One of the more fascinating contributions Pete Seeger made to our collective musical sensibility was the effortless way in which he introduced what we now call “world music” to his audiences.
By Jackson Braider
Pete Seeger died on Monday at the age of 94, a long-lived man blessed with the genes of a long-lived clan. His father, ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, died at the ripe age of 93; his mother, Constance de Clyver Seeger, a concert violinist, lived to be 89. And by all that was right and true, Pete Seeger was born among an extraordinarily musical family. Along with his ethnomusicologist father, his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was both a composer and an American folklorist. His half-brother, Mike (died 2009), and his half-sister, Peggy, made the performance and collection of the Anglo-American folk tradition their life’s work. Mike first came to prominence in the early 1960s as one of the founding members of the New Lost City Ramblers — a formative group of urbane traditional players who eschewed the pretty for the authentic. He would later become one of the independent scholars of American folklore who introduced academics to the still-living traditions of American music in the latter half of the 20th Century. Peggy, for her part, has continually devoted herself to sustaining musical traditions of all stripes to this very day — certainly ever since the Seeger family maid, Elizabeth Cotten, taught her how to play “Freight Train.”
The obituaries and remembrances of Pete Seeger have taken two main courses since his death. On the one side, bloggers like Charlie Pierce and Josh Marshall embrace Seeger’s social activism, his political engagement, his cultural weal. On the other, folk musicians like Happy Traum spoke of all of the worlds of music Seeger offered his audiences over the decades — not just Anglo-American folk genres of all kinds, but also America’s first forays into what we would eventually come to call years later “world music.” And then there was Bruce Springsteen’s remembrance that connected Seeger with that other giant of American music, the Columbia producer and talent scout John Hammond who not only “discovered” bluesman Robert Johnson and blues chanteuse Bessie Smith, but he promoted Benny Goodman, signed up Bob Dylan as well as Springsteen, and provided shelter for Seeger after the un-American activities storm of the mid-’50s.
As a guiding light, Seeger will no doubt loom large in future musical histories of the 20th Century. But when I try to picture him as the Paul Bunyan of American folk music, there is a catch. One thing most of the homages about Seeger avoid was his sheer lack of virtuosity as a performer. He could, for example, carry a tune, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of a single opera aria you would like to hear from his lips. Sure, he claw-hammered the five-string banjo and strummed that old twelve-string with competence and consistency, but you’d never think of him as the kind of player who would set the fingerboard alight with his blazing licks and dazzling fretwork.
Rather than try to foreshorten our vision of Seeger to make him seem gigantic, I would rather draw on the curious tribute to the man that comes from the satiric folk-umentary A Mighty Wind, in which the Folkmen spend so much time introducing “The Skeletons of Quinto,” a song from the Spanish Civil War, that they never get around to playing it.
The inspiration for this bit was Seeger’s version of “Guantanamera,” a Cuban love song he first performed with The Weavers in the ’50s before he revisited it around the time of the missile crisis in 1962. Though the lyrics were always sung in Spanish, Seeger would recite their English translation in performance. Only in the gauche fantasy life of a conservative paranoid could a love song from the ’20s somehow morph into rabid Communist propaganda. Still, I wonder if Seeger was not above jerking a congressman’s chain or two — were it not for the sincerity of the recitation:
My verses are light green,
But they are also flaming red.
My verses are like a wounded fawn,
Seeking refuge in the mountain.
Indeed, one of the more fascinating contributions Seeger made to our collective musical sensibility was the effortless way in which he introduced what we now call “world music” to his audiences. In the early ’50s, Seeger with The Weavers brought the Zulu song “Uyimbube” to American audiences. Best known as “In the Jungle, the Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Seeger’s version is based on a mispronunciation of the title, with “Uyimbube” becoming “Wimoweh” by mistake. The mispronunciation, in true folk fashion, is now as much a part of our collective awareness of the song as the motoric rhythm of the chanted accompaniment.
Why did Seeger play such a vital role, not just in the folk scene but in the history of American music? He was an easy-to-picture icon: String-bean tall, sleeves rolled up, his Adam’s apple almost rooster-like in its prominence. Whatever the song he was playing, the song was the thing, whether it came from Appalachia or Woody Guthrie’s pen (or his own, for that matter) or the South African veldt.
In his performances, Seeger was not trying to interpret the songs (wherever they came from) or create powerful theater. Rather, Seeger, with his okay playing and serviceable voice, served as the medium through which we would encounter the words and the music of the tune — which, of course, was why the song was the thing in the first place — and come to embrace its beauty and sentiments for ourselves.
In sum, Seeger was a tenacious guy who’d found all these wonderful songs to sing and spent decades sharing them with audiences — in music camps, classrooms, protest gatherings, concert halls, marches — that were willing to follow his lead and join in. “Everybody, sing!” — his perpetual request. Seeger was always placing music on a human scale.
Jackson Braider is an independent radio producer and writer based in Boston. A longtime music journalist, Braider earned his masters in folklore and mythology at UCLA and participated in the New York singer/songwriter scene in the 1980s. He had two songs published in Fast Folk: “The Four Seasons” in 1984 and “Paris by Night” in 1988. Both are available digitally at Smithsonian Folkways.