i never know what to say when a musician i love dies. i usually just end up being sad alone, but i need to say something about pete seeger. i first became seriously interested in music through woody guthrie’s 1940s recordings when i was in middle school. as i read every biography of woody i could find, i soon looked into pete seeger. pete played with woody in the political folk group the almanac singers when he was in his early 20s. he saw music as a peaceful way to unite people in supporting progressive causes; his live shows we’re built around audience participation. like many political folk singers in the 40s, seeker supported the communist party for its pro-civil rights, pro-union labor views prior to the cold war. while that led to him being forced to testify before congress and all sorts of shit in the 50s, he was still one of the leading figures of the american folk revival in the peak of the cold war 50s and 60s. (he was the guy who infamously wanted to cut the speaker cables when bob dylan performed on electric guitar at the 1965 newport folk festival). i was fortunate enough to get to see pete perform at newport in 2009. he continued using music as a tool for activism for his entire 94 year life, particularly protesting war and pollution.
i don’t know whether i would even be trying to be a serious musician if it weren’t for pete. pete inspired me to learn banjo. his song “turn! turn! turn!” flipped the old american folk tradition of writing new lyrics to pre-existing tunes by setting old words from a bible passage to new music. the byrds’ ringing guitar melodies in their gorgeous 1965 recording of it has inspired my electric guitar playing perhaps more than any other song or sound.
when i was twelve i mailed a small package to pete through the address he listed in sing out magazine. i sent a letter and cassette of performing some of his songs. prior to that, i had sent sports cards asking for autographs to my favorite athletes numerous time without ever getting a response, so i was shocked and thrilled when pete replied with a postcard signed “old pete” with a little drawing of a banjo. very sad about his death, but he lived to be 94 years old and was singing and playing til the end. he lived a “hell of a life” (to quote kanye).
one of my favorite pete seeger songs:
the byrds performing two pete songs, “turn! turn! turn!” and “bells of rhymney” plus dylan’s “mr. tambourine man” in 1965:
i also highly recommend this documentary: