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Richard Flacks on Pete Seeger
Posted on Aug 7, 2009
Seeger’s most promising mainstream venture was the effort by the Almanacs’ successor group, the Weavers, to work commercial venues. The quartet was born out of the People’s Artists/Henry Wallace cultural left, but was discovered and signed by Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records (one of the largest record labels of the ’40s and ’50s). Jenkins produced a series of Weavers hits (several of these among the biggest-selling singles of the era), and the group was booked into many of the leading clubs and concert venues. The Weavers themselves were uncomfortable with their handlers’ demands that they steer clear of the causes and organizations they had been accustomed to working for, but it wasn’t long before right-wing entrepreneurs of the emerging Red hunt went after them, largely based on Seeger’s long association with “communist” politics. Some two years after they had burst on the scene, the Weavers’ big-time commercial-recording and live-performance career was over.
Seeger may have been disappointed that the Weavers’ successful popularization of folk music was so quickly aborted, but, with Toshi Seeger’s managerial efforts, he quickly embarked on a perpetual tour of America’s college campuses, summer camps and auditoriums, where he honed a solo performance style and repertory that defined who he was as a musician, and in the process brought into being a ragtag army of young fans. He was reviving for urban audiences not only the musical roots of the country but the ancient role of the troubadour, bringing the news through song.
“To Everything There is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song
By Allan M. Winkler
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
Knopf, 176 pages
How Can I Keep from Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger
By David King Dunaway
Villard, 544 pages
Seeger has not to my knowledge laid out a full-fledged theory to explain his emphasis on mass singing. Such a theory, however, is implicit in his performances: There is an empowering effect in the very sound of a singing assembly; there is a persuasive effect that can come when audience members sing lyrics expressing a political perspective or commitment; there is a sense of mutual validation when people in a crowd sing together in an attitude of resistance. And once you sing a song there is a good chance that you will be able to reproduce it by and for yourself. By working as a song leader and teacher, Pete Seeger was achieving his father’s wish for a mode of musical performance that had an ability to “aid in the welding of the people into more independent, capable, and democratic action.”
Meanwhile, a pop-centered folk song revival became commercially huge. Weavers imitators, led by the Kingston Trio and later Peter, Paul and Mary, sold millions of records. Seeger and the Weavers had shown that folk music could sell, but the resulting commodification inevitably cheapened, denatured and contradicted Seeger’s project. His support of the Newport Folk Festivals helped provide alternative, more authentic access to rooted music and performers. By the early ’60s, a musical rebellion against pop folk was in the works as a band of young troubadours, consciously following in Woody and Pete’s footsteps, started singing. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Odetta and many others performed in newly started folk clubs, recorded on upstart labels, appeared at civil rights and ban-the-bomb rallies, and dominated the college tours. Network TV shows featured many of these troubadours alongside the slick bands—but because Seeger was deliberately excluded from these shows, many of the young troubadours boycotted them (even though he personally encouraged some of them to seize the opportunity to get exposure).
The folk music revival was a political as well as cultural phenomenon. The festivals, concerts and clubs where folk fans congregated were among the prime social spaces for shaping awareness and engagement with the Southern civil rights movement and the new left. The early ’60s student activists saw Dylan, Ochs, Baez et al. as “ours” (much as Red diaper babies in the early ’50s claimed Seeger).
Pete Seeger’s belief in the power of song derived in large part from history—the fact that a number of great social movements were fueled by music. There is a tradition of labor song in America, dating from the 19th century, and a number of songs from that tradition continue to this day to help define the identities of labor organizers and raise spirits on the picket line. The Almanacs and People’s Songs were experiments designed to make the U.S. labor movement of the ’30s and ’40s a singing movement—but the results were mixed. Seeger’s dream of a singing mass movement was much more fully realized in the civil rights struggle of the ’60s.
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