Tuesday, 28 January 2014

In memory of Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

I learned this morning that Pete Seeger has died. He was musician I admired tremendously. Like few artists then and very few now, he made a political and humanitarian commitment central to his work as an artist. But on the other hand, he never compromised the quality of his art for any other sake. He wouldn't put "extra syllables into a line" as Tom Lehrer criticised other folk singers of doing.

The warmth and humanism of his work is ever present, even in his harshest condemnations of the powers that be. Punk rockers, take notes.  We should also never forget his courage; how he stood firm and proud when when the HUAC tried to censor him in the 50s. When he sang about oppression, it was real to him.

I loved his versions of old folk songs and the new ones he wrote, like "If I Had a Hammer" and of course "Where Have All the Flowers Gone". "My Rainbow Race" is a simple, but very moving and life-affirming song. I am sure they will be sung for many years to come.

While his studio recordings are nothing exceptional, his wonderful live performances are uniformly excellent. He was capable of developing an incredible chemistry with the audience and could get them to sing along with almost everything he performed. With his charisma he essentially made the audience into a willing choir for him. This chemistry, joy and energy are ever present on his live recordings, which are wonderful to listen to and are a wonderful introduction to American folk music.
It's through those recordings I came to know him and, in the unlikely event that nothing else survives (for there is much that he did in his long life that deserves to and will be remembered), he will be very fondly remembered by them.

In the end, I would like to quote what he inscribed on his banjo, which I think sums up his life's work very well: "This Machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender"

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