By Ryan Hilligoss, February 1, 2014
“I look upon myself as a planter of seeds. It’s like the Bible says, some land in the stones and don’t sprout, some land in the path and get stomped on, but some land on good ground and grow and multiply a 1,000 fold. My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help save the planet” Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger’s banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender
Pete Seeger died this past week at the age of 94 and I think the picture above is a perfect microcosm of Pete’s life: two strong hands, a banjo, his voice leading others TOGETHER in song. Pete often said, ” The best music I’ve ever made in my life has been when I can get the folks, all of them, young and old, the conservative, liberal and radical, get ’em all singing on the chorus.” And he did just that for over 75 years. Pete Seeger lived a good, long and meaningful life and used the tools he had at hand to get out and do his work of singing, playing and passing the songs along that he picked up from Woody, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, from cultures around the world and from countless others while trying to influence the people and to make this a better, more fair and decent place for all of us to live.
It is fitting that I write this while in Springfield, Il, The Land of Lincoln, for Pete and Abe were very similar despite the fact they were born 100+ years apart. Both were tall men with beards, both chopped wood on a regular basis :), both believed in the power and goodness inherent in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights, and they both believed in the beauty of this country and world and were willing to use their voice and influence to fight for them. Pete Seeger chopped wood everyday of his life as a form of exercise and to help clear his mind and spirit and to keep the rhythm of his songs and life. On days where his schedule did not allow for his chopping, he complained bitterly to friends and family. And according to Arlo Guthrie, Pete was still chopping wood until about a week before he passed. If only we all can be so lucky to live to a similar age while doing the things we love.
A few weeks ago, my dad and I went to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Il to see a new exhibit there of stage props, settings and clothes worn in the Spielberg directed Lincoln. Wasn’t much to see and was fairly disappointing on that end, but we also walked through the main museum for the 100th time as you can always find something new if you look hard enough. (By the way, as a standing offer, if any of you ever make your way out to Illinois at anytime and wish to go, I would be happy to take you down to Springfield and see some Lincoln sights. I’ll be your personal chaufer, tour guide and overall general raconteur 🙂 It’s well worth the time)
One of the exhibits is on the Gettysburg Address which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, 2013. The library collected several letters from notables around the country and world on the importance of the speech including WJ Clinton, Colin Powell, poet Billy Collins and one Mr.Pete Seeger. His letter was simple, to the point and showed his wit, charm and intelligence all in one brief letter and the additional page he attached with his own design of Lincoln’s speech which he changed to allow for an easier memorization for his listeners. Classic Pete and a prime example of what Pete did his whole life: passing what he thought was important in life, in sustaining a democracy and continuing to build a connection between the people.
Pete Seeger’s letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML
The picture I took isn’t the greatest quality so here is the text: “Dear friends at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Since November 19, it will be 150 years since Old Abe gave the address. I try to get people to memorize it. Written out as 10 sentences and 4 clauses, it’s much easier to memorize than the way it’s normally provided in 2 or 3 paragraphs. I’m curious to know what you think of it. I am sorry I can’t visit you in person but at the age of 94, my travelling days are over. Sincerely, Pete Seeger.”
(With his famous drawing of his banjo underneath)
Rock music critic and historian Dave Marsh wrote a great tribute to Pete this week, A Golden Thread, A Needle which can be read by clicking this sentence
. In his essay, Marsh writes of a night in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Woody Guthrie Tribute concert. As a finalee, Pete led a song along with many musicians joining him on stage and getting the entire audience to sing with them. Marsh writes, “I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.
That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.
We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.”
Marsh is right, it’s up to you, me and all of us to make the world a better place for all of us. And it’s time to pick up an axe and start chopping wood.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009
“Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist and an activist. He had a very full idea about those things, how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music has to influence, to inspire. And that’s the power of folk music. That’s the power of Pete Seeger.” Bruce Springsteen
Coda: This Land Is Your Land
In 2012, my dad and I took a road trip to see sights in Kansas and Oklahoma like DDE Presidential Museum, Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home in Spavinaw and Commerce, OK and we went to Okemah, Oklahoma where Woody Guthrie was born. After searching for a while and with a little help from friendly people, we found what remains of Woody’s boyhood home which now is simply some of the original stone foundation. In the yard stands one of the last remaining trees and a local artist carved a message from Woody into the side. And in one of life’s great ironies, there was a small white sign in the yard that says “It is a crime to steal stones from this property.” On the other side, it doesn’t say nothing, that side was made for you and me. This Land was written by Woody in 1940 and would have been a dust speck of history if not for Pete Seeger picking up the song and singing it time after time for crowds, school children, unions, and presidents alike.
Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie’s first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012
Original foundation of Guthrie’s boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma. One side is a warning to trespassers. On the other side it says nothing and that side was made for you and me
Top 10 Pete Seeger Songs, written, sung or inspired by
10) Goodnight Irene- Written by Leadbelly and taught to the Weavers who performed this version on early television
9) Forever Young– Written by Bob Dylan and sung by Pete along with child’s choir. From Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan honroing 50 years of Amnesty International.
8) If I Had a Hammer
7) Waist Deep In The Big Muddy
6) Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger’ Rainbow Show
5) Bring Em Home- From Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Tour
From The New Yorker profile on Seeger from April 17, 2006 by Alec Wilkinson.
“Springsteen began listening to Seeger in 1997, when he was asked to provide a song for a Seeger tribute record. To choose one, he told me, he “went to the record store and bought every Pete record they had. I really immersed myself in them, and it was very transformative. I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music. I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness. At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself. It was cross-generational. He played for anyone who would listen. He played a lot for kids. When I set the musicians up in my house to make this record, and we started playing Pete’s songs, my daughter said, ‘That sounds like fun—what is that?'”
Seeger typically performed with the simplest instrumentation—by himself, with banjo and guitar, and, in the Weavers, with another guitar player. Springsteen is accompanied by drums, bass, piano, guitar, accordion, banjo, double fiddles, horns, and backup singers. His versions include more references than Seeger’s did—Dixieland, Gospel, stringband music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll among them. It is as if folk music, temporarily dormant, had been revived in a more populist and modern form. “The Seeger Sessions” does not include any songs that Seeger wrote, such as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was a No. 1 record for the Byrds in 1965. Springsteen recorded “If I Had a Hammer,” but felt that it asserted itself too forcefully among the other songs, possibly because it was so well known. The songs he chose, he said, are “ones that I heard my own voice in. When you’re going through material that way, you’re always trying to find your place in the story. With the songs I picked, I knew who those characters were, and I knew what I wanted to say through them to transform what we were doing. That’s your part in the passing down of that music. You have to know what you’re adding. Every time a folk song gets sung, something gets added to that song. Why did I pick Pete Seeger songs instead of songs by the Carter Family or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers? Because Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there. I didn’t feel I had to go to someone else’s records. It was very broad. He listened to everything and collected everything and transformed everything. Everything I wanted, I found there.”
4) Hobo’s Lullabye- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. For my grandfather Hubert Barr who rode a train from central Illinois to work in the CCC during the Great Depression.
3) The American Land- Bruce Springsteen, inspired by Seeger’s He Lies Here In The American Land
2) Turn Turn Turn- Written by Seeger, performed by Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band and Roger McGuinn
1) Co tie- We Shall Overcome- History told by Pete Seeger
1) This Land Is Your Land- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, 2009, Washington DC
Rememberance from Tom Morello
, guitarist/musician/songwriter and political activist Tom Morello. Much like Lincoln, Pete was willing to actually excercise his Constitutional freedoms and not just claim them. In a recent post in Rolling Stone
by , Morello writes, “He was a hardcore bad ass
when he stood up to House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “How dare you question my Americanism because I play music for people whose politics are different than yours?”