Union Songs

Pete Seeger

Mark Gregory tells of … a man and his music
(Article from Target Magazine - May-June 1968)

If anyone had to list the most important singers in the American postwar folk revival, the top would have to be Leadbelly Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Leadbelly, in penitentiary on a murder charge, and Woody Guthrie, the wandering song writer from Oklahoma, both used traditional forms to express their ideas in song. Both were "discovered" by Alan Lomax in his search over America to record the 'real thing". Guthvie and Leadbelly are now surrounded by a mystique which has grown around them. They were both giants - giants in personality, in ideas and in talent.

City audiences preferred folksongs to be smoothed out the way Burl Ives and Josh White used to do it, as today they tend to prefer the Seekers or Peter, Paul and Mary. To get anything like real folkmusic across required another giant of Guthrie and Leadbelly stature and urban enough to approach the city audience. This giant was Pete Seeger.

He is a phenomenon in his own right. On stage he is a magician pulling songs from a hat - songs that, although you've never heard, you immediately recognise. Pete Seeger draws in the whole audience as if they were a few old friends. From New York to Moscow, from Tokyo to Nairobi he transforms audiences into mass choirs. He possesses a fantastic ability to make contact and passes his music around as a medicine man passes samples of his -cure-all.

The son of two American musicologists, Charles and Ruth Seeger, he says his mother wanted hint to become a violinist. Then he describes how he met and fell for the five-string banjo. He left his studies at Harvard in the 1930's and began to roam after the banjo. He sang everywhere-at union meetings with Guthrie in the Almanac singers or with Big Bill Broonzy or Sonny Terry in concerts. Where there was folk music there was Pete Seeger.

In the early 50's he and the Weavers started on their road to fame. The folk group signifying the urban revival of folk music. The group which was followed by the trio's and city "folk" groups. But also the group that didn't manage to make folk music boring.

Seeger was tried by the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He and his family were ostracized by their neighbors. He was banned from television (until 2 years ago!). His music was found to be "un-American". By the time the "thaw" set in he was known in cities and colleges all over America.

Over the years he has collected field recordings, appeared on over 60 L.P. records, written and recorded "How to play" instructions for banjo, guitar, 12-string guitar - even steel drums. He has made films, built a house and managed to spellbind audiences over the world.

Pete Seeger is not traditional as a singer or instrumentalist - he leaves alone many of those subtleties traditional performers have - subtleties which are, to some people, the essence of folk music. He sings as an entertainer, educator and bringer of faith. He tells his audiences they call sing too, and they do. He makes them believe they can play a banjo, and some even do that.

As well as leading city people, Pied Piper fashion, to traditional music, he encourages songwriters by singing their songs (even some pretty bad ones), and he encourages new performers everywhere he goes. Some people say he should disown the more longhaired, blue-jeaned, or "commercial" groups seen among his "children", but he never does. He just continues to keep alive the songs of Woody and Leadbelly, the songs against inhumanity and prejudice and the songs of tradition.

His last visit to Australia introduced a new world of songs - Bob Dylan and We Shall Overcome, Little Boxes and Rambling Boy. The songs may be forgotten but helped produce a singing folk "movement." A movement now beginning to find direction.

Now he is coming back and maybe a little more of his magic will stay. Make sure you find out.