Tuesday, January 28, 2014

So long. It's been good to know you. Bye, Mr. Pete.

"Weavers Rebellion" Kathe Kollwitz

Pete Seeger died early this morning I suppose. Sometime in the wee hours of the night the old man slept. I shall miss him. Certain people form part of the overall landscape in our lives. Though our lives might only be connected through some work, they still form part of our lives. I grew up listening to the Weavers. By the time I came along in 67 his trouble with the government had passed. He was no longer under threat of incarceration. An avowed leftist, but not without regrets for his naivete in regards to Stalin, he was still a patriot and served his country in war as well as peace. He went to the South Pacific as a mechanic at first, but when they discovered his banjo he was promptly put to work entertaining the troops. He grew up a privileged life but the condition of humanity was in his songs. Much like Kollwitz took the plight of the working class people who lived in her time and made art, Pete gave them a song to sing. Pete was man of his moment and bore it with humility. Consider the triad of Guthrie, Seeger and Lomax that met in 1940. I don't think it is a stretch to say that during that meeting  parts of rock and roll and parts of country music and parts of protest politics  were born. This renaissance of American Folk music (which isn't really ours to begin with but are bits and pieces of other places we brought here) had its birth in this meeting. The Kingston Trio, the Weavers, Peter, Paul and Mary, a thousand marches and songs of protest, a million people and a million voices time and time again were born in those days. The haters did not know it was coming for them. The song of millions. Surrounding their hatred with hope of song. 
This troublesome gift of art. 

I don't suppose it is necessary to go through his entire biography: of how he was a communist and marched with MLK.  Unashamed to be called a leftist, he did not plead the Fifth and would not snitch on his friends. The history is well documented and the transcripts are available. I'd rather talk about his humility and the gift of song. 

I have looked once or twice to see who said "Let who will write my country's laws, only let me write her songs." I think Pete understood that idea. He certainly reinforced that concept in the American consciousness. When he told MLK he needed a song and "We Shall Overcome" was at hand it was like water on a thirsty tree. That song and songs like it have been and continue to be the armor of protest. Sung in capitols and streets they protect and embolden the protester. They enrage and confound the hatred. While Woodie Guthrie's machine declared it killed fascists, Pete's banjo surrounded hate and forced it to surrender. 

Johnny Cash explaining to Pete how he wanted him on his show. This is 1970. It took some doing on the part of Mr.Cash to get him on there. 

I see troll comments will probably appear for the man today. I don't think they will be worse than what he heard in marches before. I expect he had that word on his banjo for a reason. He understood how music affects people and taps into their being. I think all artists realize that. Their effort is to do that for you and me and everybody on the planet. In Pete's case it was awareness of your world.
 Of the plight of our fellow human beings,
 of solidarity in the face of hatred and oppression,
 of peace instead of war, 
of life and its precious existence.

 I would like to think his songs will live on for many generations to come. That the ideas expressed in them will continue to influence the singers and songwriters yet to be born. I consider him one of the gifts of human beings to each other. There won't be many like him in our history, a bard of the ages.