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Our Musical Father
on October 8, 2012
Pete Seeger is a musical genius, and a man who has introduced many of us to the music of America. This goes without saying, at least to those of us who were born in the "boomer" generation. Many younger people may know his music, but have no idea that he had anything to do with it. Today, he is often praised and loved, but not many know his story. He has never written his autobiography, other than "An Incomplete Folksinger" which was a collection of short writings he'd done. This book does tell his story. And, an amazing story it is. Pete Seeger is a study in courage. Born to a family who was of upper class New England, he was fascinated by the songs of America (and the world). To him, this meant what later became known as folk music. At the time, it was labeled as "hillbilly" or country music. He learned it, became one of the greatest five-string banjo players of all time, and began collecting songs. He became a pacifistic fighter for the unions, against segregation and bigotry, for the American Communist Party, and, as World War II broke out, for the United States war effort. After the war, he had some of his greatest song writing success, while being caught in the Red Menace witch hunt of the House on Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) in the 1940s and 1950s. Due to the problems with HUAC, and the reaction of the media, he was unable to appear on TV or network radio, so he was forced to tour constantly to make a living for himself and his family. He really didn't start to make a decent amount of money until the late 1950s, when other artist started recording many of his songs, and they became hits for them. These include: "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?", "Wimoweh", "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "We Shall Overcome" "If I Had A Hammer", and many others.
Pete is not perfect. At times, it seems that he only thinks one way, and it is very difficult for him to change his mind. Of course, I'm not saying that he is wrong. However, times do change. He took decades to admit that his beliefs in the Soviet Union were wrong. He had a hard time understanding that the union movement of the 1930s had greatly changed after WWII, and that they no longer had a use for his type of songs. Nor, in fact, did the union movement of the 1950s readily support integration. In fact, they often opposed it, at least below the highest levels. The workers viewed it as a threat to their own employment.
This book is well written, and was fascinating to read. I do wish it had commented more on Pete's disagreement with Burl Ives' over the latter's going before HUAC, and his much later meeting with Ives shortly before Ives died, when they spoke and Seeger forgave him. While the book did mention Seeger's being upset, it did not mention his forgiveness.