Obituary: Pete Seeger / Helped write the folk music textbook

May 3, 1919 - Jan. 27, 2014


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Local political singer-songwriter and union activist Mike Stout admits that as a rebellious teenager in the '60s he was drawn more to folk-rocker Bob Dylan, who famously endured the wrath of Pete Seeger for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

However, as Mr. Stout matured into his mid-20s and began to dig into the roots of folk music, his appreciation grew for Mr. Seeger, an inspiration to any songwriter penning a tune about political or social injustice or using their music to fight for a cause.

Mr. Stout shared stages with Mr. Seeger at numerous concerts and rallies, including the Homestead Strike centennial concert here in 1992 and the School of the Americas Watch & Rally at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1999.

"For the people in music who delved in politics, he was our guiding light, he was our shield, and definitely our role model," Mr. Stout said of Mr. Seeger, who died Monday at 94. "The way we see music is not just entertainment. We see music as a teacher, and it teaches people the truth."

Mr. Seeger, with banjo in hand, helped write the textbook on folk music. Anyone who's ever taken music class in school likely has sung his standard "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)," written while he was in the Weavers, the Greenwich Village-based group that formed in 1948 and helped spark the folk boom in the '50s.

Among the other classics he's written or co-written are "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and the biblically inspired "Turn, Turn, Turn!" During the civil rights movement, he helped turn the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" into a protest anthem.

"I like songs with choruses because I like to hear the crowd sing with me," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1974. "I don't have a great voice, so there's nothing in the way of virtuosity. But the lyrics are very important to me."

His songs were popularized by such artists as Peter, Paul & Mary, The Byrds, the Kingston Trio, Marlene Dietrich, Johnny Rivers and Judy Collins.

As a performer and activist, he was the living embodiment of Tom Joad's words from "The Grapes of Wrath": "Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there."

That put him on the frontline of movements ranging from support for U.S. intervention in World War II in 1942 to Occupy Wall Street. He stood with the left on such causes as civil rights, the draft, Vietnam, nuclear energy, the death penalty, labor unions, Hudson River cleanup, the Iraq War, right up to anti-fracking.

Seeger's rise

Mr. Seeger was born May 3, 1919, in New York City to a violinist mother and musicologist father, who divorced when he was 7. (His half brother, Mike Seeger, and half sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.)

His love for folk music and the banjo was sparked by a visit to a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. Although he had an interest in journalism, he dropped out of Harvard to pursue folk music and worked for a time with Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress.

In 1940, he co-founded the Almanac Singers, whose loose membership included his new friend, Woody Guthrie. During a stop in Pittsburgh, Guthrie wrote "Pittsburgh Town," about the labor disputes and smoky air plaguing the city, later recorded by Mr. Seeger.

Mr. Seeger, a member of the Communist Party in the '40s, served as an airplane mechanic in the Army during World War II, spending much of his time entertaining troops in the South Pacific.

In 1943 he married Toshi-Aline Ohta and they settled in the Hudson Valley, raising three children. (She died in July at age 91.) The Almanacs evolved into the Weavers in 1948 and scored a string of hits, including "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Goodnight, Irene."

Although he had drifted from the Communist Party, he couldn't shake the association and became a victim of the Red Scare. The Weavers were blacklisted from television and radio, and in 1955 Mr. Seeger was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he took the Fifth Amendment and was found guilty of contempt.

Trouble in River City

Although the charges were eventually dropped, they played into his sometimes bumpy history with Pittsburgh.

A 1959 show at the Stephen Foster Memorial, complete with songs by the Pittsburgh-born folk icon, went off without incident.

But when he was booked by WQED and the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association for two concerts April 16, 1962, the Red Scare hit home. There were a public outcry and a Pittsburgh Press editorial on April 13 that denounced Mr. Seeger for his Communist past, stating, "Red propaganda is red propaganda, whether it's sung to the accompaniment of a guitar or shouted from a soap box in Union Square."

The concerts were canceled but moved to the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, where he played two shows to capacity crowds of 400. Some 60 people picketed in front of WQED that day.

A few years later, in 1967, Mr. Seeger's planned return to commercial television on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was thwarted by CBS, which cut out his Vietnam protest song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." He returned five months later to sing it on that same show, and after that, the backlash cooled down.

There wasn't even a mention of blacklists or red politics in the coverage of his 1972 show here for Miners for Democracy or his rainy 1974 show in Point State Park with the American Wind Symphony, as part of his campaign for clean river advocacy.

The commotion he caused here June, 30 1985, can be attributed to reverence and popularity. His concert at Hartwood Acres with Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie, turned into a mini-Woodstock when an estimated 50,000 people attempted to get there on the single-lane roads.

It was a benefit for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and much needed during a recession that saw a steep decline of manufacturing in Pittsburgh.

Three days before the concert, Mr. Seeger had told the Press, "I'm more of a communist now than I was when I was a card-carrying member. ... And I'm quite concerned that the human race will have to come to terms with the contradictions of some people having billions and other people not having enough to eat."

Traffic was so backed up, people abandoned their cars on Hampton lawns and walked to the show. In the aftermath, the county was forced to scale back the size of future shows.

Outlasting them

The legend of Pete Seeger was somewhat tarnished in the eyes of baby boomers for the scene at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when the folk elder statesmen, enraged by Dylan's electric set, reportedly pondered cutting the power cable with an ax.

Like Mr. Stout, Pittsburgh rocker Joe Grushecky was on Dylan's side of that battle, but, he says, "Anyone who grew up in my generation knows what a towering figure he was. I've been aware of him my whole life. When you see how influential he was, it's just amazing."

Although he never shared a stage with Mr. Seeger, he sat in with Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Band Tour in New Jersey, which honored the folk legend.

Mr. Grushecky points to the Smothers Brothers incident as a testament to Mr. Seeger's stature. "Music was transformational then. It wasn't mindless entertainment." He adds that with Mr. Seeger having been a civil rights warrior, "I thought it was really cool that he lived long enough to sing at Obama's induction [in 2009]."

Having recorded an entire album about the plight of coal miners, Tom Breiding is a Pittsburgh-based folk musician working in the footsteps of Pete Seeger.

"I actually shed a tear today, and I was thinking that probably hasn't happened for an artist since John Lennon died," he said Tuesday. "I don't think anybody ever hit me like that since then."

Mr. Breiding was on the road in recent few years supporting the United Mine Workers' protests against Patriot Coal cutting retiree pensions and health care. His traveling companion was a copy of "Pete Remembers Woody."

"I listened to it for weeks on end and never grew tired of Pete telling his stories, and I just gathered so much strength and comfort knowing that in some small way I was doing what he had spent his life doing."

Mr. Stout remembers one small piece of advice he got from Mr. Seeger at a D.C. rally in 2000.

"I did a song called 'Solidarity Rocks' and at the end, I did a wild jump off the stage about six feet down. When I went backstage, Pete said, 'You're gonna get old fast doing that kind of stuff, son.' "

Pete Seeger didn't jump off of stages, but in a life of a standing up for people's rights, battling for justice and often taking unpopular stances, he took far more dangerous leaps.

"He went where a lot of us have gone, but he was the pathbreaker and he paid for it," Mr. Stout said. "A good part of his life he was blackballed. But he outlasted everyone that blackballed him and everybody that bad-mouthed him and everybody that tried to put him down. He outlasted them physically, and his music will outlast them for centuries."


First Published January 28, 2014 11:36 PM


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