Pete Seeger turned ninety on Sunday. More than 18,000 people packed New York’s Madison Square Garden Sunday celebrate the man, the music and the movement. The all-star lineup included Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Billy Bragg, Ruby Dee, Steve Earle, Arlo Guthrie, Guy Davis, Dar Williams, Michael Franti, Bela Fleck, Tim Robbins, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper, and Ritchie Havens.
I realized today that we here at naturalismo didn’t do a post to commemorate Tuesday’s inauguration…and what better way to right that wrong by sharing a video that my fine roommate Chad passed my way this morning. Screw Aretha — Pete’s the ultimate American: the one man who actually embodies what the country was “supposed” to represent, as opposed to what it actually does. Look no further than Pete’s Congressional blacklist hearing to see what I’m talking about. Plus the fact that, at 90, Pete still has the wherewithal to make a trek from Beacon, NY to Wasington DC to sing for people — now that’s inspiration that no Obama speech could provide.
I didn’t agree with the Divine Right of Kings, but Pete Seeger is pretty much infallible. In a Lower Manhattan apartment, one of the greatest living musicians and activists sat down with one of the country’s newest great leaders. Pete Seeger, with a list of awards and honors longer than the neck on his famed banjo, still works tirelessly at 89 years of age. He spoke with Majora Carter, the young and indefatigable founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that is re-shaping the neighborhood of her youth through pioneering green-collar economic development projects, about the environmental work he has worked at for more than forty years. And while he’s at it, he also finds time to sing a couple songs, demanding the film crew sing along, because it’s not nearly as much fun singing to someone as it is singing with someone.
Brownie McGhee (sitting at right) sings and speaks with a disarming, soulful simplicity. His eyes speak a language of languor, his lips curl into wistful grins with such ease and honesty that you want to cozy up by his feet like a labrador puppy, lapping up stories of the road and songs of the downtrodden. The songs of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry – a musical duo for nearly their entire professional lives – are melancholy at heart but never sacrifice a sense of celebratory, resplendent joy.
Enjoy this performance of their classic tune “I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes,” from Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.
Pete Seeger is an ambassador for Peace and Social Justice and has been over the course of his 88-year lifetime. Using his prowess as a musician he worked to engage other people, from all walks of life and across generations, in causes to build a better and more civilized world: His work shows up wherever you look in the history of labor solidarity, growth of mass effort to end the Vietnam war, ban of nuclear weapons, work for international diplomacy, support of the Civil Rights Movement, for cleaning up the Hudson River and for environmental responsibility in general. Pete knit the world together with songs from China, the Soviet Union, Israel, Cuba, South Africa and Republican Spain. We learned that Crispus Attucks, born a slave, was the first man to die at the opening of the Revolutionary War, that the Farmer-Labor party in the mid-west had a socialist philosophy that lasted well into the 20th century, we learned that anti-slavery movements were often inspired by songs that indicated a map of escape, such as “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,” he popularized many of the IWW songs that helped in CIO organizing, and spread the Civil Rights Movement through promoting the SNCC Freedom Singers and making songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” known all over the world.
“Things weren’t that organized in those days, everything was very spontaneous. When it came time to record this stuff, we went in the studio, relatively sober (at least Pete was), sang the songs, and then hit the road for California.” – Millard Lampell
Forget Dylan’s postmodern Woodie Guthrie charlatanism. The Almanacs were the real thing. In 1940, the folk revival began with the plunk of a banjo and a soaring three-part harmony. Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays were close friends who shared leftist political views and had a bone to pick with the American government whose corporate leanings were shortchanging the working man (some things never change). They played at rallies, union halls, streetcorners, and anywhere where folks would stop and listen to three young songsters. Despite their urbane upbringing, the trio instantly struck a chord with contemporary rural audiences of the day. Seeger’s poignantly topical lyrics, grafted onto traditional folk melodies, validated the earth shaking potential of folk music and introduced the form to an entire generation of new listeners. The role of folk music in society would never be the same.
It wasn’t until 1941 that the great hobo troubadour Woody Guthrie rolled into New York city with a beat six-string on his shoulder, a knapsack on his back, and a wealth of music in his heart. Guthrie immediately recognized both the musical prowess of the Almanacs as well as their politics. If anything, Guthrie was more leftist than even Seeger. Over the course of the next few years the Almanacs lived fast, played countless shows, and just as quickly disbanded – but not before the likes of Leadbelly and Burl Ives joined their ranks for impromptu Greenwich Village hootenannies.
Their output was certainly limited, but their impact is impossible to ignore. They ignited the fuse…folk would never be the same.