A Tribute to Pete Seeger

Eric Reimund

It has been a sad few weeks in the world of culture as we have seen two icons, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and folk singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, pass away. I’m well aware that this is a music article, but my conscience would not let me write it without mentioning the great Hoffman, who died on February 2 of an apparent drug overdose. For brevity’s sake, here are some of my favorite roles of his – watch them (and more) and keep his memory alive: Scotty in “Boogie Nights,” Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” Caden Cotard in “Synecdoche, New York” and his most stunning performance as writer/doctor/nuclear physicist/theoretical philosopher/man Lancaster Dodd in “The Master.”

Pete Seeger is a name that is perhaps more foreign to the readership. Born in 1919 in New York City, his father was one of the founders of the academic field of musicology and his mother was a concert violinist and teacher at Juilliard. Growing up, Seeger’s parents endorsed exactly the type of musical milieu that would foster a love of folk music, and many of his siblings and half-siblings also became folk musicians. A particularly transformative experience for the young man occurred in 1936 at the Mountain Dance and Folk festival near Asheville, N.C. when he first heard the banjo, which would become his primary instrument. After that, he immediately resolved to master it. Seeger’s father’s influence upon his music and his life cannot be overstated, as folk music was precisely his passion as well. Before he turned 20, Seeger was assisting Alan Lomax in choosing representative folk music for preservation in the Library of Congress.

For Seeger, folk music was a profoundly social art form. Throughout his life he maintained a thoroughgoing idealism that abided with the people who were its creators and its subject. Among the most famous songs he’s written are “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a version of “We Shall Overcome (in fact, he first included the “shall”), “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Vietnam protest song “Waist Deep in Big Muddy.” His protest songs, anti-war ideals and philosophical egalitarianism made him a leading figure in the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village where he was a contemporary of the legendary Woody Guthrie. Seeger was blacklisted after refusing to testify against anyone in front of the House Un-American Activities Council during the McCarthy-era – he was a lifelong communist. Perhaps his most singularly powerful effect on American and world culture was his very early championing of Bob Dylan. Seeger was the man that invited Dylan to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and legend has it that it was Seeger who was the leader of the old guard folk purists who reacted so strongly against the young singer’s controversial decision to go electric in 1965. Seeger lived a long and extremely active life, even into old age. His charm and warmth emanated from him even into his 90s when I first encountered him performing on the Colbert Report last year. Seeger was witty and humorous, and had a kind of rickety grace about him. Through his innocent and wise countenance rang the same sort of lovingness and inclusion that form the content of his songs.  Tonight find a rendition of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and see what I mean.

“To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Seeger found these words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, but they speak deeply to who he was as a man and what he believed in. Rest in peace, Pete Seeger; the world is better for your purpose.

Contact Eric Reimund at [email protected]