I have had the chance to interview a number of the famous and infamous in my life. Despite all of the fascinating people I have had the pleasure to talk to, I always wonder about those that I never had the chance to sit down with face-to-face. Of all of the misses and near-misses in my life, none has affected me like the death of Pete Seeger. Seeger died Jan. 28 in Manhattan at the age of 94.
Seeger’s death leaves a void in American music. It cuts a direct tie to an earlier age of both American history and American music. Seeger knew both Huddie Leadbetter, aka Lead Belly, and Woodie Guthrie. Lead Belly and Guthrie, along with Seeger himself, are the three luminaries of 20th Century folk music. Seeger and Guthrie met in 1940 during a concert in California for migrant workers.
If that story was not Steinbeckian enough, Seeger’s early life resonated with the force of the American artist. We see him leaving Harvard and riding the rails, trading songs and stories with hobos all along the American landscape. We see the American leftist of the mid-Century, performing pro-labor and pro-Communism songs. We see the recording star of the 1950’s with his group The Weavers.
Seeger’s career faltered in the 1950’s. Seeger was not a member of the party by the early 50’s, but his earlier ties were a non-starter in the era of Joseph McCarthy. Like many American artists with leftist sympathies, Seeger was called before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. He was sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction was eventually thrown out. By then it was the early 60’s, and a decade spent touring coffee houses and colleges had made him a folk hero. His songs brought fame to a whole new generation of folk singers, and became a virtual soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, songs like “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome.” It was this last song that made me want to interview him.
I have spent the last four years working on the independent documentary “Dixie.” The film tells the story of the minstrel song, written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859. The song has a controversial past–one reason is due to it’s use as a counter-protest anthem by southern segregationists. “We Shall Overcome” and “Dixie” battle head-to-head during many confrontations and I wanted to know Mr. Seeger’s thoughts on the song. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Seeger’s representatives and plans were in the works, but alas, as Mr. Seeger’s tune “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with words borrowed from Ecclesiastes, would say: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.”
I was never able to sit down and speak with Mr. Seeger about “Dixie” and “We Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger, perhaps more than anyone, knew the power of a song. As my work on “Dixie” draws nearer to completion, I am looking back on the film, on the people I’ve interviewed with a myriad of opinions on “Dixie.” I have certainly learned the power of a song during these last four years. My thoughts are with Mr. Seeger’s family and I feel fortunate that, when the singer dies, they leave a bit of themselves behind–their voice, their power, their song.
Library of Congress