Coyote, his little brother!

FRIDAY, JANUARY 31, 2014

Pete Seeger lived a long life: In an odd fact, Pete Seeger and John F. Kennedy were classmates at Harvard, class of 1940.

(According to cable logic, that means they were “best friends in college,” perhaps even “childhood friends.”)

As it turns out, Seeger and Kennedy weren’t best friends in college. Seeger dropped out in his sophomore year. He was soon doing things like this:
BARNES (1/29/14): He worked briefly in the folklore archives of the Library of Congress, and for a time he traveled through the state of New York, painting watercolors of houses in exchange for room and board. But mostly he hitchhiked across the United States, mixing with like-minded political leftists, singing and picking up new tunes and techniques.

In the course of this odyssey, he once said, he learned "a little something from everybody," and along the way he acquired a vast repertoire of ballads, spirituals and blues songs. Guthrie and Lead Belly were among the many musicians the young Mr. Seeger met in this period.
Pete Seeger was a very unusual person.

Musically, he was never a favorite for us. We used to find his “Come on, let’s all sing together” approach annoying. In the end, he wore us down in the 1982 documentary, Wasn’t That A Time.

In that film, he was so overwhelmingly himself, and so overwhelmingly positive, that we saw we had to surrender. “Some things are just worth singin’ about,” he declares in that film, or something very much like that.

We’ve been looking at footage of Seeger this week, including some of the hour-long tapes of his little-watched 1965-66 TV series, Rainbow Quest.

We’ll save the best for last. We also watched these:

He joined a very young Donovan for a lovely rendition of Colours, the simplest song ever written.

He spoke with Elizabeth Cotten, who was “discovered” by his musicologist father and composer stepmother—but only after she had worked in their home several years.

(“I never could stand to see children cry,” Elizabeth Cotten tells him.)

In 1963, he joined the very young Dylan at Newport for a version of Ye Playboys and Playgirls. That’s him playing banjo at Newport in the mid-60s for The Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers.

The footage we’ll most strongly recommend comes from his hour with Johnny Cash and June Carter. About 32 minutes in, Seeger sings the Peter LaFarge song, Coyote, My Little Brother.

Wow. He sings it extremely well.

It was LaFarge who wrote the beautiful song and invented the way a person should sing it. That said, we were surprised to see how well Seeger sang it that day, with June Carter looking on.

Pete Seeger lived a long life as a very unusual person.

For extra credit: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee did Rainbow Quest too. We’d have to say they received a bit of a cornball introduction.

With the rest of The New Lost City Ramblers, Mike Seeger joined his half-brother on Rainbow Quest for a version of Ragtime Annie.

Who knew Pete Seeger played mandolin? Once he managed to get out of school, Pete Seeger lived a long life.

35 comments:

  1. I truly loved Pete Seeger.

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  2. I'm looking forward to finding out how the the He-Man Sommerby Haters Club plans to clog up the comments with objections to this post.

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    1. Or the "troll whiners" for that matter. We already have one.

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    2. Troll, you badly need psychological help. This is truly bizarre behavior.

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    3. Actually 4:24, I was hoping Bob wouldn't find a way to needlessly interject a meme into an obituary for a great American. It took two lines before he couldn't resist.

      KZ

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    4. I was hoping that asshat KZ wouldn't show -- that hope was dashed too.

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  3. Bob, my father met and spoke at length with Pete Seeger and was thrilled enough to mention that meeting repeatedly.

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  4. I always liked Pete Seeger's music. I met him when I participated in a 2-day march for some cause or other that he led when I was a teenager. He and the co-leader openly discussed whether the group should take actions that would provoke our arrest.

    In retrospect, I feel used. At that time, he was secretly a member of the Communist Party. I assume that our demonstration was designed to help the Communists by putting the US in a bad light. Giving criminal records to a group of children in order to secretly benefit Communism was ugly stuff. (Fortunately for me, they decided not to provoke our arrest.)

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    1. Seeger was never "secretly" a member of the Communist Party. He was quite open about it.

      But he would later try to distance himself from Stalinism, claiming he didn't know what the guy was up to when he (Seeger) was a young man.

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    2. David, I'm confused. You participated in a two-day march with Pete Seeger, and you don't remember what the cause was?

      I would think that would be something everyone else would remember vividly and for the rest of their lives.

      And did the group take action to provoke arrest, or did they simply discuss it and decide against it?

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    3. Let's see if we can jog poor Dave's memory.

      Could the issue have been:

      1. Vietnam War.

      2. Civil Rights

      3. Organizing farm workers.

      4. Nuclear weapons.

      5. Free speech on campuses.

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    4. Pete Seeger also performed at bunches of labor union events.

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    5. To the best of my memory, the issue was poverty, but it was 55 years ago, so I can't be sure.

      BTW, note how deceptive it was for a Communist to promote the idea that capitalism leads to poverty. Communist countries tend to be a lot poorer than capitalist countries and have more poverty.

      Irishguy, there was a point in time when Seeger's membership in the Party became known, but he had secretly been a member for many years before then. His Party membership was not known in the late 1950's, when this march took place. If it had been known, I wouldn't have participated. I was a leftist then, but strongly anti-communist.

      I agree that Seeger claimed that he didn't know about the Communist atrocities, but it's hard to see how that claim could be true. E.g., the novel Darkness at Noon pointed out some of the problems as early as 1940 or 1941.

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    6. David, the standard excuse for having attended a communist sponsored event was that you went there because you were trying to impress a woman. Claiming that you were hoodwinked by a devious person like Seeger just isn't going to be believable.

      Masters of Deceit came out in the 50s and was widely read. The hearings were claiming hidden communists in the PTA and Girl Scouts. Everyone was looking for communists everywhere. I just don't believe you didn't know who was doing what, as a "leftist" yourself. We all knew who was what and kids knew more than anyone because they were following politics more closely. If you took the trouble to march, you knew the details as fervidly as people here have been following Christie's disgrace. You should also have known that protest marches always carried the possibility of arrest because they were part of civil disobedience, tactics developed by Gandhi and enacted during the civil rights movement, anti-war movement (during WWII) and during earlier protests. There has always been the potential that an demonstration (such as the draft riots during the Civil War) might turn into a riot with police suppression and actual violence. The "discussions" may have occurred because leaders of such events know that there will be better press coverage if there are arrests than if there are peaceful speeches. The media don't like to cover civil protest -- look at the way the ongoing activities of Occupy have disappeared from all media.

      For most American Communists, the parting of ways occurred with the Hitler-Stalin pact. Seeger remained nominally communist until 1949 when he "drifted away". However, he also served in the Army in WWII despite being anti-war, so it is unlikely he would have been working to overthrow the government or support the USSR. The American Communist Party, unlike the soviets, were involved in social justice causes. Based on accounts of his life, he would not have been a communist in the late 1950's when your march took place. He was always quite open about his membership and he apologized for supporting Stalin in his later autobiography.

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    7. David, if it was so long ago that you can't remember the cause for which you were protesting, then how do you know it was exactly 55 years ago (not "over 50 years ago"), that it was a two-day event, and the specific conversation among Seeger and other leaders whether or not to provoke arrest?

      Your caught in the web of your own lies -- adding certain details to give your story an air of credibility, while remaining vague.

      As for having no way to know, or even suspect, that Seeger was a communist, he and all the Weavers were blacklisted in 1955. In 1955, Seeger was hauled before HUAC where he refused to name names on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights to assembly and association, was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957.

      His case didn't come before a jury until 1961, and he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction was overturned in 1962.

      "55 years ago" was 1959.

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  5. Bob, I don't understand how anybody of a particular age who came to Harvard at a particular time could not mention "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" and the huge flap that caused on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

    It was, perhaps, his finest hour.

    You might also note that he got his job at the Library of Congress through Alan Lomax. Go look him up sometime.

    Lomax helped put together the March 1940 "Grapes of Wrath" concert for Will Geer (yep, Grandpa Walton), which was a fundraiser for the Steinbeck Committee which provided help for migrant farm workers in California.

    That is where Pete Seeger first met Woody Guthrie, and the two were frequent guests on Lomax's CBS radio network show.

    Also sharing the bill at that concert were Lead Belly and Aunt Molly Jackson.

    Seeger's biggest hit with the Weavers was a completely watered-down, sanitized version of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene" -- washed, bleached and rinsed to appeal to the white kids in college.

    Lead Belly doesn't claim authorship. He said the song was handed down to him by his uncles, and it does appear similar in ways to some 19th century songs.

    But thank God Lomax went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to record the song the way Lead Belly sang it, lest we think the Weavers' version is authentic.

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    1. You think Somerby doesn't know who Alan Lomax was?

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    2. I think it is possible. We don't know. We have no evidence to disprove the theory that Somerby knows who Lomax is. So it could be true.

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  6. Those of you who liked Pete Seeger might also like the documentary film about Phil Ochs that came out recently, There But for Fortune.

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  7. "(According to cable logic, that means they were “best friends in college,” perhaps even “childhood friends.”)"

    Haven't read you in a while, Bob. Good christ, you're a mess. Get help.

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    1. Some of us laughed at that line, clearly a joke.

      Then we read your comment and thought yes, you would be an authority on needing help.

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    2. "Haven't read you in a while, Bob."

      Said the troll who couldn't be pried away from this website with a crowbar.

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  8. George Lyman Kittredge, Harvard English professor, whose Shakespeare courses were legendary, was a great supporter and scholar of folk music and and also the teacher and patron of John A. Lomax in his collecting of cowboy songs.. The Roosevelts were also folk music fans and had numerous concerts of folk music at the White House. They were especially close to Josh White, who, I think, also was a guest at JFK's inauguration.

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  9. Seeger accompanied his father and stepmother to a festival of Appalachian music near Asheville North Carolina, where he became enamored of the beauty of the music he heard there. He also credits his love of the banjo to Samantha Bumgarten, who was perhaps the first country singer to be recorded commercially. He and his parents also used to attend parties at the New York home of Thomas Hart Benton, the teacher of Jackson Pollack. There they would listen to Benton's 78 collection of commercial race and hillbilly music. (I am assuming he had race music as well as hillbilly music, because artistic types of that era and place -- Greenwich Village -- used to collect it). Benton had a folk band, The Harmonica Rascals, which Pollock, who played the Jew's harp, was invited to join.

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  10. I like the lines from Nashville Cats (Lovin' Spoonful):

    And the record man said
    Every one was a Yellow Sun record from Nashville
    But up North there ain't nobody buys them,
    And I said "But I will"

    And so did lots of the kids exposed to this music via radio (including Elvis). The Harvard radio station still had a gospel bluegrass show every Sunday morning in the 1990's. Hope it is still on the air. There is a long liberal tradition of listening to early 30s recordings from the rural South. Some have been lovingly covered by the Holy Modal Rounders and a variety of newer folk singers, and of course by O' Brother Where Art Thou.

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  11. In addition to the mandolin and banjo, Seeger also played the twelve-string guitar. His mother was a classical violinist who taught at what is now Juilliard and also gave private lessons. Seeger says that he became involved with politics in the 1930s through friendships with his mother's Jewish pupils, who were alarmed at the rise of Hitler.

    Seeger's mother was a Socialist, but many opponents of Hitler felt that the Socialist parties at that time were too reluctant to condemn racism and anti-Semitism. Prominent liberal and socialist leaders did not support racially integrated unions and felt that such questions should be approached at some undefined later date, if at all. Under the auspices of the CIO, the only racially integrated union, Seeger and the Almanac singers toured the country, with the aim of promoting racial tolerance among workers. Eleanor Roosevelt was also a big supporter of the CIO.

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