Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Art-For-Art’s-Sake Theatre: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Time once again for our usual midday Wednesday feature, which is running later than usual. Then again, there is little that is usual about this segment.

There is much that could be said (most of which cannot be done justice in this venue) about the American folksinger-activist Pete Seeger, who died peacefully in his sleep last Monday evening at New York's Presbyterian Hospital, surrounded by members of his family. He was 94. Seeger had just been out chopping wood only ten days before, and a few days after that was admitted. We should all be so active right up to the end.

Seeger's American roots can be traced back to the Colonial era, and a prominent New England family. His father was an eminent musicologist, his mother a prolific classical violinist, and nearly all of his siblings were involved with music in one form or another, most of it in the Anglo-American folk tradition. He was among the first of a long line of upper-crust bourgeois bohemians assuming the hard-scrapple appearance of the downtrodden, and who were the staple of the early- and mid-20th century folk revival (which preceded the over-commercialized "folk scare" of the late-1950s and early-1960s). Most people are aware of Seeger's advocacy of communism, and of his blacklisting for defying the American political system, which to some extent made possible the very way of American life about which he sang. Some might even remember how he visited North Vietnam in 1972, and extolled the virtues of their way of life, even as American servicemen were being held prisoner there. Very few people would remember that he equally despised the variety of communism promoted by Soviet Russia (his dalliance with Hanoi notwithstanding), that he regretted his association with the movement in later years, and that he performed at a 1982 benefit concert for the decidedly anti-communist Polish Solidarity labor movement.

On a personal note, this writer first taught himself to play the banjo in 1979, using Seeger's classic instruction book “How To Play The 5-String Banjo” first published in 1954 by Folkways, and revived in 1992 by Music Sales America.

The music that Seeger made popular, whether his own, or picked up along the way, experienced a resurgence in later years, especially at the behest of Bruce Springsteen and his famous “Seeger Sessions” in 2006. The first clip is one of Seeger singing "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" for college students in Melbourne, Australia, in 1963, a time when he was rarely seen on American television. The second is a one-hour live performance by Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band at the London Symphony Orchestra's Music Education Centre ("LSO St Luke's") in London.

This man who despised injustice in America was prophetic in some respects, and hopelessly naive in others. In the end, he was only a man, who returned to the dust of the earth, as will all of us who remember him, and who appreciate what he left us.

Rest in peace, old traveler. May God have mercy on you.

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