Pete Seeger outlived all of the people who spent their lifetimes trying to destroy him.
If you are one of the three people in this country who haven’t yet read the formal obituaries, you can find them everywhere. What you’ll find here is the dreary story that the ancestors of today’s tea baggers thought of him, and what they tried and failed to do.
Seeger, dead at 94, has long since lost his stick-on rep as an Enemy of the People and become something between a cult figure and an icon. After his wife Toshi died last year, everyone knew his days were numbered. At his age just being is a life-threatening condition.
Yes, he popularized and maybe even invented a type of banjo that became the emblem of the folk era.
Yes, he was a hard left winger, born with a silver spoon, ivy educated. Yes he was in show business, and that “old woodsman” act was not an act. But he also was sophisticated, complex and driven.
And one of his record albums was the spark that jump-started the folk music era of the 1950s.
By late 1955, most of the Malign Pete Festival was starting to die down and when he, as one of The Weavers performed at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard recorded it -- risky -- and distributed it early in 1956. It’s still in print and still selling.
A couple of years later he did a solo gig in the same auditorium, also recorded and it, too became a best-seller.
But earlier, life was tough.
Seeger was champion of the little guy and the underdog. Organized labor, desegregation. He was as anti war as it got.
You can’t see the Hudson River from his house in Beacon NY, but you could smell it before the Seegers founded and funded the Clearwater, a sloop and floating reminder in its infancy of how rotten the river was. Later it has become a floating reminder that if you get together and push, you can get some action.
Before and during the “red scare” of the 1940s and 50s, he found himself blacklisted, out of work -- other than testifying in his own defense before the House Un American Activities Committee and its lunatic chairman, Francis Walter (D-PA).
Here’s some light reading from the book “Red Channels,” which purported to detect and disclose Communists in Radio and Television:
To be clear, the “Wallace” referred to was Henry Wallace, 35th vice president of the United States and Progressive Party candidate for President in 1948.
With a resume like that, you can expect to get work… nowhere.
Further reading? No one knew him better than Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo. Here’s Arlo’s Facebook page and notes on their last conversation, only hours before Pete became “dead but not gone.”
So Pete Seeger outlived those who lived to kill him. And his music remains with us and will for as long as there is an “us.”
Does anyone remember anything that Francis Walter said or did?
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
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© WJR 2014