Pete Seeger—rock and folk's oldest and most influential link to the past and whose voice and lifelong fight for social causes influenced generations of musicians and continues to do so today, whether they know it or not—died on January 27. He was 94.
It's almost impossible to fully comprehend the power of Seeger's songs or his role in shaping the direction of American music without knowledge of the socio-economic environment that existed prior to World War II. The stock market crash of 1929 and the bank failures of the early 1930s rapidly devastated much of the country, resulting in a 25% unemployment rate and leaving millions without a steady income, medical care or access to Federal and state assistance, much of which didn't exist yet. What's more, in rural areas of the country, electricity and running water were virtually non-existent or scarce, compounding an already desperate situation. During the 1930s, the country's poverty level and overall discontent escalated, Labor strife between workers and manufacturers grew over salaries, benefits and conditions—causing many to view employers as ruthless oppressors unwilling to protect workers form the perils of factory floors or provide them with basic care or financial support following accidents or illness.
Within a few short years, the future's possibilities grew dim for many Americans with little hope of economic restoration in sight. Throughout this period—from roughly 1932 to 1940—the sheer relentlessness of economic hardship left many Americans beaten down and wondering whether other forms of government were superior to our own.
Meanwhile, those other forms of government—most notably Russian Communism—did a masterful job of exploiting the fears of American workers through the expansion of the American Communist party here, particularly in cities. The rise of fascism in Europe and Asia only helped fortify the dreamy appeal of Communism—a system that seemed concerned first and foremost with the masses and intent on redistributing wealth. Stalin's crimes against the Russian population and the system's termination of independent thought either were not fully known here or were willfully ignored. The longer America's economy failed to respond to economic stimulus, the better Russia seemed to be for many. For many Americans, there didn't seem to be an end in sight for the dire conditions they were experiencing.
Among those who viewed Russia romantically were painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians and other artists—many of whom fared poorly during the Depression and were more sympathetic to suffering and social injustice than most. Eventually the Depression came to an end but only with the start of World War II—when Washington pumped billions into the economy to manufacture weapons, planes, ships, supplies, ammunition, uniforms and materials of all types. Factories needed workers, and with the labor force smaller due to 15 million soldiers out of the economy, wages tended to be higher as factories competed for labor.
Among those artists who felt a kinship with the downtrodden and helpless before and after World War II was Pete Seeger—who believed that the best way to champion the unfortunate was through song. Seeger, like Alan Lomax, was some tin of a music journalist—wandering the country in search of hand-me-down songs and learning them on the road. Folk music had begun as home-spun song for at-home sing-alongs but soon came to express the hardships of manufacturing, the importance of cultural heritage and the need to organize to protect one's rights.
By the late 1940s, Seeger co-founded the Weavers, a vocal-harmony quartet that performed and recorded by the mid-1950s. The folk movement of the 1950s was largely a loft and theater experience and often hinged on social causes of one kind or another. But with the rise of R&B and rock and roll in the mid-50s thanks to the 45 rpm, independent radio and affordable phonographs, folk music played less of an influential role with younger audiences.
Throughout this period, Seeger remained on message—though his performances at events sponsored by the Communist Party landed him in hot water when he refused to answer Congressional questions about his political beliefs and the political sympathies of others. Unlike many Hollywood writers and directors who stonewalled and wound up blacklisted, there was no effective way to do the same with musicians. But by 1960, folk was clearly the music of an aging population still scarred by the Depression and determined to re-litigate battles fought years earlier.
Folk's dusty image began to change dramatically with the arrival and success of Bob Dylan in 1961 and 1962. Almost overnight, a wave of younger folk artists and harmony groups emerged as record companies sought to duplicate Dylan's youthful innocence and poetic expression. Seeger's and Woody Guthrie's push-back against powerful interests through story-telling music along with Dylan's observational and analytic approach was quickly taken up by artists like Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, the Highwaymen, Kingston Trio, the Womenfolk and many others.
When folk and rock intersected in 1965 with Dylan's performance at the Newport Folk Festival and his release of Like a Rolling Stone, folk-rock became less about factory strikes and more about rebellion against suburban conformity, racial injustice and the Vietnam War. Rock soon re-tooled folk's original appeal by taking on issues that mattered more to a new generation of young-adult listeners. Folk of the early '60s led to California's folk-rock of CSN&Y, the acoustic roots-revival of the Band and Credence Clearwater Revival in the '70s, the exurban exasperation Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s and new forms and artists in the 1990s and 2000s and 2010s.
Today, the honesty and integrity of Seeger's voice and message can still be heard among musicians calling for social change or trying to raise funds for a range of causes. Seeger—with his flawless banjo-playing chops, clarion voice, sunny optimism and an ability to organize and inspire—set the tone for the today's youth culture. In Seeger's voice, we hear the sound of youthful idealism and the passion to think and act differently than past generations. The longevity of any song still depends on the spirit and caring of its lyrics, something that Seeger understood before anyone else.
Here's Pete Seeger singing Michael Row the Boat Ashore in 1963...
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