Pete Seeger: fighting back with music

May 20, 1998


Pete Seeger: fighting back with music

By Tom Bridges

“I had a beautiful long-necked banjo, the 'Pete Seeger' model ... and I played it constantly. I had a sweetheart too, who gave me a Pete Seeger album for my birthday ... At last Pete Seeger came to Chicago's Orchestra Hall, and spread wide his arms as we sang to him, and it changed me. It was thirty years ago, and I have not changed back.” — Robert Cantwell, When we were good: the folk revival.


There are many lives that have been irreversibly changed by the now 80-year-old Pete Seeger. Maurie Mulheron's loving attempt to chart this influence in his documentary play, One Word ... We!: Pete Seeger and Friends, is being staged at the Teachers' Federation auditorium in Sydney this Saturday (May 23). It has been revived for one night only, to benefit the Maritime Union.

Mulheron's title is well chosen. If Seeger's message could be reduced to its simplest form, it would be in the transformation of “I Shall Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome”, “the wonderful first-person plural” that Seeger often extols.

Group activity is for Seeger the marrow of human existence. It's the only way things change (for the better); it generates positive, even joyful, feelings; and it sets up the clearest model for demonstrating that all human difference is underwritten by our similarities and subsumed under common interest.

It's in music that Seeger sees all the manifold meanings and experiences of “we” come to exquisite fruition:

“The most important thing is to get together ... It's this word 'share' I keep coming back to in my concerts all the time; I think it's more important than 'love' ... I have the feeling that music is able to do something that prose and pictures haven't been able to do.”

Seeger came from a privileged background, but saw injustice all around him, becoming a member of the Communist Party. He was never an ideologue. His radicalism, derived from his New England Puritan heritage, was grounded on simple antipathies — a hatred of greed and waste, and a love of ordinary people.

He sang in the '40s for Communists “because they were idealists, the hardest working and most honest people in sight at a time when the world seemed to be going crazy” (Donald Clarke, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music).

When Seeger's quartet the Weavers unexpectedly hit the commercial bullseye in the early 1950s, its members attracted the attention of the thugs in Congress and were black-listed.

Armed with five-string banjo and an inexhaustible store of songs, Seeger began to fight back. Deeply trusting that the fundamental democracy implicit in folk music would seep through, he travelled from one meeting hall or college campus to another, often coming and going before local patriots could organise to keep him out.

As he sang to his audiences his multifarious songs of hope, they unfailingly would find themselves moved to sing with him.

Although almost pathologically self-effacing, Seeger owns straightforwardly to the significance of this phase of his career, in 1993 describing it as “probably the most important job of music I'll ever do ... [By] the early '60s my job was done.” Says Tom Paxton of this “job of music”:

“It isn't possible for me to overstate the influence of Pete Seeger upon me and every musician of my generation. I began to hear him ... in the late '50s and I was struck immediately by his accessibility, his complete lack of pretence and his clear message that said, not 'look at me' but 'listen to this'. The message also contained the imperative: 'Go and do likewise'.”

Seeger has always responded to such assessments as either exaggerated or unwarranted. He redirects credit to those who have influenced him: Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Lee Hays; and of course the common people of and from all ages, represented by that most eclectic and prolific of singer-songwriters, Trad. A self-evaluation he often makes is simply “a link in the chain”.

But what a link.

The man himself once said, “My main purpose as a musician is to put songs on people's lips, not just in their ear”. Every personal testimony, every informed estimation, every individual debt of gratitude and/or influence, ratifies this stated goal.

Add yourselves as links to the chain — get to the Teachers Federation auditorium on Saturday night. Tickets are $30 ($20 concession). Book on 9287 2100.

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