Pete Seeger performing the Woodie Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s “We Are One” Inaugural Concert, January 19, 2009.
Environmentalist, agent provocateur, leftist activist, recovering Communist and ardent redistributionist – all apply to the folksinger who died Monday in New York at the age of 94. Pete Seeger, for better or worse, answered to all of the above adjectives but it’s his legacy as a songwriter and performer for which this writer prefers to remember him.
Certainly there’s much with which to disagree with Seeger from an ideological standpoint over the decades of a nearly 70-year career, but taken as a whole his body of work stands out for its calls for equality and societal change for the better. Take for example Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a wonderful song that “sampled” a bit of Ecclesiastes to become a gentle yet powerful anthem akin to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” With “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the songwriter assisted in the bridge between folk and rock when the song was appropriated by the Byrds’ signature jangle-and-harmony pop.
For those of us old enough to remember portions if not all of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, or – not to appear too exclusive to younger, musical-savvy readers – those up-to-speed on their history of the past half-century, folk music and its purveyors became as synonymous with civil rights as spirituals and gospel music. The genre that gestated acts as diverse as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, the Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas (whose “Creeque Alley” chronicles the coffee-house phase of early 1960s folk music), and the Lovin’ Spoonful was granted enough longevity by Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and Odetta to spark an era of pop music that dared go beyond the moon/June/spoon schematic.
Of course, it was Seeger who infamously attempted taking an axe to the power source of Bob Dylan’s amplified guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And it was only after becoming convinced of the atrocities committed by Joseph Stalin that Seeger rejected the de rigueur leftist affinity with the USSR. At least he was intellectually honest enough to realize eventually that Stalin was one of the 20th century’s most wicked purveyors of evil – a realization somehow eluding others of the left to this day. And, yes, Seeger contributed his celebrity to the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grave error of judgment both from economic and social perspectives as he continued to trumpet the advantages of a kinder, gentler socialism than Stalin’s. And his continued popularizing of Guthrie’s anti-property rights anthem “This Land Is Your Land” is, if not shameful, at least unfortunate, as it includes the lyrics:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Seeger, by the way, bought nearly 200 acres of land on New York’s Hudson River in 1949. This experience of personal ownership would serve as at least partial incentive for his efforts to reclaim and maintain the river’s environmental integrity over the course of 60 years.
In an age when the media hypes marginal celebrities as “icons” of fashion, music, cinema and whatnot, it’s best to remember Seeger simply as a major American performer – warts and all – who provided a significant portion of the soundtrack to our country’s much-needed civil rights and environmental movements. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Seeger. You’ve more than earned it.