Wednesday, January 29, 2014

PETE SEEGER DIED - Talking...Over the Hills, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

The greatest of the folkies passed on the other day.

Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was justly praised in the press, and on national TV news shows, for spending so much of his 94 years preserving the heritage of American folk music, lending his name and fame to important causes, and declaring himself ready to sing a protest song or raise the spirits of the people wherever and whenever he could.

You'll find the details of his life in many obits on the Internet, and reminders of some of the songs that inspired those that came after him (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, etc.) These include "Turn Turn Turn" made popular by The Byrds, the much-covered "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "We Shall Overcome." An ardent, enthusiastic fan of all music, his adaptations of old folk songs and ethnic oddities (such as the re-done and re-titled "Wimoweh") helped make "The Weavers" one of the most successful folk groups of all time.

He was the epitome of the folk singer…traveling all over this land, singing to young and old, a repertoire of tunes for any occasion, and unlike singers of today, music that everyone could sing along to. A singer-songwriter such as Harry Chapin or Joni Mitchell might have the crowd sing to one number ("All My Life's a Circle," "Circle Game") but with Pete, you could sing to most all of them, and with his voice not as strong in his 80's and 90's, he was pretty glad when people did.

His remarkable energy and enthusiasm kept him going almost to the end. He was still performing in concerts at 94, still riding the Hudson River and reminding people about conservation, and ruggedly chopping wood for his rural home in upstate New York until about 10 days before he died. How many 94 year-old men are out chopping wood during a Polar Vortex?? Maybe he should've eased up on the wood shopping. But Pete Seeger was not the kind of guy to ease up on anything.

I mentioned to him, of course, my admiration for his support of Phil Ochs…and shared a few personal joys about his work. First was his humor. People don't talk about it that much, because most of his popular songs are more spiritual or political. But the first song of his that really impressed me was "Talking Blues," which was part of the folk tradition of "rap," a talk set to minimal music. His "Talking Blues" most likely inspired the similar ones from Dylan and Ochs, but it's less a protest than just a lotta fun. That's Fred Hellerman lending his "greasy" guitar to the proceedings. On the same Weavers album, Pete performed a simple piece called "Over the Hills," on a recorder. And I wanted to learn to play that tune on a recorder, too, and I did.

So Pete inspired me to add the recorder to the list of instruments I was trying to learn, and to nearly memorize "Talking Blues" to amuse my friends. He also inspired me to a lifestyle of social protest and general muckraking, so of all the things he could've signed, I asked him to sign my CD of "Waist Deep in The Big Muddy and Other Love Songs."

This was his comeback album. Eclipsed by folkies gone electric, and a wide range of protest songs by younger artists, he returned to prominence with this anti-Vietnam anti-Lyndon Johnson song that was also a return to his roots as a rabble-rouser and figure of controversy. Would he be allowed to sing it on "The Smothers Brothers Hour?" The brothers, who had turned from comical folkies to conscientious objectors (much more than their rival "Laugh-In") were intent on bringing back guys like Pete, and Mort Sahl, and Joan Baez.

"Waist Deep" was kind of the official re-emergence of Pete Seeger...and he didn't stop there. Decade after decade he was still active, still a force, and fortunately, he was well-rewarded with tributes, awards, and that Springsteen album a few years ago. He could be counted on, even in his 90's, to appear at important benefits, singing "This Land is Your Land" or another iconic song or two, so his death isn't just a reminder of a life well lived, but a life cut short…a remarkable thing to say about someone 94 years old. Only a few months ago he was autographing a new book about his life and his songs. Go find the ending of the film "The Grapes of Wrath," and watch the little speech Henry Fonda makes as Tom Joad. I'll paraphrase it this way; wherever there's a fight for what's right, Pete's music can be there. It can be there in two ways, let's not forget: by playing Pete Seeger's recordings or…by lifting up your head and singing it yourself, right out loud.

Below, "Waist Deep," and I've combined "Talking Blues" with, ending the little tribute, the gentle "Over the Hills."



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