Rear View: Pete Seeger—A hard-hitting singer for the hard-hit
From the National Herald Archives, a tribute to folk singer and song writer Pete Seeger (1919-2014), known for songs of protest and hope, who visited India in 1996 after a gap of 33 years
Folk singer and song writer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) visited India in 1996 after a gap of 33 years. This tribute by Ashish Roy to the man known for songs of protest and hope was first published in the National Herald on November 24, 1996.
WHAT can music do?
"Music can at least help clean and purify a river," says Pete Seeger, 77, who is revisiting India after 33 years.
The man sang his way through a popular movement to clean the Hudson river. Sixty miles north of noisy New York, he and his wife Toshi had built a simple cottage on the peaceful banks of this river, where he continues to live an austere life for the past forty-four years.
"Think globally, sing locally," the greatest living American Pete had been true to his words. Pete is folk singer and much, much more.
Pete had helped arrange an obscure African American church hymn: "We shall overcome", in the sixties. Popularised during the Civil Rights Movement, the song has reached all the freedom-loving people all over the world. We have it as our own "Hum honge kamyaab’’, ‘’ "That's the folk process", Pete would say.
"Encourage other singers and song writers in various places and times to write songs. To adapt and rewrite others’ songs. To use songs not to get rich or famous, but to help this world survive."
His wish is to see more and more people sing again and again. "For recreation. For reverence. For learning and laughter. For struggle. For hope, for understanding."
Pete is the greatest folk singer of our global village, and much more. He is a humanist.
Born in 1919, in a musicians' family, he got his first lesson about folk music from his 'musicologist father Dr Charles Seeger, that 'there were different versions of the same song and one could choose the version of one's own liking for singing. He was only eight then. At 17, he met folk song collector Alan Lomax who taught him and others the rich variety of American folk songs.
Says Pete: "The 20th century revival of interest in 'American Folk Music' is due more to the work of this man than any other person."
“Encourage other singers and song writers in various places and times to write songs. To adapt and rewrite others’ songs. To use songs not to get rich or famous, but to help this world survive.”Pete Seeger (1919-2014)
At 19, he dropped out of Harvard, bicycling the countryside and acquainting himself with farmers’ life. At 20, he met the songwriter Woody Guthrie. After this meeting, as he himself put it, "my life was never the same again". They searched and improvised songs, borrowed and altered tunes, and wrote and composed new ones. His sources grew songs from different times, people and languages.
He founded singing groups, collaborated with famous singers like Huddie Lead-belly and Lee Hayes, became the moving spirit behind the new folk song revival movement. Pete is not simply a folk singer, he is a movement even after 50 years of singing.
Pete Seeger is a movement because he had always been part of a movement. In 1939, he was a member of a young artists' group which was a branch of the Young Communist League.
The folk process was on with farmers, factory workers, coal miners and all. Lomax had collected protest songs from farmers, Pete had transcribed the tunes, Woody wrote introductions, and an edited book was ready for publication. Pete titled it as ‘Hardhitting Songs for Hard Hit People’. It could be published only in 1967.
In 1940, they came across the word Almanac to mean to help people through this world. The almanac singers were born to sing protest songs against fascism, war and imperialism. In 1942, he was in the army. Till the war ended in 1945, he did not write songs, but wrote letters to Toshi whom he married in 1943 before leaving for overseas assignment.
After the war, it was the phase of People's Songs. Weaver singing group was formed in 1949, and a new phase started with love songs — love of home, family, country, world. In the early 1950, he was a victim of McCarthyism, sentenced to one year's jail term, and for 17 years denied appearances on television and radio.
Pete had helped arrange an obscure African American church hymn: “We shall overcome”, in the sixties. Popularised during the Civil Rights Movement, the song has reached all the freedom-loving people all over the world. We have it as our own “Hum honge kamyaab’’, ‘’ “That’s the folk process”, Pete would say.
Pete Seeger is an institution. He popularised folk music, and inspired many more to join in. Amongs them are Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Peter-Paul-Mary trio, Odetta, Judy Collins, Bob Dylon [sic], Country Joe Macdonald, The Bikel, and Joan Baez, who openly acknowledged that "We all owe our careers to him".
After so much, he is apprehensive of using the term "folk music". He feels that by misuse a "folk singer" has come to mean "a (white) person on stage with an acoustic guitar singing a song in English". A folk song is not just made up, it is a process. It may give you a good living, but not a career.
More than anything else, it is a vocation, a calling, a mission. This is the way I have understood Pete. He now prefers to be called a river singer. He has every right to distance himself from the institution buiIt around him as a "folk singer'.
Pete is a river singer in a symbolic sense. "He fought in symbols", says his biographer David Dunaway. The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater movement, initiated in 1966, is a history of people's involvement as members, supporters and as volunteers to purify the river of all pollutants. Now this is symbolically linked to dreams for a better world.
“Sailing up my dirty stream
Still I love it and I'll keep the dream
That some day, though may be not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.”
Seeger shows his and his people's concern for nature and environment — for clean air, clean water and a non-polluted earth. This concern will take him to Benaras to see what we are doing with our Ganga project, promised to purify our holy river.
Bob Dylon had called him "a saint". Dunaway found striking similarities between Gandhiji and Seeger, for both had used non-violence as method and had shown immense capacity to inspire people. During his 1963 visit to India, a reporter of the Delhi Statesman thought his singing to be "almost evangelical". While conferring the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center Award, President Clinton said in 1994: "His song spoke for the human spirit in troubled times."
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Ganga river
- Pete Seeger
- National Herald Archives
- Hudson River
- New York
- African American
- We shall overcome
- Civil Rights Movement
- Hum honge kamyaab
- Dr Charles Seeger
- Alan Lomax
- American Folk Music
- Woody Guthrie
- Huddie Lead-belly
- Lee Hayes
- Young Communist League
- Hardhitting Songs for Hard Hit People
- Phil Ochs
- Tom Paxton
- Judy Collins
- Bob Dylan
- Country Joe Macdonald
- The Bikel
- Joan Baez
- David Dunaway
- Hudson River Sloop Clearwater movement
- President Bill Clinton