A Well-Lived Life: Pete Seeger: 1919-2014

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 06:15 AM Written by 

There will be ample of obituaries and elegiac biographies of Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at age 94. Happily he enjoyed considerable honors over the past decade, before and after his 90th birthday in 2009.  I'd rather let the music do the job. Here are some carefully selected clips with a bit of context.

1941: With the Almanac Singers: "Solidarity Forever."  A quintessential American labor anthem.

1951: With The Weavers. "Goodnight Irene" This group, made up of veteran folk acts: Ronnie Gilbert, Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman stumbled into pop fame in 1950 with a song written by folk favorite Huddie "Lead Belly" Leadbetter, accompanied on record by the lush strings of Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra. This 1951 version was filmed for Snader Telescriptions. Seeger's progressive politics already had him blacklisted. Industry backlash crippled the group who disbanded in 1952, though they reunited in 1955.

1962: "Turn! Turn Turn!" From Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. Written by Seeger in 1959, recorded in 1962. Made into a folk-rock standard by the Byrds in 1965.

June 8, 1963: "We Shall Overcome" From his Carnegie Hall concert, as the Civil Rights Movement was firing up. Based on an old gospel number, (a convoluted but interesting tale for another time), it evolved into "We Will Overcome." Seeger changed the lyric from "will" to "shall," hoping to enhance its singability.

1966: With Johnny Cash on Rainbow Quest . Seeger's own short-lived folk music TV program with Cash (seriously into his pill addiction) and June Carter. They didn't marry until 1968

February, 1968: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In 1967 CBS resisted Seeger, still blacklisted by television, appearing on a variety show already mired in controversy thanks to the Brothers' increasingly pointed political satire. They dropped his performance of "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy" an allegory for President Lyndon Johnson's insistence on sticking it out in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War because he refused to cut a verse clearly directed at Johnson (as "the big fool"). Tom Smothers—again--battled the network and the deleted performance ran intact on thls later episode.

2009: At the Lincoln Memorial With Bruce Springsteen. The song: Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."  Springsteen brought Seeger's music to many who never heard it with his 2006 masterpiece We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

2012: "Forever Young." From the album Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International.  His singing voice wasn't up to the task at the time, so he recited the Bob Dylan lyrics.

One interesting footnote. Seeger's personal musical tastes were diverse. A friend of mine, a formidable folk music scholar, was interviewing Pete for a Weavers reissue project some years ago.  He also sold some of the massive Bear Family box sets on the side, and offered to get Pete anything he wanted at a good price.  Pete looked through the catalog and made a choice: an act he long admired.  It was a boxed set of the complete recordings by...the Platters.  

If anyone stayed Forever Young, it was Pete Seeger.

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