Union Songs

Folk's virtuoso of dissent

Mahir Ali | May 01, 2009
Article from: The Australian

PETE Seeger is unlikely to have thought he'd find himself serenading a US president-elect. After all, whenever he found himself in the vicinity of the White House through the decades, it was invariably to picket or protest.

Yet on the day before Barack Obama's inauguration last January, just as the We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial was drawing to a close, Bruce Springsteen invited a white-bearded figure in a knitted woollen cap to step out from the shadows. "Lead us, Pete," he implored.

And lead Pete did, in a manner familiar to all who have seen or heard him perform, turning the celebration into an uplifting singalong of Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land, a song that became well known despite "never being played on radio or sold", Seeger says. It found its way into school repertoires, but without its most potent verses. "How wonderful to rhyme 'tried to stop me' with 'private property'," he says. "Only Woody could have thought of that." Anyhow, "nobody said you couldn't sing them" at the Lincoln Memorial, so he did.

Obama sang along. Later, while greeting the performers, he told Seeger he had been listening to his songs since he was four.

What were your thoughts while you were up there on stage, I ask Seeger. An official function of any nature, after all, must have been a novel experience for a perennial dissident. "I was thinking about remembering the next verse," he says.

On the phone from his home beside the Hudson River, Seeger's voice is as lucid as his thoughts. He doesn't look a day over 75, but come Sunday he'll officially be a nonagenarian, and the event is being marked by a huge concert in New York's Madison Square Garden. The more than 60 performers include Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Roger McGuinn, Guthrie protege Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, who has occasionally performed with Seeger since the 1970s.

Testifying to the breadth of Seeger's influence, Springsteen (who released The Seeger Sessions three years ago), Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello will also be there, as will Bela Fleck, Billy Bragg, Kris Kristofferson, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, alongside the NYC Labor Chorus and the Native American Indian Cultural Alliance.

The concert is a benefit for Clearwater, the organisation Seeger helped found in 1969 as a means of cleaning up the Hudson River; he became a dedicated environmentalist long before it became fashionable, after reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in the early '60s. He'll be there at Madison Square Garden but intends to sing only one song: along with everyone else, of course, and that includes the audience.

Seeger says he doesn't like big affairs (and he's scandalised by how much scalpers are charging for tickets). No doubt he will be pleased that innumerable small gatherings also are planned to mark his 90th birthday, in towns and villages across Australia and the US and even in Europe. Melbourne activist Marie Goonan came up with the idea for these events under the rubric For Pete's Sake -- Sing! and it rapidly caught on.

Coincidentally, footage of a 1963 Seeger concert in Melbourne's Town Hall, rescued from the ABC's vaults and painstakingly restored, went on sale as a DVD in the US this week. (It will be released here on July 2.) It is a fascinating document of Seeger in his prime, at the beginning of a 22-country tour that he undertook with his family soon after the end of a seven-year tussle with the US authorities. It had been sparked by a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger barely escaped prison after refusing to name names or discuss his political convictions.

Asked whether he remembers coming to Australia 46 years ago, Seeger responds: "I can never forget it. It was an eye-opener. I wished I could have stayed longer. I didn't get up to Perth or the north." Meeting Queensland shearer and folk singer Duke Tritton "was a privilege", he says. The Live in Australia 1963 DVD includes, as an extra, footage of Tritton shot by the Seegers; the Queenslander appeared on stage with Seeger in Sydney and consequently enjoyed something of a career renaissance before he died in 1965.

Another of the DVD extras is a 30-minute ABC television presentation by Seeger about American blues and folk singer Lead Belly: it features Seeger chopping wood as accompaniment to a work song, as well as some of the only existing footage of Lead Belly in performance.

Mark Gregory, who was publicity officer with the Sydney University Folk Music Society in 1963, recalls that Seeger's visit "had a galvanising effect on the folk song revival" in this country, not least in terms of popularising the 12-string guitar and the five-string banjo. Gregory and singer Jeannie Lewis, who was also involved with the SUFMS, say Seeger was also instrumental in introducing Australian audiences to then unfamiliar songwriters such as Paxton, Bob Dylan and Malvina Reynolds.

Noted singer Margret RoadKnight, who saw Seeger perform at Melbourne Town Hall, concurs with that opinion; he combined entertainment with education, she says, and demonstrated that it was acceptable "to adapt songs from various cultures".

Writer and broadcaster Phillip Adams, who also witnessed -- and met -- Seeger in Melbourne, remembers that his visit was sponsored by Peter and Ruth Mann, who owned the Discurio record shop and produced Australian recordings (including Barry Humphries's first LP). Adams was impressed by Seeger's "riveting performance" and his "remarkable ability to manipulate the audience". "Australian audiences at the time were very shy," Adams says, "but he was able to get everyone to sing along." He was also struck by Seeger's political astuteness in recognising that the plight of Aborigines had more in common with that of Native Americans than African-Americans.

In 1968 Seeger briefly came this way again, and among the devotees he gained was a teenage Maurie Mulheron, who was among audience members accommodated on the stage at a Sydney performance. More than two decades later, Mulheron -- now a school principal in Wollongong -- devised a musical theatre production based on Seeger's songs, life and times. One Word ... We! has been performed intermittently since 1995 and is being revived by popular demand next month for a three-day run at the Tom Mann Theatre in Sydney's Surry Hills.

Mulheron, who visited Seeger at his rustic home in Beacon, New York, in 2003, rewrote the script after the notoriously self-effacing singer suggested several changes.

Accolades have flowed Seeger's way of late and have included a best traditional folk Grammy for At 89, a CD released last year by Appleseed Recordings (which has also issued three volumes of The Songs of Pete Seeger). "Probably the reward for longevity," the doggedly uncommercial Seeger, who has close to 150 albums to his credit, tells anyone who asks him about it. Three of his LPs from the '60s and '70s were recently reissued on CD for the first time by the Australian Omni Recording Corporation, whose boss, David Thrussell, relishes Seeger's "bold, heartfelt and controversial" songs that "stir the pot about essential issues for humanity".

Last year, David King Dunaway updated his comprehensive 1981 biography of Seeger, and two new books on him were published last week. What "blew my cover", Seeger complains, is the documentary The Power of Song (which was screened at last year's Sydney Film Festival). "He is getting more publicity this year than he did in all his previous 89 years," says Jim Capaldi, who maintains a Seeger appreciation website at www.peteseeger.org.

Seeger's aversion to publicity probably dates back to the McCarthyist witch-hunt of the '40s and '50s, which soured the pitch for his groups the Almanac Singers and the Weavers. (The latter have the distinction of being the only band in US history to be investigated for sedition and subversion.)

But singing always has been more of a calling than a career for Seeger: he set out to be folk music's Johnny Appleseed, and this weekend's events, scattered across the globe, bear testimony to the seeds he sowed, not least during the late '50s, when the only audiences available to him were at schools and colleges. That phase as a "cultural guerilla" facilitated the US folk music boom of the '60s, not least by insinuating into the popular consciousness many songs that most Americans now take for granted. That includes This Land is Your Land.

His Lincoln Memorial appearance in a sense vindicated the life he has led and the ideals -- peace, equality, freedom, justice -- he has cherished and nurtured during the past 70 years. If the human race is to survive this century, he says, "we'll have to learn to communicate with each other". As he turns 90, no one can seriously doubt that he has more than done his bit in this regard.


Many thanks to Mahir Ali for permission to add this article to the Union Songs collection.