You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Pete Seeger and Yiddish Song

February 25, 2014
by David A. Jaffe tumblr_n0899bnyoQ1qzcvxdo1_500Pete Seeger, who died last month, was more than a musician, more than an activist, more then a folklorist. He was a purveyor of hope in the darkest of times. In the McCarthy era, when he was blacklisted, he sang, defiantly, “Wasn’t that a time?” and taught music to children. In the 1970s, when the political left was imploding, he founded a new cause that transcended the left/right division: cleaning up his own backyard, the Hudson River. He was a fierce believer in political freedom and economic justice. But while Woody Guthrie’s guitar said “This machine kills fascists,” the words Seeger wrote on his banjo head read, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He was a shy man who could command the stage and perform as no one before or since. While others, like Bob Dylan, sang protest songs as long as it was in fashion, or, like Phil Ochs, struggled internally with a desire to be famous, for Pete, the decision was always clear: do the right thing. When he was finally permitted back on television in the 1960s, he immediately threw caution to the wind and sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a protest song against the war in Vietnam. I grew up with Pete Seeger as a beacon of light. One of the first records I ever heard as a toddler was “Birds, Beasts and Bigger Fishes,” with songs like “Leatherwing Bat” and story-songs like “Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase.” Our family went everywhere that he performed. Many of these were not “concerts” at all, but political rallies of one form or another. I remember clearly a rally for Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek songwriter and activist who was jailed by the military junta in the 1960s. The rally was entirely in Greek, with a translator. Eventually, the translator became so caught up in the emotions of the crowd that he stopped translating and just cheered. As a teenager, I found Seeger’s wonderful banjo tutorial, bought a 5-string banjo (long-neck, of course, just like Pete), and taught myself to play all the songs in the book. His book also referenced the original Library of Congress and Folkways recordings and I spent countless hours in the record stores of New York City, tracking down these recordings. Then I found a 12-string guitar, again mirroring Pete (until I grew frustrated by the apparent impossibility of ever getting it in tune, and abandoned it). I learned every song on numerous records of his music. I would walk around our neighborhood playing my banjo for the young children, my repertoire comprised almost entirely of songs from Pete Seeger’s children’s records, including “Birds Beasts and Bigger Fishes.” Going to a Pete Seeger concert was not a spectator sport; it was more like being in a giant chorus. I grew up with the idea that concerts were a place you go to sing. I remember attending a Joni Mitchell concert and singing along to a song, only to be scolded by an annoyed neighbor who grumbled, “I paid to hear her, not you.” I thought, “That would never happen at a Seeger concert!” Similarly, I recall my parents attending a Phil Ochs concert. My father bought a copy of a Phil Ochs songbook. He left it on his seat during intermission and when he returned, it was gone. His reaction? “That would never happen at a Seeger concert!” Paradoxically for a solo performer, Pete was the antithesis of an extrovert. My late teenage years coincided with Seeger’s work on the Hudson River Sloop and I would frequently go to hear the Sloop concerts. One time, I (a long-haired hippie at the time) worked up the nerve to talk to him. I asked him what a “holler” was, as in “down the holler,” a phrase from “Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase.” (As a northerner growing up in the suburbs of Newark, NJ, I had no idea that “holler” meant “hollow.”) He looked down and replied that he didn’t know how to answer that question, thinking, I later surmised, that I was mocking him. My mother recounted a similar experience in which she went backstage and told him how much his music meant to her. His reaction was shy discomfort. For Pete, it was supposed to be about the song and the cause, not the person. In the recent Pete Seeger celebration at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, my friend Gerry Tenney, a native Yiddish speaker, recalled that Pete was one of only two non-Jews who Gerry, while growing up, had ever heard singing in Yiddish. (The other was Paul Robeson.) It was from Pete Seeger that I first heard the Yiddish song “Shtil di nacht iz oysgeshternt” (“Silent, the night is full of stars”), a folk song to which new lyrics were written by anti-Nazi partisan Hersch Glick of the Vilna ghetto. In 1982, I composed “String Quartet for Two Instruments” based on that theme. In 1998, when my son was born, I put him to bed every night with a CD of “Birds, Beasts and Bigger Fishes.” When my children were in pre-school, I would bring my banjo and play the old Seeger songs, along with the Yiddish songs I had learned from my father. Like many of my parents’ generation and mine, and now my children’s, Seeger was woven into the fabric of life. I am happy he lived to such a ripe old age, but sad that he did not live to receive the Nobel Prize that I hope he is posthumously awarded ( David A. Jaffe is a composer of contemporary classical music, often with Jewish themes. Copyright © 2014, David A. Jaffe.