Soundtrack of My Life: The music of Pete Seeger

This American Masters embedded above pretty much says it all…

Some music you listen to in your life can either be background noise or the basis of all you hold near and dear.

The last few weeks have put a damper on my project, and I will catch up (I have over 100 songs already listed, waiting for posts to be built around them and edited). Work and the lack of a working computer have made it harder than I would like to even put two hundred words together.  And then this.

Pete Seeger was 94, and logic dictates to me that 94 is an advanced age many people will never even get to see, and that Pete Seeger was an incredibly lucky man for it. I’m not a fantasist, I know 94 is old.

I doesn’t mean that one of my personal heroes and moral guideposts is allowed to die.

It’s the same denial that fueled me during my mother’s illness.No matter how bad it got, how dire it seemed, I refused to believe the inevitable. Flat out blissful denial. Yeah, it did bite me in the ass when she died, and it took a decade plus to recover. And recover is a word I use loosely here.

It’s a ridiculous, narcissistic thing to demand your heroes live forever. It’s purely because you refuse to let go.

Pete Seeger is one of those artists that seemed unseemly while being prevalent. My parents certainly disagreed with his politics, while i embraced many of the same ideas. Yes, Seeger was a communist, and to the end he affirmed his belief in the socialist utopian ideal, but he acknowledged his failings in not questioning the Soviet regime more and the failings of the system as practiced in the 20th century. He was a millionaire in reality, buoyed by his success as a songwriter and a speaker. He was crucial in bringing folk music to the masses, but made money off the back of poor itinerant bluesmen who often died penniless. This was not his doing, nor did he feel comfortable with the idea. But the Weavers made “Goodnight, Irene” a standard, even if Leadbelly sings the definitive version. He was blacklisted and stood his ground when confronted by HUAC. He never wavered from his leftist ideology, firmly believing in a pacifist, equal society. His work for worker’s rights and civil rights is legendary. He was born into middle class comfort, the son of a musician mother and a renowned musicologist and professor father, the stepson of a renowned composer, the elder half-brother of a folk singing heroine and muse for one the greatest songs of all time. He was a husband and father, and a grandfather. He loved and was loved by his family, and adored by music fans from Bruce Springsteen to me and my daughters.

Mostly, he wrote songs that meant something.

He changed one word to make a spiritual civil rights anthem accessible instead of confrontational. He took one of the last poems of a Cuban revolutionary and created one of the most beloved folk songs of the 20th century. He wrote “If I Had A Hammer”, damn it! He took a bible verse and put it to music! He was inspired and friends with Woody Guthrie, and inspired artists from Dylan to Springsteen. He recorded silly children’s songs (his “Froggie Went A-Courtin'” remains a favourite of mine).  His music covered it all- love, memory, politics,  hope. His roots as a musicologists son aided him, as he reached deep into the recesses of both American and British folk to bring to the front many songs lost to the larger public. Many of those folk songs were anti-war, pro-worker, and deeply spiritual.  He had exquisite taste in what he recorded, wrote and shared. The world is a better place for him being in it, regardless of what you believe of his politics and what some people have said about the hypocrisy of his life. He was genuinely a good man, and a great musician.

I could go on and on about the songs of Pete Seeger, but I’m going to just link to them below. All I can say is that my musical education and my enjoyment of the folk music genre hinges on what Pete Seeger played. He made a staid genre accessible, and inspired a generation to take up his cause using the same music. He made a difference.



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