In the middle of the night, I woke up and then had trouble getting back to sleep, so as I often do, I turned on my clock radio so that it could lull me back into slumber. At the top of the hour, when the news came on, I heard the report that Pete Seeger had died. I had a lot of respect for Pete Seeger, and he had a big influence on my life.
In the early 1960’s I became enamored with folk music. There was a show on television I watched every Saturday night, called “Hootenanny” that featured a variety of folk singers from university performances. I loved the songs, their melodies, instruments, history, and sentiments. I ordered myself a banjo from the Sears catalogue, and formed a folk singing group at my high school. I bought folk albums and folk magazines.
In them, articles often referred to Pete Seeger, I knew some of his songs, “Blowin in the Wind”, and “Turn, Turn, Turn”, but I never got to see him or hear him play at the time--he was banned and blacklisted and as a result, could not appear on radio or TV.
Later, as the Vietnam War began to devour American youth, I began to hear mention of Pete Seeger again, this time for his protests against the slaughter. It wasn’t until 1968, when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers TV show (and got censored for singing an anti-Vietnam war song), did I actually get to see and hear him sing.
Pete Seeger spent his life fighting against racial injustice, political injustice, and environmental injustice. While he was blacklisted in the 1950’s, and found it very difficult to make a living, he did folk music workshops at summer camps for kids. When these kids grew up and went to university, they took the songs and their guitars with them and that is what started the whole folk revival in the 1960‘s.
That in turn, led to a whole explosion of singer songwriters in the folk vein (Bob Dylan, John Prine, and later, folk rock groups like, The Byrds, and the Eagles), and songs that had lyrics that meant something--the music that I love. (Pete Seeger was so upset when Dylan started playing electric guitar at a folk concert that it is said he used an ax to cut the power.)
A few years ago, PBS did a show on Pete Seeger in their American Masters series. I was touched to learn that early in his life, Pete Seeger left the city and bought some land and built himself a house out in the woods, and thought of the forest as his religion--a man after my own heart.
Tonight at our jam session I will suggest “Goodnight, Irene,” a song Pete Seeger made famous, as a tribute to a musical giant and a admirable man.