Described as ‘America’s conscience’, Pete Seeger inspired a revival of folk music as a political tool. His death has prompted a re-evaluation of songwriting as activism.
Who has died?
Pete Seeger, the US folk musician whose songs included ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and ‘If I had a Hammer’, has died at the age of 94 in a New York hospital after a short illness. President Obama paid tribute to him as a great voice for the American poor and a tireless campaigner for the left-wing causes he believed in. Seeger, he said, ‘believed deeply in the power of song, but more importantly, he believed in the power of community. To stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.’
That’s quite a compliment!
Not every singer-songwriter would call forth praise from the leader of the Western world, it’s true. But Seeger chose to ‘use his voice’ as Obama put it, to campaign for workers’ rights, civil rights and equality for black people, and in anti-war protests. In later years he was a vocal supporter of the environmental movement too. Bill Clinton, the last Democrat president before Obama, described him as ‘an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.’
Inconvenient is a funny word to use.
Well spotted. Because Seeger made himself very unpopular with people in government during his heydey. At 17 he joined the Young Communist League and he became a member of the Communist Party of America six years later. In the 1940s, his political affiliations saw him blacklisted. While he ‘backed away’ from organised politics in the 50s and 60s and eventually denounced Stalin, his world view remained essentially unchanged. In a 1995 interview he said: ‘I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.’
And what about the music?
Seeger was a guiding light for other, younger folk musicians as they tried to make a name for themselves within this rich tradition of American songwriting and performing. Seeger was a mentor in the 50s and 60s to Bob Dylan and Don McLean among others. He was one of Dylan’s earliest supporters, getting him a place on the the bill at the influential Newport Folk Festival and encouraging his contacts to produce Dylan's first record.
But didn’t he fall out with Dylan?
One of the most enduring myths about Seeger is that he threatened to take an axe to a power cable when Dylan suddenly shocked his faithful folk fans at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by transposing all his songs to electric guitar versions. It’s true that Dylan was booed, and cries of ‘Judas’ even followed him to concerts in the UK. But the much-repeated story suggests Seeger was appalled at the younger man’s betrayal of acoustic folk. Seeger denied this interpretation in his 1993 memoir, writing that he was ‘furious at the sound system’. ‘Bob was singing ‘Maggie's Farm’, one of his best songs, but you couldn't understand a word, because of the distortion,’ wrote Seeger.
So was it about the music or the politics?
He might have said both. But Seeger, unlike Dylan who later rejected the role he had been given as ‘the voice of a generation’, wore his philosophy on his sleeve – or rather his banjo. Inspired by the message Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar – ‘this machine kills fascists’ – Seeger wrote ‘this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’ on his banjo. Asked to describe his music, he once said: ‘I call them all love songs. They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough.
- After the second world war, America and Russia were locked into an ideological battle between capitalism and communism. In the US, certain politicians on the right, led by Senator McCarthy, became obsessed with rooting out American communists and ‘un-American activities’. The hounding of communists or left-wing sympathisers led to the blacklisting of many artists and even Hollywood film stars, who then found it difficult to get work.