'Tis a Gift To Be Simple, "Tis a Gift To Be Free
Pete Seeger And His Search for Community
Like a ghost of politics past he sat with Harvard Nieman Fellows of the '70s. Pete Seeger had aged since the days when he sang in front of huge audiences, providing the musical backdrop for an entire decade. His hair and beard were grayer, his voice older, the lines in his face more pronounced.
He told the Nieman Fellows in a seminar at the Faculty Club, "I'd like to see a singing labor movement," echoing his sentiments of 35 years ago, when he sang for labor unions.
"The unions kicked us [his singing group, The Almanac Brothers] out after the war," Seeger said, "so we ended up singing at colleges."
Seeger talked about the things he always enjoyed talking about, espousing the same philosophy that made him an idol of young people in the '60s. And here he was, bandana and all, ironically sitting amidst the oak and ivy glory of Harvard's Faculty Club, a haunting collection of elderly wisdom and youthful idealism.
Seeger entered Harvard in 1936, intent on becoming a journalist. He became immersed in the activities of the Harvard Student Union, a left-wing political group, and spent so much time working for the organization that his grades dropped and he lost his scholarship. Unable to land a job as a journalist after leaving school in 1938, Seeger started to use his musical talents to earn a living, travelling around the country playing the guitar.
But Seeger no longer speaks highly of nomadic ways. Although he said that "travelling taught me working people," Seeger now advocates establishing one's roots. "The search for community is one of the most important searches today. Every intellectual is kidding himself if he thinks 'his' community is made up of only people like himself. You have to know everyone, from the baker to the banker. The middle class is kidding them-selves: if you don't know the workingmen, you're in a very weak position."
In the evening, Seeger dined with students in Currier House's Senior Common Room, asking various students where they grew up, and if they want to live there. After a poor showing of hands for those who wished to return to their hometowns, Seeger said, "Well, you know, you can only travel around so much, the time comes when you have to settle down. You can't avoid it all your life." He added he was there "to sing songs that make you proud of where you come from and what you are."
Much to the surprise of many Currier students and Nieman fellows who expected more political and commonplace topics, Seeger seemed preoccupied with the subject of provincialism, of settling down.
But Seeger proved himself neither political nor commonplace. Rather he appeared more concerned with people than politics, interested in politics only insofar as people are affected.
One political issue that Seeger definitely sees as seriously affecting all people is censorship. He dubbed it "one of the most important issues alive today."
"If we do not find a solution," he said, "there will be no human race."
Seeger repeatedly cited the example of a book which explained how one can assemble an atom bomb. "Would you like such things available on bookstands?" he queried the Nieman Fellows.
"You'd think I'd be against censorship; I've been censored all my life," Seeger told his confused audience. "But every year, as technology increases, the need to control information is greater."
While he said he dislikes censorship, Seeger added, "we're kidding ourselves if we say we don't need it, not so long as there are crazy people."
As the father of three children, Seeger asked why young children should be exposed to vile pornography which glares at them in open view on the newsstands, or why Americans should be a "captive audience" to unavoidable billboards.
Voicing a need for "information control" one of the Nieman Fellows asked Seeger, "Who would play God?"
He replied that the government should form committees to screen out what is deemed "harmful" information.
"But who's going to be on the committee?" another reporter asked, grinning awkwardly.
Slightly more ruffled, Seeger advocated the establishment of committees for scientists, committees for journalists, committees for businessmen, each to decide what is best for their profession.
"But how will these people be chosen?" came another pointed question in a more pointed, cynical tone.
"The people will elect them," Seeger retorted hotly.
The harried folksinger then broke into a story about "misinformation," and how the front pages of every major paper in the nation had mistreated him. His face turning red, his aging body trembling from frustration at his audience's inability to understand him, he jumped to his feet and contronted his skeptically smiling audience.
"How will the American people be better informed if you do not inform them?" he barked at the journalists.
The skeptical smiles faded, Seeger sat down and collected himself, pulling back his thinning wedge of shaggy gray hair. The discussion continued cordially, peppered with an occasional song.
Seeger returned to his dream of "a sense of community," a feeling of union and togetherness. He reminisced about a concert in Washington, back in the early '70s, where the audience was sharply divided ... "there were Quakers who just wanted to sit back and listen to music, there were students who wanted to throw rocks, and we couldn't find a song that all of them liked. I was asked to play one last song, so I played John Lennon's song, 'Give Peace a Chance,' and everyone started singing together, moving to the music ... for that moment everyone was united, screaming, crying, 'All we are saying, is give peace a chance' ... it was incredible."
Seeger, the musician, has seen just about everything. He's seen the rise of Woodie Guthrie, Guthrie's son Arlo, Dylan's ascension to fame ("I envy Bob Dylan," he said), and the death of a good friend, Phil Ochs.
Ochs, like Seeger, was a leader in the peace movement and enchanted many a crowd with his folk music. With the passing of the peace movement in the '70s, Ochs became disappointed and depressed. He committed suicide last year.
In a very subdued and sorry tone, Seeger interjected at the mention of Ochs's name, "Oh, I'm still kicking myself. I saw Phil a few months before he died, and I wish I had known how serious it was. He was drinking heavy, and, oh, I wish I could have helped him."
This brought Seeger to the realization that many celebrities never make--"success can ruin you."
"I'm a lucky man, because I survived my success," he said. "It's a tough thing to handle when you go from obscurity and then all of a sudden everyone's listening to your music. Some folks just can't handle it..."
At the end of his talk at Currier House, Seeger started singing the tune, "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come down, where you ought to be..." And in a swelling chorus smacking of an old movie, the Currier students joined in unison to the old Quaker tune. It would have made such a pleasant addition to "Bound for Glory."
After dropping out of Harvard ("two-and-a-half years later, I decided I hadn't missed much"), bumming around Depression America with a guitar on his back, joining the Army, achieving fame as a musician and leader of the peace movement, confronting the censorship and rejection of many in the country, and facing the needling of Niemans at Harvard, Seeger is not the least bit cynical. "Cynicism's the enemy," Seeger claims, and for all 57 years of struggling with society, Seeger has not lost any of his idealism.
"Idealists scare me," one Nieman calmly confided to another over a glass of wine after Seeger's seminar. "Perhaps that's the problem," the other replied.