Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Folkobit: Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, American legend and folk singer, has died.

The New York Times obituary explains how he was a one-man timeline of the American left:

He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

USA Today pointed out his unique double, which hopefully will never be repeated:
Seeger is the only singer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who was convicted of contempt of Congress. In 1955, he refused to testify about his past membership in the Communist Party. (He later said he quit the party in 1949 and "should have left much earlier. It was stupid of me not to...I thought Stalin was the brave secretary Stalin and had no idea how cruel a leader he was.")
The LA Times captured why folk music attracted the young Seeger:
Seeger fell in love with the old-fashioned five-string banjo. "I liked the rhythms," he said. "I liked the melodies, time-tested by generations of singers." Above all, he said, he liked the words.

"Compared to the trivialities of most popular songs, the words of these songs had all the meat of human life in them," Seeger said. "They sang of heroes, outlaws, murderers, fools. They weren't afraid of being tragic instead of just sentimental.... Above all, they seemed frank, straightforward, honest."
Volksrant remembered that Seeger was passionate to the end:
He continued to write songs, targeting world leaders and environmental pollution, such as in 2010, with a song about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
How did he see his role? The New York Times went for a simple quote:
“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”
USA Today, though, went with one that had a bit more nuance to it:
"Songs won't save the planet," Seeger told his biographer David Dunlap, author of How Can I Keep From Singing? "But, then, neither will books or speeches...Songs are sneaky things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons." He liked to quote Plato: "Rulers should be careful about what songs are allowed to be sung."
On Sunday night, Stephen Colbert beat Seeger to the Grammy in the best spoken word category.

Seeger was 94; he died from natural causes in New York.


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