Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP Pete Seeger

An article I wrote in April 2012 about Pete Seeger was published in the Newton Tab in the weeks leading up to a Newton Family Singers Seeger-themed concert. It's no longer on the Tab website, and it seems appropriate to repost it here.

Reading it over, the article reads a bit like an obituary. Rest In Peace, Pete, and thanks for all the music!


Seeger continues to inspire

Pete Seeger turns 93 on May 3rd. He is known as a songwriter for writing songs as well-known as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn;” as an advocate of folk music for popularizing and adapting the songs of others, like “Oh When the Saints” and “Hine Ma Tov;” as a performer with The Weavers and in numerous solo recordings; and as the author of a number of books of songs and musical instruction. He is surely all of those things, but I think his primary influence has been as a music enthusiast, encouraging all of us to pick up an instrument, open our mouths and sing. Pete Seeger is probably indirectly responsible for about half the songs you’ve committed to memory and is directly responsible for your neighbors banding together to create the Newton Family Singers.

Where does a musical icon like Pete Seeger come from? It’s worth considering his family background: his mother Constance de Clyver Edson was a classical violinist and composer who taught at Julliard, his father Charles L Seeger was a composer and musicologist -- a room in Harvard’s music library is named in his honor. Charles’ second wife (Pete’s stepmother) was an avant-garde composer named Ruth Crawford and she and Charles helped Alan and John Lomax collect and transcribe traditional music from around the country and around the world. This musical upbringing had an effect on Pete as well as two half-siblings, Peggy and Mike, who had long musical careers of their own. (The legacy continues: two extended family members have joined the Newton Family Singers this year.)

Pete taught himself to play guitar and then learned songs from friends like Woody Guthrie and Huddy Ledbetter. With a few friends, he formed the Weavers and for years, as he has said, he played concerts to pay for all the time he spent playing union rallies and protests. His series of recordings for the Smithsonian called “American Favorite Ballads” is an encyclopedia of American vernacular music.

Given those accomplishments, where do I get the chutzpah to suggest that Pete Seeger’s greatest contribution has been to encourage others to sing? Well, from Pete himself. The desire to encourage and teach singing can be heard in the songs he wrote with his friends. “If I Had a Hammer” is a call for justice and freedom and love, but ultimately the most effective tool toward these ends is not the hammer or the bell but rather a song. And in his solo recording of “Wimoweh,” Seeger doesn’t perform the song, he teaches it; he introduces bass, tenor and soprano parts, so that his audience learns to sing together in harmony. Reading his memoir Where Have All the Flowers Gone, one can’t help but be struck by the way Seeger assumes the reader is also writing songs and leading sing-alongs and looking for advice in these endeavors.

And yes, Pete’s example is an inspiration for groups like the Newton Family Singers. We’re a group of men, women and children who enjoy singing harmonies and playing folk songs together. He’s also inspired one our group’s co-founders, Andy Rogovin, to write a tribute to Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The song benefits from a clever arrangement by Chris Eastburn, our guest musical director, who uses a medley of Seeger songs as an introduction: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “We Shall Overcome” (the latter was a union song called “We Will Overcome” until Pete made one change and introduced it to the Civil Rights movement).  “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom...” Rogovin’s song begins, and subsequent verses list other types of songs from that rich folk tradition, songs of hardship, and of laughter: “music of our children / rising in the air.”

It’s a reminder that not every song has to be about love or heartbreak. When former rock and roller and now folkie children’s music hero Dan Zanes was searching for songs to sing with his daughter, he thought of his old Seeger records. The Beatles are great, Zanes has said, but songs of romantic love aren’t emotionally appropriate for young kids. Seeger’s songs are those we learned in childhood and carry into our old age. As Rogovin writes: “Pete and Woody taught us songs of freedom / I hear them ringing in my ears / Can’t you hear them echo through the years?”


A few days after his birthday, on Sunday May 6 at the Memorial Spaulding School, the Newton Family Singers will be celebrating Pete Seeger’s life in the best way we can: picking up some instruments and joining each other in song. We hope you can join us!


And here's "Pete and Woody" by Andrew Rogovin, performed by the Newton Family Singers:


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