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For Pete z’l Seeger’s Birthday, May 3rd
From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
Reviewed in this essay: The Pete Seeger Reader, edited by Ronald Cohen and James Capaldi. Oxford University Press, 2014, 288 pages; Pete Seeger In His Own Words, selected and edited by Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal. Paradigm Publishers, 2012, 300 pages.
In the 1950s, there was a sizable crowd of us red-diaper babies in New York, who grew up under the dark cloud of McCarthyism and experienced at least the threat, and often the reality, of witch-hunt and purge. What saved most of us was that we could make our own community, much aided by lefty summer camps, kindershules, and hootenannies.
The star of the hoots was, of course, Pete Seeger, and when the evening’s music stopped, the stage door was mobbed. Pete was our own special Elvis. He helped us find and use our voices, and to make connection with an America that validated who we were despite the isolation and persecution that seemed to be our lot.
In the 1960s, Pete became even more influential, helping to nurture the singing movement while many of his spiritual offspring invaded and remade popular music — but because Pete was blacklisted, and hence rarely seen on TV or noticed in the mainstream media, he seemed to be an icon that our kind alone could possess. In teaching about social movements, and using music in my classes, I’d find, each year, that maybe 5 percent of my students could identify Pete Seeger (though many more realized they knew a lot of his songs). By contrast, I once gave a presentation about him to an audience of government officials in Finland, and was amazed to observe that his name and his songs were revered (the audience sang along to the recorded selections) — an experience I could not imagine with a comparable American audience.
So I’ve been astonished by the outpouring of grief and reminiscence that Pete’s passing brought — a celebration of his life and work that has gone on for weeks since he died. Pete lives on in hundreds of recordings and dozens of YouTube videos that keep streaming on social media. I’ve seen dozens of Facebook postings of people’s recollections of meeting Pete, or getting a note from him, or seeing him on stage or at a rally. Among those with such recollections was President Obama himself. More heartfelt appreciation was expressed in the pages of the New York and Los Angeles Times, and in Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, than in the leftwing media. Somehow America has embraced Pete and wants to own this communist (‘small c’ for most of his life) — which is, I would submit, a good sign about the country.
Perhaps, like me, you feel eager to keep Pete alive in your ongoing world. If you are looking for some fresh angles for seeing and learning about Pete, I recommend two new books (compiled before he died but even more useful now):
The Pete Seeger Reader, edited by Ronald Cohen and James Capaldi, is a remarkable collection of articles about Pete, and some pieces by him, that span the entirety of his life. (Bias alert: The Pete Seeger Reader includes a piece I wrote for Jewish Currents in 2009). You can find here descriptions of teenage Peter performing with the Vagabond Puppeteers in the summer of 1939, and a number of other nuggets about Seeger as a young upstart; highly informative memos and letters by Pete about the need for a postwar organization of musicians in the service of the labor movement, and the successes and failures of “People’s Artists”; an eloquent essay by Woody Guthrie about the launch of that very organization; and a host of reviews, liner notes, reportage, and commentary that span Pete’s seventy years of public life. Most of it is laudatory, but there are a few pieces that “expose” or bemoan his politics, and a pretty critical review of his talents and recordings allegedly written by Toshi Seeger (Pete’s wife of nearly seventy years), but actually written by Pete himself.
I know a lot about Pete Seeger, but I learned much from this book. For example: It hadn’t occurred to me that he made some unique contributions to the preservation and enhancement of Jewish culture. Most famously, the Weavers’ recording of “Tzena, Tzena,” a huge hit, was maybe the only Hebrew song ever on the hit parade, and surely helped Americans to bond with the new state. Pete also popularized “Zum Gali Gali,” “Hey Zhankoye,” and the partisan classic, “Shtil di Nakht” — and he helped Ruth Rubin make an album of Jewish children’s songs .
An equally valuable volume, Pete Seeger In His Own Words, is edited by a father-son team, Rob Rosenthal and Sam Rosenthal (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Rob Rosenthal is a well-established sociologist, and both he and Sam are accomplished musical performers. (Another bias alert: Rob Rosenthal and I recently wrote a book together, Playing for Change, and he’s an old friend and colleague whose son, Sam, I’ve known since he was born). They had the privilege and opportunity to be able to visit with Pete in Beacon and delve deeply into his archives. The result is a collection of material, mostly unpublished, dating from Pete’s boyhood, that allows us to see how he thought about his work, his life, his roles in the world, and political matters big and small.
Pete agreed to publish quite a bit of stuff that he would rather have kept to himself — though those looking for the salacious or scandalous will, as you might expect knowing Pete, be disappointed. We have a letter to his grandchildren, written in the 1950s, not to be opened until his death; a series of private reflections on Bob Dylan that complicate the various urban legends about Pete’s behavior at Newport in 1965; and letters and notes about all those who were part of Pete’s musical companions and mentors and about the places and events he was part of. Most important and intriguing are his thoughtful and deeply informed ruminations on the power of song and performance. If you care about Pete Seeger, it seems like an essential collection to have.
In the end, as Pete himself says rather often in these writings, his songs express his truest self. So take advantage of YouTube — which, if you haven’t already explored it, will astonish you with the Seeger treasures you can find there. His writings and songs are still here for us, and therefore, so is he.
Dick Flacks, a Jewish Currents contributing writer, is emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. His many writings on U.S. social movements include Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He hosts a weekly radio show, “Culture of Protest,” aired on Thursdays, 6-7 P.M. EST, at KCSB, and is coauthor with Rob Rosenthal of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Routledge, 2010).