by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. When I heard that Pete Seeger had died I was 16 all over again, immersed in the righteous rituals of American adolescence, which in that year of our Lord 1973 meant the music and always pointed lyrics of Pete Seeger, the man who used singalong music and gentle verse to remind us of where we'd come from, what we had lost along the way, and what we needed to recapture at the risk of losing the best of what we were if we failed.
Pete Seeger, you see, wasn't just a gifted musician with the ability to get his strongly held views across with minimum rancor and animosity. He wasn't just a gifted lyricist with a poet's discerning skill for selecting just the right word. He wasn't just an entertainer who skillfully performed but who touched his audiences, making them feel, right down to the very youngest, that they mattered and could make the significant difference for good we all want to make.
Seeger was all this and more, but more than all this he was the lyric conscience of the Great Republic, a man who sung what he believed and what he knew America must remember or lose our very soul. He knew what to say and how to say it not just for the moment but for ages yet to come, ages that would thank him for refreshing their tired and often daunted spirits which needed such revival in order to forge ahead.
For as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Seeger after hearing his iconic rendition of "We Shall Overcome","That song really sticks with you, doesn't it?" They all did... and we all felt better because of it. We felt linked to each other, empowered by each other, valued, and yes, loved by each other. Seeger sang, and life seemed worth living again and each of us a child of possibility and joy.
Seeger, the early years, working out which side he was on.
Seeger was born in New York City May 3,1919 into what he described as a family "enormously Christian, in the Puritan, Calvinist New England tradition." A paternal ancestor, Karl Ludwig Seeger, a physician from Wurttemberg, Germany, had emigrated to America during the American Revolution and married into an old New England family in the 1780s.
Seeger's father, the Harvard-trained composer and musicologist, Charles Louis Seeger, Jr., was born in Mexico City. He established the first musicology curriculum in the United States at the University of California in 1913, and was a key founder of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology. His mother, Constance de Clyver (nee' Edson), raised in Tunisia, trained at the Paris Conservatory of Music, was a concert violinist and later a teacher at the Juilliard School.
Young Seeger's world was distinguished, artistic, international in outlook, tolerant, intellectual, cosmopolitan, free thinking, free speaking, where knowledge was valued, conversation was sharp, witty, no respecter of persons; where children were most assuredly not expected to be neither seen nor heard. Quite the contrary. It was an exciting world which we in our "wired" age can only imagine, for our ability to "communicate" with each other has ensured our inability to do so.
From age 4, Seeger was away at boarding school, a card-carrying preppie with all that entails. At 13 he was enrolled in the Avon Old Farms prep school in Avon, Connecticut , from which he graduated in1936. That summer destiny struck a shy, withdrawn, bookish boy in the unlikely form of the five-string banjo.
It was at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in western North Carolina near Asheville, organized by local folklorist, lecturer, and traditional music performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a force for preserving and performing the sounds of the great Eastern mountains. The folks were hat-tippin' friendly, gaunt, austere, God-fearing, hospitable to a fault, always ready to dance a measure and thankee-ma'am for the privilege.
There amidst the mountain folk, passionate in love and hate, young Seeger heard his future. We may imagine it to be Lunsford's version of "Swannanoa Tunnel" or "Dogget's Gap", which made even the most staid jump up and dance like there was no tomorrow. Did he but know it, Pete Seeger, scion of New England was home. Harvard, short and sweet.
In 1936, at the age of 17, Seeger joined the Young Communist League like so many idealistic and ill-informed young people did. It may have been the single worst decision of his life; in 1942, he compounded his blunder by becoming a member of the Communist Party, USA.
He was older now, and this fateful decision reverberated through his entire life, limiting his influence, doing no good whatsoever as he soon came to see and admit, but not before he gave before the House Un-American Activities Committee a ringing endorsement of free speech and free association. (August 18, 1955). It was admirable, even heroic, but ill-advised, leading as it did to his indictment for contempt of Congress, March 26, 1957. (He was acquitted in 1962.)
Senator Joseph McCarthy was riding high in those disgraceful days... and Seeger's well bred gentility was no match for the red-baiting vulgarity that was McCarthy's acrid stock in trade.
Seeger must have wondered as he was being pummelled and insulted... castigated and maligned... demeaned and vilified ... threatened and outraged whether he wouldn't have been better off by returning to Harvard where he matriculated in 1936. Like many Crimson undergraduates he adored the lifestyle... except for those pesky classes that got in the way of perfection. In short order Seeger's grades dropped, he lost his scholarship, and he and Harvard agreed he should take a hiatus and come back later.
In this scenario he would have come back to Cambridge, taking his A.B. degree, then perhaps a doctorate in musicology with a pleasant domain at one of the Ivies; Yale perhaps which, like Harvard, had Seeger family connections. This is not just idle fancy, either. Seeger had the professorial demeanor down pat and he had a major project at hand, his lifelong interest in finding, hearing, copying, printing, disseminating, and preserving the people's music that is called folk. It was important work and he would have done it with thoroughness, care, scrupulous accuracy.
But he choose another course, a more difficult and challenging course and even the verbal brickbats of McCarthy and his minions did not persuade him to take the soft landing in Cambridge with a gracious house on Francis Ave and the adulation of generations of undergrads of liberal predilections... he had decided which side he was on, and that made all the difference.
"We'll stand it no more, come what may."
What happened next was a kind of arcane dance... Pete Seeger either alone or as part of an ensemble (the Weavers, say) would compose a tune that would invariably contain a stanza, a line, even a single word that would infuriate the Babbitts of Main Street America.
The producers would then water it down, preserving the lilt of the music but with lyrics which irritated no one but the purists like Seeger himself who watched less controversial performers like Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez and Judy Collins rise high on his work. They were acceptable to middle America. He most assuredly was not. This must have frustrated him, but if it did, he kept silent happy to serve the cause of peace, civil rights, social justice. He was a team player and served the general good, not just his personal gain and glory.
Having made this decision, this man of commitment and vision, lived it. He went where injustice was to be found, where things could be improved, where he could make a difference and where his songs of hope and dedication rallied the faithful, people whose wrongs were real but too often ignored, which meant forgotten. Few people knew America from its roots up more than Seeger and the people he knew he aroused and comforted with music that soared, reminding us all that the better was always possible, though it might be a long time coming and demand everything we had.
Now Pete Seeger rests, the man who sang for so many. At this moment, let the artist he most admired, Bob Dylan, sing for him...
"May God bless and keep you always/ May your wishes all come true/ May you always do for others/ And let others do for you/ May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung May you stay forever young/ Forever young, forever young May you stay forever young."
It is not too much to ask for this man of sweet temper and friendly persuasion, the man who fought for a lifetime for fundamental fairness, equality of opportunity, acceptance of diversity, for courtesy and community, for brotherhood and for love, always for love. For here he never stinted.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is the author of over a dozen best selling business and marketing books, several ebooks and over one thousand online articles on a variety of topics. Republished with author's permission by William Buckley RealeProfit.com
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