IN MEMORIAM: ‘Pete Seeger Made Me Understand How Far Behind Enemy Lines I Was Living’

Illustration by ALEX FINE

DAVE MARSH: If nothing else, Pete Seeger made me understand how far behind enemy lines I was living—he showed me the road that had to be traveled, if I really wanted to live. He did this the same way that James Baldwin and Elvis Presley and John Coltrane did it: by example, and with the same generosity and the same sense that the world was packed with a load of insurmountable cruelty and that, nevertheless, the truth was that something better had managed to survive within it. Which meant, for each of us, a choice and a chance.

It may even be that Seeger, whose rectitude often communicated, at least to me, a whiff of the Puritanism he inherited, offered a more direct route to this not-at-all specious salvation of spirit and society than anybody else, and for the oddest reason: He thought smaller. He genuinely believed that one more singer, one more non-violent resister, one more example of gumption and love, one more song, one more guitar, was an important thing. And, this I am sure about, he genuinely believed that that was mainly what he, himself, was: One more.

That, and nothing more meek, was why Pete Seeger eschewed the celebrity path. (Ask yourself this: If Burl Ives could become a big star looking like that, what could the young Pete Seeger have become if he’d just given over a few names?) Pete could seem innocent but you’d be a fool to believe it. He paid the price and he had seen the bill coming, too. MORE

PREVIOUSLY: It’s no accident that you don’t really know what Pete Seeger did. That he’s truly larger than life, an American original, the kind that walk out of storybooks, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, but more real. That he more or less singlehandedly carried the burden of pure roll-up-your-sleeves and speak-truth-to-power lefty populism, social justice and humanitarian conscience on his back for the better part of the 20th Century, with amazing grace and without complaint. For his trouble he’s been tarred and feathered as a commie rat, beaten and blacklisted, and officially written out of history text books.

In the hunched autumn of his life — he’s now 87 — he’s wandered in the same off-the-radar wilderness of hush puppy gentility that Jimmy Carter’s been exiled to, where nobody really listens and no good deed goes unpunished. For reasons that remain unclear, Jesus Christ is considered a savior and guys like Pete Seeger are considered fools — well-meaning possibly but unrealistic granola-munching ninnies just the same — even though their morality and politics are exactly the same. Maybe some day, when the Matrix is finally unplugged, the scales will fall from our eyes. Sure he can be stick-in-the-mud and a fuss budget about interpretation, and it’s true he did get fightin’ mad when Dylan went electric. Boy, if Seeger had a hammer that day, well, thinks would be a lot different. Still, that was a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. It’s time for Americana’s Obi-wan to pass his burden to a younger Jedi.

On We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, The Boss assembles a non-E Street magic band of jolly folkateers and mans the captain’s wheel, barking out orders, making up arrangements on the fly — all the songs recorded live literally in the living room, no rehearsal, just hit “record” and let’s go — and steers his wooden ship towards the same rockets red glare twilight so palpable on Wilco/Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue series. The result is easily the best Springsteen album, E-Street Band or no E-Street band, since Nebraska. MORE


THE ATLANTIC: “What’s good about folk music,” wrote Pete Seeger in a 1974 issue of Sing Out! magazine, “is that it is not show business. … It should be the fiddle or guitar, bongo drum or harmonica that’s brought out after supper dishes are cleared away and families make their own music, rather than switching on the magic screen.” But for a brief period in the mid-1960s, Seeger hosted his own program on the “magic screen.” The show was called Rainbow Quest (named after a line in one of Seeger’s songs). Despite the colorful title, it was filmed in black and white, in a New Jersey studio with no audience, and broadcast over a Spanish-language UHF station. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, was listed in the credits as “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.” Even with this bare-bones production, Seeger clearly found the new medium disorienting. “You know, I’m like a blind man, looking out through this little magic screen,” he said at the start of the first episode, gazing awkwardly into the camera. “And I—I don’t know if you see me. I know I can’t see you.” Over the next 10 minutes, he alternated between noodling gorgeously on his banjo and explaining his distrust of the “little box” that sat in every American living room, killing ambition, romance, and human interaction. But then he started talking about Huddie Ledbetter and giving his invisible audience an impromptu 12-string guitar lesson. And then the Clancy Brothers showed up in their big woolly sweaters and performed a rousing set of Irish tunes. At that point, Seeger seemed to settle into his comfort zone—a  state of natural curiosity and delight. MORE

PETE SEEGER’S RAINBOW QUEST: Feat. Johnny Cash & June Carter