Pete Seeger kept the ‘folk’ in folk music

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The 65th Rodeo and Stock Show in San Antonio on Feb. 8, 2014.By Stephen Badrich

Singer and activist Pete Seeger is dead at 94, and establishment figures are saying (for a change) nice things about him. In this era of Miley Cyrus, it’s tricky to explain why Pete mattered. But somebody should try.

On the Internet, you can watch and listen as Pete plays his banjo and sings with pop stars like Bruce Springsteen. Watch Pete singing “Worried Man” with Johnny Cash, and it’s clear that the man in black knows he’s the disciple and Pete’s the master.

But click away too soon and you can imagine that Pete himself was just some old-timey pop star.

And that’s not quite right. Pete was better than a pop star — and Pete wanted you and me to remember something about pop stars, too.

I remember Pete from the Civil Rights era, and although we never met, we had friends in common. In print, Pete described my friend Luci Angel as having “the voice of an angel,” and he was right. I was socialized by civil rights people. Years later, Luci summarized in a few words the attitude that many people had back then: “Look, nobody is gonna make fun of you if you get up and attempt. So get up … and attempt.”

I remember running into Luci when we were teenagers at the march where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The next year, at an interracial meeting in Baltimore, I heard another charismatic African-American teenager, Pam Jones, play and sing the folk classic “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Pete Seeger marches with participants in Occupy Wall Street. AccuNet/AP

Pete Seeger marches with participants in Occupy Wall Street. AccuNet/AP

It gave me chills.

I never saw Pam again. But I re-encountered her last year in the pages of Bruce Watson’s book “Freedom Summer: The Summer Season of 1964 Made Mississippi Burn and Made America A Democracy.” Pam and friends, black and white, risked or gave their lives to make a nonviolent revolution.

In 1964, most fans of folk music weren’t thinking about music as a possible road to money and fame. Instead, we thought this music might help us bust through the 1950s style conformism to reconnect with more durable elements in American culture. We knew this music brought us together — and we hoped that, together, we could make some changes.

This sounds pretty crazy today, but Pete devoted his long life to making music to build community and to hearten ordinary people. His banjo playing wasn’t all about Pete. It was, ultimately, about you and me and our common world.

In 1964, racial integration was “controversial.” TV executives didn’t want performers messing with it. In 1968, it was “controversial” to believe that (although millions had died) something had gone wrong in Vietnam. For network execs, Pete was radioactive.

Today, powerful forces don’t want us joining the cause to which Pete and his wife, Toshi, devoted the last decades of their lives, up at their homestead on New York’s Hudson River: cleaning up and preserving our common environment.

So don’t knock the Keystone XL super-pipeline.

My friend Luci could have been a superstar — if, like Pete, she hadn’t cared more about justice and community than she did about money and fame. “It’s hard to get anybody to pay you a dime in this country,” Luci said to me one time, mildly, “for doing anything worthwhile.”

If Pete were somehow with us now and we could talk with him, Pete wouldn’t know what to tell us about pop stardom. Stardom wasn’t why Pete picked up that banjo.

But Pete would definitely want to know about lives and communities, and how we’re contributing, or could contribute. Pete would be sympathetic. He’d be listening intently. But it’s worth thinking hard about what we’d tell him.

Stephen Badrich is an English professor and freelance journalist.


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