When Pete Seeger came to Boston in August of 1968 to sing at a giant Gene McCarthy rally at Fenway Park, he introduced a song by noting that at one time radio stations purposely ignored it. Now, he said with considerable feeling, it had become one of the most popular songs around.
The song was "If I Had a Hammer," later popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. The radio stations wouldn't play it when it appeared two decades earlier because Seeger, its composer was a "known Communist" or "Communist sympathizer." He had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and declined to testify. "You may be cited for contempt of Congress," the Committee chairman told him. "Sir," replied Seeger. "I have nothing but contempt for this Congress."
Seeger sauntered in again last Saturday to play at a benefit for the War Tax Resistance at the Aquarius Theater. The auditorium was packed, and most people seemed to know the words to nearly all the songs Seeger sang. "I'd say 80 per cent of the people here had heard me before" he said after the concert.
Seeger concerts are like that Although he has been trying to play before different kinds of crowds lately, his performances before people who know him have a religious quality. They are times when a remnant of believers can get together and have their faith renewed. Seeger seems to know this Last Saturday, for example, he sang old Woody Guthrie songs like "Deportee" and "You've Got to Walk that Lonesome Highway," (a religious tune which Woody partly re-wrote). He also rendered some of the best songs from old albums: "Winoweh," which was his last for the night, and "I Can See a New Day." They were songs designed to bring back memories, or at least make people feel part of a common tradition.
More than most performers, Seeger wants to get his audience to sing with him. And he likes to get them to do harmonies. "Okay," he says, "all you folks with the high voices sing like this...And you with the low voices, you can go like this." In a way, it's as if he longed for the voices of the old Weavers to echo in front of him. More likely, his real desire is to get people to enjoy themselves, and to give them that religious feeling of fraternity which he (correctly) feels they want.
Two contradictory strains permeate Seeger's performances. On one hand there is his love of Woody Guthrie. "He taught me so many things I didn't know," he says of Woody. "After all, I had gone to private schools all my life." Seeger likes to sing Woody's songs about working people, and loves to refer to Woody, and also to Leadbelly (whom he always calls "Huddie Leadbeller"). He often makes reference to the common people--the old Southern mammy, the railroad worker in the empty railway station--from whom he picked up this song or that.
Yet there is an intellectual quality about Seeger which separates him from Guthrie and other singers who came out of the South and West. "Pete Seeger sings folk songs," Woody once said. "Bob Dylan is a folk singer." This other side of Seeger is the ethnomusicologist, (the trade which his father also pursues.) Seeger often refers in concert to Alan Lomax, who collected a lot of backwoods songs for the Library of Congress. This is work which Seeger believes in very strongly. "People often tend to forget their own culture," he says. "It takes somebody from the outside to come in and remind them of it."
But Seeger's intellectual admiration for cultural tradition and for those who are trying to preserve it doesn't mute his frequent impatience with those who try to keep alive outmoded social influences which lead to war or injustice. "The major failing of Marx was that he failed to see how persistent tradition can be," he said after the concert.
It is this constant push and pull between the desire to change things, and the desire to keep cultural traditions alive that animates Seeger. He can go from the vicious (and moving) indictment of the Vietnam war and its makers in "Last Train to Nuremburg" to a and love song like "Barbara Allen."
Seeger's intellectualism may rub some connoisseur of Country music or the blues the wrong way. But it will do so only if the so-called expert tries to take Seeger on terms different from Seeger's own. For if Seeger ever fancied himself as another Guthrie (and I doubt he ever did), he has for a long time made himself perfectly clear: his mission is not to be Woody, but to inspire the love for people's songs and the rugged America which made the boy from Oklahoma tick. And Seeger has a further mission, which is political. He wants to keep alive the faith of those who think things can be changed for the better, and to light a fire under those who don't think there's any need to change things around at all.
It is this combination of musical craft and political commitment that makes Seeger attractive. Of course it is true that he sings well, but so did a lot of other folks out of the Thirties and Forties whose names escape us today. He plays the guitar well, but that's not it either. However one may feel about particular political commitments Seeger made at particular times, one cannot help but admire his persistent hope. He stood up during eras when many other good men and women folded. He has retained his capacity for outrage, without losing his ability to sing love songs, and songs about love of country. He can get his audiences to remember the struggles of the early unions, and the burning children in Vietnam--even as he gets them to sing.