Pete Seeger: An American Icon and a Hero

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Pete Seeger Taught Me We Only Move Forward When We All Pull Together

Pete Seeger died Monday night after being hospitalized in New York for six days. He was 94.

Few are more iconic and deserving of a tribute than Pete Seeger. At 93, this man long known as “America’s tuning fork” seems more visible than ever, the object of veneration around the globe, and is featured on a bevy of new CDs and DVDs. Like the just released album A More Perfect Union, which features 14 co-written new songs and guest vocalists Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Emmylou Harris, and Dar Williams.

Given that this American hero was actively blacklisted for years, kept off of TV and radio, his albums sometimes never even shipped out of the factories to stores, it’s a profound and welcome shift for our culture. Because Pete Seeger, besides being a songwriter of several classic American songs, such as “If I Had A Hammer,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” is also an authentic historic link to the tradition of American popular music of the 20th century as created and developed with cohorts Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, Malvina Reynolds, Lee Hays and the rest.

“All songwriters are links in a chain,” Pete said many times. It’s a foundational quote used a multitude of times since by those who understood him, and is the core to the book Songwriters On Songwriting: that despite genre, generation, style or format, and despite the music industry’s need to segregate songwriters and musicians into separate bins for maximum marketing potential, all songwriters are connected. And all songwriters build on that which came before, so that Woody’s stream of brilliance triggered Pete’s tuneful poetry, which in turn greatly influenced Bob Dylan, whose work impacted Lennon and the Beatles, and so on. It is all connected, and it’s a connection that continues forever, and remarkably not without the presence of Pete Seeger still living in our world.

The man never sold out. It’s true that he lived in a handmade house in upstate Beacon, New York, with his wife of many decades, Toshi, where he chopped wood throughout the winter to warm his home. Last time I saw him – he was 90 – he carried both his banjo and his 12-string on his back and strode tall and long as Lincoln through bustling, brisk Manhattan. Although he hero-ized his old pal Woody Guthrie for years in his books and columns he’s written, Pete’s lived the more saintly life by far. While Woody walked out on more than one family more than once, Pete never abandoned his wife or kids, even when the blacklist made it hard to get good work. “I always made a living,” he said, but his sorrow at being so castigated seems never far, considering his magnitude of love for America and his traditions. He’s always been more than a popular entertainer. Like his dad, Charles Seeger, he’s a musicologist, in love with the music and traditions of this and all countries, and quite adept at expounding in great depth about the specificities of indigenous music throughout the globe, and the folk-process that allowed it to brew and expand here and abroad.

He’s also a man of some myth, still infamously blamed for threatening to axe Bob Dylan’s electric cords at Newport to keep the folk legend from “going electric.” It’s wildly untrue: Pete was simply disturbed that the mix – which was awful – made it so nobody could hear the brilliance of Dylan’s words. Pete was a champion of Bob’s songwriting from the start, elevating him to legendary status by performing and recording countless Dylan classics like “A Hard Rain

’s A-Gonna Fall.” When Bob was interviewed, as soon as Pete’s name was breathed, Dylan said, “He’s a great man, Pete Seeger,” and has referred to him as a “living saint.” It stems from Dylan’s recognition that to Pete – as it was to Woody – these songs mean a whole lot more than a way to make a buck. They were truly folk songs – songs of the people – songs of hope and compassion, songs of trials, tribulations but also triumphs. Songs of the unions, of the working men. Songs of change. Bob, like Pete and Woody, recognized a solemn obligation to the world as a songwriter that was about the truth more than it was about popular entertainment. “See, to Pete and Woody,” Dylan said, “the airwaves were sacred. And if they’d hear something false, it was on the airwaves that were sacred. Their songs weren’t false.”

Pete’s never lived a false moment, even when the world tried to sway him. When his group The Weavers had pop success with chart-topping versions of Pete and Leadbelly’s “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” for example, he’d refuse to stay at the fancy hotels with his bandmates, preferring to sleep on a friend’s couch. Even now into his 10th decade, he still protests the wars and other evils in the winter winds on New York thoroughfares.

So this era of people like Bruce Springsteen celebrating both the reality and the legend that is Pete Seeger is a beautiful if unexpected development in American culture. But it all makes sense. He’s the guy who did, after all, adapt the verses from Ecclesiastes (in his song “Turn,Turn, Turn”) that instructs with timeless wisdom, “To everything there is a purpose, and a time, under heaven.”

Songwriters On Songwriting by writer Paul Zollo features 62 interviews with legendary songwriters. The first interview with Pete Seeger is the very first chapter of the book.

Published on Sep 21, 2013
Pete Seeger performs “This Land is Your Land” with Farm Aid board artists John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and Neil Young live at the Farm Aid concert in Saratoga Springs, NY on September 21, 2013. Farm Aid was started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to keep family farmers on the land and has worked since then to make sure everyone has access to good food from family farmers. Dave Matthews joined Farm Aid’s board of directors in 2001.
For more information about Farm Aid, visit:

Woody Guthrie: I Am Out To Fight Those Songs To My Very Last Breath Of Air And My Last Drop Of Blood.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In August 2012, The New York Times announced that the Kennedy Center will be throwing a centennial party for Woody Guthrie in October, “a star-studded concert with tickets topping out at $175. It was America’s ultimate tribute to a beloved troubadour, wrote the New York Times. “Through his unique music, words and style,” the Kennedy Center says, “Guthrie was able to bring attention and understanding to the critical issues of his day.”

Poor Woody. The life and music of America’s great hobo prophet, its Dust Bowl balladeer, boiled down to this: He brought attention to the critical issues of his day, wrote Lawrence Downes in his magnificent article As Woody Turns 100, We Protest Too Little.

“Maybe that’s what happens to dissidents who are dead long enough. They are reborn for folk tales and children’s books and PBS pledge drives. They become safe enough for the Postal Service. For a man who fought all his life against being respectable, this comes as a stunning defeat, Arlo Guthrie said in 1998, when his father was put on a 32-cent stamp.”

In another article published in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen writes: “Oklahoma has always had a troubled relationship with her native son Woody Guthrie. The communist sympathies of America’s balladeer infuriated local detractors. In 1999 a wealthy donor’s objections forced the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City to cancel a planned exhibition on Guthrie organized by the Smithsonian Institution. It wasn’t until 2006, nearly four decades after his death, that the Oklahoma Hall of Fame got around to adding him to its ranks.”

But as places from California to the New York island get ready to celebrate the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, Cohen writes, in 2012, Oklahoma is finally ready to welcome him home. The George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa plans to announce this week that it is buying the Guthrie archives from his children and building an exhibition and study center to honor his legacy.

At the time that Cohen’s article was published, Forbes magazine ranked Mr. Kaiser as the richest man in Oklahoma and No. 31 on its Forbes 400 list.

“The archive includes the astonishing creative output of Guthrie during his 55 years. There are scores of notebooks and diaries written in his precise handwriting and illustrated with cartoons, watercolors, stickers and clippings; hundreds of letters; 581 artworks; a half-dozen scrapbooks; unpublished short stories, novels and essays; as well as the lyrics to the 3,000 or more songs he scribbled on scraps of paper, gift wrap, napkins, paper bags and place mats, Cohen wrote. “Much of the material has rarely or never been seen in public, including the lyrics to most of the songs. Guthrie could not write musical notation, so the melodies have been lost.”

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (July 14, 1912 – October 3, 1967) is best known as an American singer-songwriter and folk musician, whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children’s songs, ballads and improvised works. He frequently performed with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is “This Land Is Your Land.” Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton have acknowledged Guthrie as a major influence.

Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues songs. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Throughout his life Guthrie was associated with United States communist groups, though he was seemingly not a member of any.

Guthrie was married three times and fathered eight children, including american folk musician Arlo Guthrie. He is the grandfather of musician Sarah Lee Guthrie. Woody died from complications of Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder. During his later years, in spite of his illness, Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan.

Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

Arriving in New York, Guthrie, known as “the Oklahoma cowboy,” was embraced by its leftist folk music community. For a time, he slept on a couch in Will Geer’s apartment. Guthrie made his first recordings—several hours of conversation and songs recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress—as well as an album, Dust Bowl Ballads, for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey.

Guthrie was tired of the radio overplaying Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent. Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for “God Bless America,” he wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” in February 1940; it was subtitled “God Blessed America for Me.” The melody is adapted from an old gospel song, “Oh My Loving Brother.” This was best known as “When The World’s On Fire,” sung by the country group The Carter Family. Guthrie signed the manuscript with the comment, “All you can write is what you see, Woody G., N.Y., N.Y., N.Y.” He protested against class inequality in the fourth and sixth verses:

WGF_Poster_11x17As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said “no trespassing.”
[In another version, the sign reads “Private Property”]
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

These verses were often omitted in subsequent recordings, sometimes by Guthrie. Although the song was written in 1940, it was four years before he recorded it for Moses Asch in April 1944. Sheet music was produced and given to schools by Howie Richmond sometime later.

In March 1940, Guthrie was invited to play at a benefit hosted by The John Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers, to raise money for migrant workers. There he met the folksinger Pete Seeger, and the two men became good friends.

Guthrie had some success in New York at this time as a guest on CBS’s radio program Back Where I Come From and used his influence to get a spot on the show for his friend Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Ledbetter’s Tenth Street apartment was a gathering spot for the leftwing musician circle in New York at the time, and Guthrie and Ledbetter were good friends, as they had busked together at bars in Harlem.

By the late 1940s, Guthrie’s health was declining, and his behavior was becoming extremely erratic. He received various diagnoses (including alcoholism and schizophrenia), but in 1952, it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder inherited from his mother. Believing him to be a danger to their children, Marjorie suggested he return to California without her; they eventually divorced.

Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscles, was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital from 1956 to 1961, at Brooklyn State Hospital until 1966, and finally at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center until his death. Marjorie and the children visited Guthrie at Greystone every Sunday. They answered fan mail and played on the hospital grounds. Eventually a longtime fan of Guthrie invited the family to his nearby home for the Sunday visits. This lasted until Guthrie was moved to the Brooklyn State Hospital, which was closer to where Marjorie lived.

Guthrie’s illness was essentially untreated, because of a lack of information about the disease. His death helped raise awareness of the disease and led Marjorie to help found the Committee to Combat Huntington’s Disease, which became the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of young people were inspired by folk singers including Guthrie. These “folk revivalists” became more politically aware in their music than those of the previous generation. The American Folk Revival was beginning to take place, focused on the issues of the day, such as the civil rights movement and free speech movement. Pockets of folk singers were forming around the country in places such as Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. One of Guthrie’s visitors at Greystone Park was the 19-year-old Bob Dylan who idolized Guthrie. Dylan wrote of Guthrie’s repertoire: “The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” After learning of Guthrie’s whereabouts, Dylan regularly visited him.

Guthrie died of complications of Huntington’s disease on October 3, 1967. By the time of his death, his work had been discovered by a new audience, introduced to them in part through Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, his ex-wife Marjorie and other new members of the folk revival, and his son Arlo.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times
More about Woody in Wikipedia:

Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land: