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“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” – Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

It was with some sadness that I heard of Pete Seeger’s death this morning.  It seemed strangely coincidental with the showing of the Coen Brothers’ latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, which focusses on a folk singer (loosely modelled on Dave Van Ronk who also produced an LP called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”) in the folk music scene in the 1960s – as Seeger was one of the most influential people in American folk music.

Born during the May Day riots in 1919 and the first “Red Scare”, Seeger later appeared before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in the McCarthyite period because of his left-wing associations.  Typically he offered to sing to the committee, literally, but he refused to “sing” metaphorically by naming names, and was charged with contempt of Congress.  Fortunately his conviction and possible jail sentence was thrown out by a Court of Appeals.  He had joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s or 1940s as many did in the Depression years, but he left it in 1949.

In many ways Seeger was the embodiment of an a-political American radical tradition – despite his own privileged background (he was a Harvard drop-out), he identified with the ordinary working people and became a repository of their music and linked different generations of folk musicians through his knowledge, enthusiasm and personality.  He sang with Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers in the 1940s, achieved popular success with the Weavers with hits like “Goodnight Irene”(a Leadbelly song), “Wimoweh”, and “If I had a Hammer” in the 1950s, was instrumental in the folk revival of the sixties (famously being furious with Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Festival), and contributed to the civil rights protests both in person and through the song “We Shall Overcome”, and to the Vietnam peace movement in “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.

Always an optimist, Seeger expressed a great love and belief in America and its most fundamental values.  As he said “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.”

Where have all the flowers gone? – “Long Time Passing”: RIP Pete Seeger, Great American.


Christian says:

The story regarding Seeger’s reaction to Bob Dylan’s newly electrified set is a very interesting moment in 1960s history. Reports of Seeger’s disgust at Dylan’s set at the 1965 Newport festival vary, but hearsay had it that Seeger coudln’t tolerate the dropping of the traditional acoustic sound. Years after he rebuked these reports by suggesting that he was upset that Dylan’s lyrics couldn’t be understood through all the distortion, “Get that distortion out of his voice … It’s terrible. If I had an axe, I’d chop the microphone cable right now.” I think it is more than likely that Seeger was one among many critics of Dylan’s decision, purely because these reactions to the electrified set were so widespread (see Dylan’s performance in England in 1966 and the cries of ‘Judas!). They said a lot about the manner in which audiences defined stringent ideas about what constituted ‘folk’, and how it was opposed to commercialism or ‘selling out’. It also tell us more widely about how political protest was intricately related to ideas about America’s people and their past.

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