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Pete Seeger a Life of Struggle and Song.

By Gearóid Ó Loingsigh.
The last great troubadour of the 20th century has passed away. Pete Seeger died on January
27th after a short illness at the age of 94. He became, during his lifetime, a living legend
and like most legends, even their enemies lay claim to them in death.
Seeger was born into a well to do family, far removed economically from the working class
or small farmers he would immortalise in music and song and whose causes he made his
own. His father studied at Harvard University and Pete Seeger also attended Harvard for a
while, where he studied alongside JFK. Seeger dropped out of Harvard after a short period.
However, whilst their he joined the Communist Party’s youth wing. He remained a
member up till the late 1940s. He would later break with Stalinism, even going as far as to
take part in an event in support of Solidarnosc in 1981.
Seeger, developed a number of musical contacts at the time, amongst them Alan Lomax,
who had travelled the US recording popular music and had even gone from one jail to
another in the south recording prisoners singing. It was there Lomax came across Huddie
Leadbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly whose songs Seeger would record and turn into hits. Seeger
also became friends with Woody Guthrie at the time. Like Guthrie he would travel around
the country singing for union workers, migrant labourers and others lending his music to
their struggles and picking up and popularising songs along the way. Many of the great
musicians of the 20th century, did the same, not just Seeger and Guthrie, but singers like
Victor Jara, would also bring the people’s songs to wider audiences.
Seeger helped set up the Almanac Singers group. He was heavily influenced by the
Stalinists at the time. The group released an anti-war album Songs for John Doe. They
quickly shelved the album in the face of two events: the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union,
led the CP to change their line on the second world war. Overnight it changed from being
an imperialist war to an anti-fascist war. The later bombing of Pearl Harbour by the
Japanese gave added weight to this change. Seeger and the others swallowed and
regurgitated the CP line hook, line and sinker. They released an album called Dear Mr
President, which echoed the CP line of suspending the class struggle when they made
alliances with the bourgeoisie:
Now, Mr. President,
We haven't always agreed in the past, I know,
But that ain't at all important now.
What is important is what we got to do,
We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do,
Other things can wait.
Even today, the myth of WWII as an anti-fascist war persists in the face of all the evidence.
Many CP members expected the Allies to invade Spain after the war. They didn’t, as
Fascism was not ever their real concern. However, the episode is not mentioned here to
criticise Seeger but to point out that artists do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of a

In fact.political and social milieu. Seeger did not limit himself to mere pacifism. gave the orders and Koster engaged in the cover up. This can be seen in relation to the role Seeger played in the Anti-Vietnam movement. but also directly at the President. His Last Train to Nuremberg. a strange mix of left and reactionary PC surrounding the holocaust industry would push to the sidelines with hysterical denunciations were it said today. Do I see Lieutenant Calley? Do I see Captain Medina? Do I see Gen'ral Koster and all his crew? Do I see President Nixon? Do I see both houses of Congress? Do I see the voters? Me and you The references to Calley and Koster and Medina deal with the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre in 1969. He named the guilty and put them on a par with the Nazis who stood trial at Nuremberg. the way Obama proudly and semi-publicly does nowadays. Seeger. He demonstrated to the world: If a man will stand for his own land. He was not afraid to denounce what the US was doing and put names to it. though of course there were obviously elements of this in his songs. he had the following to say of the leader of the Vietnamese forces. I'll have to say in my own way. He educated all the people. Calley was the only person convicted of the war crime. they do not lead it politically. But Seeger still pointed the finger at them. something. it was highly unlikely that leading anti war artists would emerge. In his song Teacher Uncle Ho. A vast mass movement gave ample room to Seeger to develop his music and his politics and he did so with great fervour. The only way I know. It must be borne in mind that back then. That we learned power to the people and the power to know From Teacher Uncle Ho! . Medina. Whilst artists do feed into society. Seeger pointed the finger at them. which showed what can be done culturally when artists put themselves at the service of and in Seeger’s case take an active part in mass movements. unlike many of his contemporaries was not just against the horrors of war. chain of command responsibility was specifically thrown out in the court cases that arose from the trial. Nixon did not sit in front of a plasma screen personally overseeing massacres. was a brave song and the type of song that would put the modern anti-war movement to shame. when the US army murdered almost 500 innocent unarmed civilians. He was in solidarity with the Vietnamese and visited the country with his family in 1972. Unlike many of his peers. He's got the strength of ten. Given the nature of the CP and the US left. they reflect it and to a degree nurture it.

were only slightly better as far as television appearances were concerned. and put it behind her. Few if any remember that it was Dylan who sang before Martin Luther King gave his I have a dream speech. went on to. leading to many thousands more deaths: not a minor point for a pacifist. or used versions of songs where other people had done just that. It is fitting that it was his version of We Shall Overcome that defined the struggles of the 1960s and is the one that is best remembered as a song of struggle. Seeger continued to lend his voice and banjo to struggles around the world. even up into his later years when he could be seen at Occupy Wall Street protests. the camps set up by the UN were run by the Khmer Rouge who used the aid to continue to recruit and prolonged the war. of course. he rescued songs that had been forgotten he exalted popular culture. that the humanitarian aid should not be channelled through the Vietnamese and that refugee camps should not be set up inside Cambodia but along the Thai border. For most of his life he was spied on by the security agencies of the US. Joan Baez. His commitment came at great cost. Clearly on the wrong side of oppression. but that is irrelevant. Baez and others. In the 1950s he had few outlets for his music. He was a troubadour. a few years later she wrote a song about Cambodia. Even at the age of ninety he was campaigning for the release of indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier. He once said that his father used to say that plagiarism was basic to all culture. despite the mass movement. become a Jesus Freak and also a Zionist.After the end of the war and the downturn in class struggle in the 1970s. changed the lyrics of songs to make them more relevant. That decision had disastrous consequences. not even Boyzone type groups do that. rather than any of the stuff produced by Dylan. She was clear. He didn’t just sing about the protests or even sing at them. was another case in point. He even travelled to Nicaragua and brought back and tried to popularise some Sandinista songs during the Reagan years. Baez organised the March for Survival.. As part of her campaign she appeared on stage with and received a bouquet of flowers from Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn one of the former military leaders of Thailand who had supported the US war effort in Vietnam. such as the old hymn How Can I Keep From Singing. He put his money where his mouth was. and Baezes of the world Pete picked his causes because he believed in them and he stuck with them. he was blacklisted during the MacCarthy reign of terror and was even sentenced to jail for contempt of the hearings. framed in the 1970s for the murder of federal agents. he picked up tunes played with them. makes lots more money. She washed her hands of the sorry mess. she was in a joint campaign with him.. they write in a commercial context defined by others. It defined his attitude. She may not have known who he was. yet he kept going. on the other hand turned up all over the place. This was not a cause which would endear him to the State. His father was. as opposed to what ever the record labels were promoting. for example. the lyrics of a song are not penned in isolation from the rest of society.. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Seeger. The music that is composed builds on centuries of musical culture. the Dylans. he took part in them. He will be remembered for his activism but also for his music. unlike some of those who benefitted from the folk song revival he helped create. Unlike. A family friend of . Bob Dylan. It is Seeger who captivates and sums up the period. The 1960s. right. He chose his politics because he believed in them and he was into the music for the music and not the pursuit of wealth and fame. well.

and the soul of soulless conditions. opium of the people quote he remarks that: “Religious suffering is. Some of his attempts at this were unintentionally comical (Manyura Manyash. Hindi. an optimistic song if ever there was one. Neither did he have a problem with singing religious songs such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Seeger picked up songs as he travelled round the US. the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. How can I keep from singing? It is Seegers’ version that lives on. He introduced it to the world and different groups have done their own versions since. The versions are somewhat different. sick with fear. such as Japanese. Pete sung songs about people’s lives and other religious songs he sang because. Spanish. they were catchy. he liked them. he did the same performing songs in languages that he recognised he would never ever speak. even pop versions. though in the second part of the 20th century the evangelical you are going to rot in hell variety came to the fore.Seeger’s changed the lyrics removing most of the religious references and replacing them with the following. however. One of his best remembered foreign songs and one which shows the generous character of the man was Wimoweh. worldly aspect to religion is to be found in many popular religious songs of the US. When Pete Seeger heard about this. When tyrants tremble. The song. His repertoire built up over years is basically a potted history of the US working class and their struggles. at one and the same time. Plagiarism maybe basic to all culture. they worked musically. theft wasn’t and he wrote the cheque out of a sense of fair play and perhaps solidarity. a trait not seen in that many performers. such as Rainbow Race. In 2012 he appeared on the Colbert Report at the age of 93 and the song he chose to perform was an old one and despite the passage of time since he wrote it. workers lives. In Marx’s much partially cited. is Pete Seegers phonetical rendition of a South African song composed and recorded by Solomon Linda called Mbube. apparently the name of a Scottish folk song which he sang with a very fake accent. He celebrated life. Swahili amongst others. When friends by shame are undefiled. And hear their death-knell ringing. When friends rejoice both far and near. Linda was paid a pittance for the song in the 1930s and received no royalties. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. the heart of a heartless world. Many of his own compositions reflect this. How can I keep from singing? In prison cell and dungeon vile. It is the opium of the people. Our thoughts to them go winging.) others went on to inspire. Seeger had not lost his optimism. He sang Quite Early Morning. And he was like his friend Woody Guthrie an optimist. when he started travelling around the world. . Seeger’s protest music was different to that of other performers.” This profane. their victories in language they could relate to. he immediately calculated how much in royalties he owed Linda and sent the cheque to his family. which may seem odd for a radical singer. but for Seeger.

We will set the workers free. Take the two old parties. But as I pointed out before. However. No difference in them I can see. another of his few bad political judgements.Don't you know it's darkest before the dawn And it's this thought keeps me moving on If we could heed these early warnings The time is now quite early morning If we could heed these early warnings The time is now quite early morning Some say that humankind won't long endure But what makes them so doggone sure? I know that you who hear my singing Could make those freedom bells go ringing I know that you who hear my singing Could make those freedom bells go ringing He must have been conscious of how short a time he had left on the planet and yet he was still optimistic about humanity’s future. “Over the years. . Even Barack Obama praised him after he died. The Greenback Dollar which was also performed by the Almanac Singers. This would certainly have played a role in his decision. we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger. It was also strangely fitting that the man who made We Shall Overcome a popular international song was there to see the first black president sworn in. Seeger had performed at his inauguration. But with a Farmer-Labor party. caught up by the enthusiasm of liberals and the outright betrayal and prostration by the left not only in the US but around the world.” The hypocrisy of the man is breath-taking. his legacy will be the subject of yet more books. mister. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go. he had seen the collapse of the mass movement following the Vietnam war. Obama said of him that. and he always invited us to sing along. spying on just about everybody should try to co-opt Seeger in death. Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers' rights and civil rights. the dark years of Reagan and Bush. A man waging two wars. documentaries and false praise from his enemies. Now that Seeger is dead. he did play for him. world peace and environmental conservation. WWII. attacking workers rights. artists don’t live in a vacuum and his mistake has to seen in the context of the surrender of the left. he would have been better served to recall the lyrics of one of Woody Guthrie’s songs. the political stagnation of the 1990s and the defeat of three revolutions in Central America and yet he was still optimistic. the MacCarthy era. He had lived through the Depression.

blacklisted and shunned. Younger people who may not have heard his music should check him out if for no other reason than the fact that they feared him for almost eight decades of music and activism. At every turn the US establishment tried to block and sabotage him. harassed. you'd like to freeze me cold When I'm afraid.Pete Seeger’s musical legacy is beyond dispute. Seeger was one of those. they feared him. they feared where he pointed to. His political legacy is another matter. That alone makes Seeger an interesting figure. Old devil fear. rising time and again to join in one struggle after another. Brecht said that it was those who struggled an entire lifetime where the one that were needed. spied on. He of course did not fear them. Pete Seeger was hounded. the Obamas of the world will try to distort history. my lovers gather round And help me rise to fight you one more time No storm nor fire can ever beat us down No wind that blows but carries us further on And you who fear. no serious musicologist could ignore the man. you with your icy hands Old devil fear. vilified. They were not reminded of where they had come from. his was a life of struggle and he kept on and persevered till he was 94. oh lovers gather round And we will rise to sing it one more time .