the double CD compilation Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger (Appleseed Recordings), the music of one of the great torch bearers of alternative music making renews the spirit of radical song.
Celebrating Seeger's remarkable six-decade career as a folksinger/activist, Where Have All The Flowers Gone draws together a broad array of progressive minded musicians to perform songs and poems Seeger has penned or sung in his efforts to chronicle a people's history through music and encourage the struggles of labor, anti-war and civil rights movements, environmentalists, and any number of other fights against injustice. Well known performers such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Roger McGuinn, Ani Difranco, and actor Tim Robbins are on hand to pay homage and draw attention to the Seeger legacy.
But the 39 performances on this deeply moving collection also pulls in a sterling cast of lesser known multicultural activist artists from around the globe and across generations. Author Studs Terkel and singer Ronnie Gilbert (a Seeger colleague in the Weavers) are among the elders. Sweet Honey In The Rock, Guy Davis, Tish Hinojosa, and John Trudell bring the sounds of black gospel, blues, Mexican folk, and spoken word to the program. The international delegation includes Tommy Sands and Delores Keane (Ireland), cellist Vedran Smailovic (Bosnia), Dick Gaughan (Scotland), Bruce Cockburn (Canada), and Billy Bragg (England).
One of Pete Seeger's great contributions to the folk world has been his ability to unearth traditional songs along with their social and historical roots. Viewing song as a bridge to other times, other cultures, and a vibrant connection between the past and present, he then brings to his concert performances a masterful weave of anecdotes and music evoking a common humanity and shared social vision. On Where Have All The Flowers Gone, the stories behind the songs are provided by liner note comments by Seeger, various artists, and producer Jim Musselman. While the humor and generous humanitarian spirit of Seeger's live shows is missed, the song performances are consistently strong and imbued with the conviction and integrity associated with the Seeger name.
The stunning title track opens disc one, with Belfast singer/peace worker Tommy Sands and the legendary Irish vocalist Dolores Keane blending their voices in a quiet, anguished prayer for peace against a vocal backdrop of Catholic and Protestant school children, haunting uillean pipes and accordion, and the mournful cello of Vedran Smailovic. Though not well known in the U.S., Smailovic gained worldwide attention when he refused to stop playing his cello on the streets of Sarajevo after his opera theater was destroyed and 22 of his neighbors died from a mortar attack. Asked by a CNN reporter if he was crazy for playing music with bombs falling, Smailovic replied, "You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are crazy for shelling Sarajevo?"
Such a poignant performance sets a high standard for everything that follows, but this is an album loaded with inspiring, heartfelt music. The everlasting hymn of hope, "We Shall Overcome," is interpreted with stirring dignity by Bruce Springsteen. Ani Difranco's restrained rendering of "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage" (the true story of a woman who stopped a Vietnam bound shipment of napalm by refusing to leave a loading platform), and Dick Gaughan's angry take on the anti-Vietnam "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy" burn with timeless relevance. With an eerie vocal mix and drums and guitars crackling, the Indigo Girls translate the biblically inspired "Letter To Eve" as a feminist anthem for peace. Santee Sioux poet/activist John Trudell delivers a tough, personalized rendering of "The Torn Flag," nailing hypocrisies and broken promises to a tarnished symbol of freedom.
Other highlights such as the reggae flavored duet of Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"; John Gorka's melodic, delicate singing on "The Water Is Wide"; Studs Terkel's readings of "Oh Sacred World" and "Blessed Be The Nation"; Greg Brown's loving version of "Sailing Down My Golden River"; and the profound soulfulness of Odetta on "One Grain Of Sand," suggest the enormous scope and versatility of Seeger's writing. However, even with nearly two and a half hours of music, Where Have All The Flower Gone is still a slim introduction to the Seeger heritage.
Born in New York City in 1919 to musicologist Charles Seeger and concert violinist Constance Edson Seeger, Pete Seeger discovered his musical interest early on, picking up ukulele, guitar, and banjo by his teenage years and finding, at age 15, a developing interest in folk music. After a brief two years at Harvard, he dropped out of college in 1938, wandering about New England painting barns and houses, touring New York state with a puppeteer troupe, and joining with other musicians playing concerts and rallies in support of a dairy farmers union. After a short stint as an assistant to folklorist Alan Lomax, then organizing a Library of Congress Archive Of American Folk Songs, Seeger's life took a decisive turn.
In 1940, when he hooked up with Woody Guthrie in New York after performing at a benefit in support of California migrant farm workers, Seeger's politics were socialist and he was intent on advancing his views through music. In Guthrie he had a kindred spirit and together they took off across the country paying their way with "the music of the people." After splitting up, Seeger continued hoboing by himself, along the way polishing performance skills, absorbing songs, and writing a few of his own. By 1941, with Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, he had formed the Almanac Singers to fuse traditional folk music with social protest focused on contemporary issues. The group performed at union rallies and leftist fundraisers and recorded two albums, Songs For John Doe and Talking Union And Other Union Songs, before disbanding shortly after the United States entered World War II.
Drafted into the army in 1942 and serving in the Pacific, Seeger continued to collect traditional American songs of all kinds. Following the war, he helped launch Sing Out! The Folk Magazine to encourage social protest and the folk revival. The key turning point for the folk movement, however, occurred in 1948 when Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman convened the Weavers. Within three years the folk quartet sold four million records, while popularizing Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," and the South African song "Wimoweh" (appearing on Where Have All The Flowers Gone in a 1980 version recorded at a Weavers reunion concert).
In the wake of McCarthyism, the fortunes of the Weavers changed drastically. Finding themselves blacklisted from radio, television, and many concert halls, the group broke up in 1953. Seeger continued to record as a solo artist on Moe Asch's Folkways label, but in 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Committee On Un-American Activities. While offering to discuss his songs or perform for the committee so that they might better understand his work, he cited the First Amendment and refused to talk about his politics. Though his conviction for Contempt of Congress was overturned by higher courts in 1961, Seeger was effectively blacklisted from the mass media for 17 years.
Nonetheless, with the folk revival and political turmoil of the 1960s, cover versions of Seeger songs ("If I Had A Hammer," "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Bells Of Rhymney") became chart toppers. With his appearances on college campuses, and at civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, he was again on the front lines of social change, becoming in the process a cultural hero of unquestioned integrity. Decades later, constant touring and crusading have kept that image intact. His songs have traveled over the face of the earth provoking empathy, compassion, thought, and resistance. With a steady output of recordings, he has produced a rich and vast catalog of traditional songs that stands as a national treasure.
Skimming through Seeger's discography, one will find collections of children's songs, love songs, frontier ballads, civil war tunes, Christmas carols, Leadbelly and Guthrie songs, blues, banjo instruction, nature songs, industrial protest ballads, Bantu choral folk songs, old time fiddle tunes, and numerous other gems imparting hidden or forgotten people's history. With this huge body of work in mind, Appleseed Recordings founder Jim Musselman promises to release at least another two volumes of Seeger material.
Though much of his work (including classic live performances) remains in print, the varied interpretations of his songs on Where Have All The Flowers Gone demonstrate the enduring vitality of his music and message. Whether dressed in the "epic theatre" tradition of Bertolt Brecht, the plain garments of traditional folk, or the multicolored hues of rock, jazz, and gospel, Seeger's "sound" is humanity. Though he is a teacher of a brand of American history not taught in schools and a living link to a legendary community of singers (Paul Robeson, Earl Robinson, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sara Orgon Gunning, Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, to mention a few) whose mission expressed specific historical concerns, his music is of the ages, conveying an abiding faith in an egalitarian dream.
Appropriately, Where Have All The Flowers Gone gives Seeger the final track, "And Still I Am Searching," to sing his message in his own voice:
And I'm still searching
Yes I'm still searching
For a way we all can learn
To build a world where we all can share
The work, the fun, the food, the space,
the joy, the pain
and no one ever ever need or seek to be
Appleseed Recordings is a genuine independent label, not a subsidiary of a major entertainment corporation. Appleseed accepts no corporate or outside funding, and donates a percentage of its profits to environmental, human rights, and other progressive organizations.