Celebrating Pete Seeger


 

Our songs are like you and me, the product of a long human chain…
—Pete Seeger

Ever since the radical tradition of American folk music incubated in
the 1930s, a loosely defined, loosely tied "folk music community" has inspired
strains of popular music linked to radical politics and struggles for social justice. In
musical forms such as blues, gospel, work songs, traditional ballads and old-time country
sounds, left-wing musicians, and activists have discovered and cultivated authentic
"people’s music" giving voice to the experiences of ordinary men and women.

The progressive social tradition embedded in American folk music is,
however, much more than a body of songs or musical style. The folk community has long been
defined by certain attitudes about how music should be made. In "true" folk
music there are no superstar celebrities or hits, no big distinctions between performers
and audience, no elaborate musical productions. Folk places emphasis on lyrics and the
human voice. Its subject matter is the totality of real life. The aesthetic measure of
quality is more emotional honesty than musical technique. In sum, the left folk tradition
is explicitly opposed to the conventions of "commercial" or mass music making.

At the end of the 20th century with historical amnesia rampant, no
popular political rebellion on the horizon, and so many of the songs of Woody Guthrie and
Leadbelly circulating in the mainstream of American cultural life, it is difficult to
recall a time when folksingers or folk music could be considered subversive or worthy of
repression. But with the release of the double CD compilation Where Have All The Flowers
Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger (Appleseed Recordings), the music of one of the great torch
bearers of alternative music making renews the spirit of radical song.

Celebrating Seeger’s remarkable six-decade career as a
folksinger/activist, Where Have All The Flowers Gone draws together a broad array of
progressive minded musicians to perform songs and poems Seeger has penned or sung in his
efforts to chronicle a people’s history through music and encourage the struggles of
labor, anti-war and civil rights movements, environmentalists, and any number of other
fights against injustice. Well known performers such as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt,
Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Roger McGuinn, Ani Difranco, and
actor Tim Robbins are on hand to pay homage and draw attention to the Seeger legacy.

But the 39 performances on this deeply moving collection also pulls
in a sterling cast of lesser known multicultural activist artists from around the globe
and across generations. Author Studs Terkel and singer Ronnie Gilbert (a Seeger colleague
in the Weavers) are among the elders. Sweet Honey In The Rock, Guy Davis, Tish Hinojosa,
and John Trudell bring the sounds of black gospel, blues, Mexican folk, and spoken word to
the program. The international delegation includes Tommy Sands and Delores Keane
(Ireland), cellist Vedran Smailovic (Bosnia), Dick Gaughan (Scotland), Bruce Cockburn
(Canada), and Billy Bragg (England).

One of Pete Seeger’s great contributions to the folk world has been
his ability to unearth traditional songs along with their social and historical roots.
Viewing song as a bridge to other times, other cultures, and a vibrant connection between
the past and present, he then brings to his concert performances a masterful weave of
anecdotes and music evoking a common humanity and shared social vision. On Where Have All
The Flowers Gone, the stories behind the songs are provided by liner note comments by
Seeger, various artists, and producer Jim Musselman. While the humor and generous
humanitarian spirit of Seeger’s live shows is missed, the song performances are
consistently strong and imbued with the conviction and integrity associated with the
Seeger name.

The stunning title track opens disc one, with Belfast singer/peace
worker Tommy Sands and the legendary Irish vocalist Dolores Keane blending their voices in
a quiet, anguished prayer for peace against a vocal backdrop of Catholic and Protestant
school children, haunting uillean pipes and accordion, and the mournful cello of Vedran
Smailovic. Though not well known in the U.S., Smailovic gained worldwide attention when he
refused to stop playing his cello on the streets of Sarajevo after his opera theater was
destroyed and 22 of his neighbors died from a mortar attack. Asked by a CNN reporter if he
was crazy for playing music with bombs falling, Smailovic replied, "You ask me am I
crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are crazy for shelling
Sarajevo?"

Such a poignant performance sets a high standard for everything that
follows, but this is an album loaded with inspiring, heartfelt music. The everlasting hymn
of hope, "We Shall Overcome," is interpreted with stirring dignity by Bruce
Springsteen. Ani Difranco’s restrained rendering of "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage"
(the true story of a woman who stopped a Vietnam bound shipment of napalm by refusing to
leave a loading platform), and Dick Gaughan’s angry take on the anti-Vietnam "Waist
Deep In The Big Muddy" burn with timeless relevance. With an eerie vocal mix and
drums and guitars crackling, the Indigo Girls translate the biblically inspired
"Letter To Eve" as a feminist anthem for peace. Santee Sioux poet/activist John
Trudell delivers a tough, personalized rendering of "The Torn Flag," nailing
hypocrisies and broken promises to a tarnished symbol of freedom.

Other highlights such as the reggae flavored duet of Jackson Browne
and Bonnie Raitt on "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"; John Gorka’s melodic, delicate
singing on "The Water Is Wide"; Studs Terkel’s readings of "Oh Sacred
World" and "Blessed Be The Nation"; Greg Brown’s loving version of
"Sailing Down My Golden River"; and the profound soulfulness of Odetta on
"One Grain Of Sand," suggest the enormous scope and versatility of Seeger’s
writing. However, even with nearly two and a half hours of music, Where Have All The
Flower Gone is still a slim introduction to the Seeger heritage.

Born in New York City in 1919 to musicologist Charles Seeger and
concert violinist Constance Edson Seeger, Pete Seeger discovered his musical interest
early on, picking up ukulele, guitar, and banjo by his teenage years and finding, at age
15, a developing interest in folk music. After a brief two years at Harvard, he dropped
out of college in 1938, wandering about New England painting barns and houses, touring New
York state with a puppeteer troupe, and joining with other musicians playing concerts and
rallies in support of a dairy farmers union. After a short stint as an assistant to
folklorist Alan Lomax, then organizing a Library of Congress Archive Of American Folk
Songs, Seeger’s life took a decisive turn.

In 1940, when he hooked up with Woody Guthrie in New York after
performing at a benefit in support of California migrant farm workers, Seeger’s politics
were socialist and he was intent on advancing his views through music. In Guthrie he had a
kindred spirit and together they took off across the country paying their way with
"the music of the people." After splitting up, Seeger continued hoboing by
himself, along the way polishing performance skills, absorbing songs, and writing a few of
his own. By 1941, with Guthrie, Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, he had formed the Almanac
Singers to fuse traditional folk music with social protest focused on contemporary issues.
The group performed at union rallies and leftist fundraisers and recorded two albums,
Songs For John Doe and Talking Union And Other Union Songs, before disbanding shortly
after the United States entered World War II.

Drafted into the army in 1942 and serving in the Pacific, Seeger
continued to collect traditional American songs of all kinds. Following the war, he helped
launch Sing Out! The Folk Magazine to encourage social protest and the folk revival. The
key turning point for the folk movement, however, occurred in 1948 when Seeger, Lee Hays,
Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman convened the Weavers. Within three years the folk
quartet sold four million records, while popularizing Leadbelly’s "Goodnight
Irene," Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land," and the South African song
"Wimoweh" (appearing on Where Have All The Flowers Gone in a 1980 version
recorded at a Weavers reunion concert).

In the wake of McCarthyism, the fortunes of the Weavers changed
drastically. Finding themselves blacklisted from radio, television, and many concert
halls, the group broke up in 1953. Seeger continued to record as a solo artist on Moe
Asch’s Folkways label, but in 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Committee On Un-American
Activities. While offering to discuss his songs or perform for the committee so that they
might better understand his work, he cited the First Amendment and refused to talk about
his politics. Though his conviction for Contempt of Congress was overturned by higher
courts in 1961, Seeger was effectively blacklisted from the mass media for 17 years.

Nonetheless, with the folk revival and political turmoil of the
1960s, cover versions of Seeger songs ("If I Had A Hammer," "Where Have All
The Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Bells Of Rhymney") became
chart toppers. With his appearances on college campuses, and at civil rights and anti-war
demonstrations, he was again on the front lines of social change, becoming in the process
a cultural hero of unquestioned integrity. Decades later, constant touring and crusading
have kept that image intact. His songs have traveled over the face of the earth provoking
empathy, compassion, thought, and resistance. With a steady output of recordings, he has
produced a rich and vast catalog of traditional songs that stands as a national treasure.

Skimming through Seeger’s discography, one will find collections of
children’s songs, love songs, frontier ballads, civil war tunes, Christmas carols,
Leadbelly and Guthrie songs, blues, banjo instruction, nature songs, industrial protest
ballads, Bantu choral folk songs, old time fiddle tunes, and numerous other gems imparting
hidden or forgotten people’s history. With this huge body of work in mind, Appleseed
Recordings founder Jim Musselman promises to release at least another two volumes of
Seeger material.

Though much of his work (including classic live performances)
remains in print, the varied interpretations of his songs on Where Have All The Flowers
Gone demonstrate the enduring vitality of his music and message. Whether dressed in the
"epic theatre" tradition of Bertolt Brecht, the plain garments of traditional
folk, or the multicolored hues of rock, jazz, and gospel, Seeger’s "sound" is
humanity. Though he is a teacher of a brand of American history not taught in schools and
a living link to a legendary community of singers (Paul Robeson, Earl Robinson, Aunt Molly
Jackson, Sara Orgon Gunning, Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie
McGee, to mention a few) whose mission expressed specific historical concerns, his music
is of the ages, conveying an abiding faith in an egalitarian dream.

Appropriately, Where Have All The Flowers Gone gives Seeger the
final track, "And Still I Am Searching," to sing his message in his own voice:

 

And I’m still searching

Yes I’m still searching

For a way we all can learn

To build a world where we all can share

The work, the fun, the food, the space,

the joy, the pain

and no one ever ever need or seek to be

a millionaire.

Appleseed Recordings is a genuine independent label, not a
subsidiary of a major entertainment corporation. Appleseed accepts no corporate or outside
funding, and donates a percentage of its profits to environmental, human rights, and other
progressive organizations.