Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger and the Modern Folk Music Landscape

Pete Seeger broke folk music.

Born in 1919, Seeger was a communist, labor-rights activist, WWII veteran, folksong collector, singer, songwriter, banjo and guitar player whose best-known band, the Weavers, gave birth to the folk music boom of the mid 20th century. Were it not for Seeger, American traditional music would remain a niche interest, ever fading. Were it not for Seeger, American traditional music would not be politicized. Were it not for Seeger, the twelve-string guitar would be virtually unknown in America.

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
The Rock Island Line is the road to ride

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. His legacy in American folk music will forever be complicated, for how he at once rescued it from perpetual obscurity and inadvertently distorted the entire tradition to match his own tastes and politics.

In 1940, Pete Seeger became a founding member of the Almanac Singers, along with Woody Guthrie. They were a communist, anti-conscription, activist band from the start, though as the United States got involved in the war they came to support the anti-fascist cause and wrote an album in support of the war effort. Both Seeger and Guthrie ultimately went overseas to fight, and it was in Europe that Guthrie began to affix a piece of cardboard to his guitar which famously read, "This machine kills fascists." (Seeger, ever a pacifist, would later pay tribute to Guthrie by marking his banjo, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.")

Hell, I'd even stop fighting with my mother-in-law
'Cause we need her too to win the war

After the war had ended, Seeger joined a new project: the Weavers. It's the Weavers that drew attention to folk music in post-war America and made Seeger a household name, so it's no surprise that the modern folk music scene still bears the marks of Seeger's personal taste. Songs he collected or popularized or wrote became standards, and those who didn't care for his work drifted to other related styles of music.

(The folk song magazine Sing Out! would later write a review describing a performer as talented, but complain that he "has no social conscience" because of his preference for apolitical music. It's in large part thanks to Seeger's influence that the folk music world had gotten to the point where that was seen as hugely damning - and it's a great tragedy that Sing Out! felt this consideration was enough to have to pan Earl Scruggs, one of the most gifted banjo players of all time.)

They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair

Joseph McCarthy tried to silence Pete Seeger, along with many other suspected Communists. In Seeger's case, the charge was entirely on the mark; Seeger was genuinely a member of the Communist Party, which he had joined at the age of seventeen, and remained a member until until the day he died. But government opposition did not silence Seeger's expression of his political views, nor did it put a stop to his work in other ways toward greater social justice. (Seeger famously said of the lost wages and bookings that resulted, "If it weren't for the honor, I'd just as soon not have been blacklisted.") The Weavers as a whole, however, did tone down the political rhetoric, with the specific intention of getting what messages they still could to as wide an audience as possible.

But the popularity of the Weavers in the 1950s also led the way for the birth of folk rock in the following decade. One of the first folk rock bands, the Byrds, are best known for a single track, "Turn, Turn, Turn" - penned by Pete Seeger, based on lyrics taken from the Bible. Seeger's songbook became the framework on which the entire mid-century folk and folk-rock boom was built, and his lyrics became anthems.

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago

Pete Seeger was also known for two instruments: the banjo and the guitar, long the standard tools of American harmony. It is thanks to Seeger's influence that many American folk players favor long-neck banjos (Seeger's own innovation) and twelve-string guitars (which Seeger was among the first to popularize in America). The fact that outside of Celtic and Old-Time bands the fiddle is relatively scarce as part of the accompaniment in folk music may well also be a result, in part, of the fact that the Weavers didn't have one.

The Weavers also tended to include music taken from folk traditions around the world and perform them in their own distinctly American style; to this day, many American folk musicians follow his lead and play an international repertoire.

Because of Pete Seeger, American folk music will never be what it was before. But because of Pete Seeger, it will never be forgotten.

You'll win. What I mean
Take it easy - but take it.

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