My brother was the one who told me Pete Seeger had died. The news spun both of us back to our shared childhood. Pete Seeger sang with the Weavers, a folk-singing foursome the New York Times credits with starting the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s.
The first concerts my brother and I ever attended were The Weavers, at Massey Hall in Toronto. Three, all before I was ten. We lived in Orillia, eighty miles north of Toronto, and where my parents found the energy to drive to Toronto and back in a night as well as pay for four tickets is beyond me. They had one salary, two kids and not much money.
My father had bought all the records, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Travelling on with The Weavers, The Weavers on Tour, At Home with the Weavers. We listened and sang with them on the hi-fi set Dad had made from a kit. I knew all the words to every song.
But the concerts took me to another world, an extraordinary world.
Massey Hall seats 2,700 people in steep tiers and The Weavers’ concerts were always sold out. My parents got seats in the orchestra, close to the stage every time. The concert hall hummed with excitement as it filled. When The Weavers came on stage, the hum exploded. I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to tap, clap, sing as they rocketed into song, fired by Pete Seeger’s hard banjo rhythm. Seeger played recorder as well, and sometimes joined Fred Hellerman on guitar. The two sang tenor, Lee Hays bass and Ronnie Gilbert contralto. Their singing crackled with energy. They regularly beckoned the audience to “sing along” regardless of skill and Pete Seeger would call out the words a line at a time. “Don’t let your neighbour look at you peculiarly if you sing too loud. Just hit him in the ribs and get him singing too,” he would say. It wasn’t so much an invitation as a summons. The audience would respond in a tidal wave of sound. I joined in, heart and soul, without self-consciousness. For the first time I felt the power of a huge number of people singing in harmony, singing songs they believed in, singing with joy and passion.
We always drove home after the concerts, two hours through the darkness. My parents were quiet, my brother usually fell asleep quickly but I relived every moment in my head, the cheering, the ovations, the harmonies still ringing in my ears. It was better than Christmas and my birthday rolled up together.
Pete Seeger was missing in the last concert we saw. Eric Darling was on banjo instead. He was good but it felt wrong. When I asked my father why he said perhaps Seeger had turned too political for the group and it was easier if he went out on his own. That’s when I first heard about the McCarthy Era, the Blacklist and the hearings before the Committee on un-American activity. I couldn’t understand it. How could music be un-American? I had yet to learn much about American history and I didn’t recognize the significance of what I had already experienced in the concerts: music has power to inspire people to sing, rise, unify and act.
In fact the real reason Seeger left the Weavers was because they had signed up to do vocals for a cigarette commercial. Either my father didn’t know or he was keeping peace in the family. My mother was a smoker.
I was surprised to learn that officially the Weavers only existed from 1949 to 1952, when they came under scrutiny for their left wing politics. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were identified as Communist Party members by an FBI informant who later recanted, but even before that the Weavers’ bookings in the U.S. had dried up. Perhaps that’s why they ended up playing so often in Canada through the 50s.
Canada did its share of peering under beds for Communists in the 1950s but it appears to have been less concerned about visiting musicians. Minister of External Affairs Lester B. Pearson cautioned against following in American footsteps. “Let us by all means remove the traitors from positions of trust, but in doing so, I hope we may never succumb to the black madness of the witch hunt,” he said.
Blacklisted in the States and separated from the Weavers, Seeger toured American colleges and played in summer camps for children in both countries. He reckoned he’d come out ahead; no more smoky bars, no more totally irrelevant fame, in exchange for a chance to inspire folk music in new generations. Of course financially it was a disaster. The Canadian Broadcasting Company offered him work in Canada but he had to return to the States to answer charges of contempt. He pleaded the First Amendment, Freedom of Association. “I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, make me any less of an American,” he said. It didn’t go down well. Later he would say: “People who run a country want to control the music.”
I had to admire a man who put music and principles ahead of money and career.
From a distance I followed Pete Seeger’s involvement in Civil Rights and anti-war protests through the 60s. As a Canadian I was removed from that world, but I knew that Pete Seeger supported Civil Rights and was opposed to the Vietnam War because it was right.
With the Weavers and as a solo artist, Pete Seeger introduced me to civil rights, labour union rights, anti-war protests, American history, and the roots of folk culture. I recognized his influence in other groups that came and went, heard his voice even when someone else was singing If I Had A Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn or We Shall Overcome. I’d hear all the Weavers whenever someone sang Goodnight Irene, Wimoweh, When the Saints Go Marching In, or House of the Rising Sun.
With his death I learned that Pete Seeger sang until he was in his late 80s, performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama. Seeger mentored people like Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Joan Baez, inspired Peter Paul and Mary, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bruce Springsteen and countless others. In 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. At 92 he came out on two canes to march to Columbus Circle on New York’s Upper West Side and sing in support of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. His voice was as frail as his body but the protesters sang their hearts out with him. Mention his name today among baby boomers or musicians and eyes light up.
When I first became interested in environmentalism I wasn’t surprised to learn that Pete Seeger had got there before me. He reinforced my convictions; it was obviously the right way to be. He cared about people and the land before money or big business. Focused on Canada, I didn’t realize until now how much he accomplished in his own country. He and his wife lived in a log cabin overlooking the Hudson River and he called himself an “eco-nik”. When he was learning to sail on the Hudson and found himself immersed in raw sewage, dying fish, PCBs and pesticides, he took action. He canvassed neighbours, fishermen, local schools, churches and yacht clubs to raise interest and money to build a replica of the large single-masted wooden sloops that used to transport materials down the Hudson in the 19th century. He gave concerts to raise money to build it, named it the Clearwater, and invited groups of fifty people at a time to sail the river, rich and poor, black and white, children and adults. He sailed to every town and every school along the Hudson and people flocked to him. He’d sing as they sailed, and between the sailing and the music, inspired people’s love of the river and their desire to clean it up. Robert Kennedy Jr. says that Seeger’s genius was in recognising that the salvation of the river could come from grassroots activism. The river is alive today and the clean up Seeger began continues with a massive project to dredge the upper Hudson to remove PCBs.
Pete Seeger used music to promote community and activism his whole life. Four years ago my choir joined five other groups and held a concert to mark his 90th birthday. Somewhere in the east, Pete Seeger was also celebrating with song. We sang a lot of union songs and protest songs in the Unitarian Church that night, along with his favourite hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing, and the church rocked. The closing number of the evening was If I Had A Hammer. The combination of the five choirs and the audience was so strong my voice soared way beyond its usual limitations. We did him proud that night and the money we made went to support Cottage Farm, a residential therapeutic community for the mentally ill. That’s the power of music. It opens your heart and pushes you to accomplish more than you thought possible.
You can’t regret Pete Seeger’s death. He was old and frail and his wife of nearly seventy years had died seven months earlier, but you can’t help admire a man who used his life and his music to serve the principles of compassion, equality, justice and the environment. And you never forget your first love. Pete Seeger and the Weavers were mine.