Find fun things to doin the Austin, TX area

+ Add A Listing
Austin Music Source

Posted: 10:08 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger 

  • comment(1)


Pete Seeger Merlefest 2006
Jim McKelvey
Pete Seeger in 2006 at Merlefest in North Carolina with Austin singer-songwriters Slaid Cleaves and Jimmy LaFave.

By Peter Blackstock

News of Pete Seeger’s death spread quickly in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, shortly after he died at age 94 at a New York hospital. (See the full AP obituary here.)

I got the wake-up call at 1:24 a.m. from my wife in Raleigh. A little over a year ago, she and I traveled from North Carolina to New York for a Thanksgiving-weekend show at Carnegie Hall featuring Arlo Guthrie and his family band, with Seeger as special guest.

If Seeger’s health was shakier than the last time we’d seen him – at Merlefest in the N.C. Appalachians in 2006, for a Woody Guthrie tribute that also included Austin acts Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves and Eliza Gilkyson – he still was in full command of both his faculties and the audience. Performers often try to cajole the crowd into singing along with a chorus on a certain song, but Seeger never had to cajole: He just led them, naturally, and they followed.


It helped, certainly, that many of Seeger’s songs were universally familiar. The likes of “Turn Turn Turn” and “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” may not be possible in today’s world, where musical camps are so fragmented that it’s rare to find reference points common to even half of Americans anymore. Seeger shares that link to a more collective cultural experience with Woody Guthrie, whom Seeger amazingly ended up outliving by nearly 50 years.

Like Guthrie, Seeger, born in 1919, was one of the giants of 20th-century American music. What’s remarkable is that he ended up having a significant presence well into the 21st century too. Bruce Springsteen built a 2006 album (“We Shall Overcome”) and an entire backing-crew and tour (the Seeger Sessions Band) around Seeger’s songs. A roster of luminaries honored the folk singer at Madison Square Garden for his 90th birthday in 2009. A couple years later, Seeger recorded a new version of his protest song “Which Side Are You On?” with Ani DiFranco for her 2011 album of the same name.

Perhaps more important, Seeger kept making vital music himself. He won a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for his 2008 release “At 89,” a fascinating 32-track record that combined new songs with a few old ones and several philosophical recitations. It was reflective, yes, but also very forward-looking. “God only knows what the future will be,” he sang on an inspirational tune aptly titled “One-a These Days (or Else).”

Some of his historical works continued to be reborn as well. In 2012, Smithsonian Folkways issued “The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960,” a 34-track document recorded in Maine during a time when the oft-blacklisted Seeger kept his music alive by playing campus shows around the country. And just last year at SXSW, William Eigen gave a world-premiere showing at the Paramount Theatre of “Pete and Toshi Get a Camera.” The film consisted of home movies shot in the early 1960s by Seeger and his wife Toshi, who passed away last July at age 91, just a few days before the couple’s 70th anniversary.

In a beautiful song with the playful title “Little Fat Baby” on the “At 89” record, Seeger sang, matter-of-factly: “Someday, we’ll be saying so long. Someday, it’ll be time for me to move on.” Here we are at Someday; yet it was important to Seeger that those who remain still look forward when Someday came. His advice on a spoken-word track from “At 89” – titled, knowingly, “Pete’s Extroduction” – was this:

You know, the agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years. Now the information revolution is only taking decades. But, if we use the brains God gave us, we will have the revolution that must come if there is going to be a human race here next century. I call it the nonviolent revolution. Some may call it the love revolution, or the willingness-to-communicate revolution. Who knows? If we learn to grow, not in size, but grow in generosity, or grow in a sense of humor, or grow in the ability to talk with people we disagree with, we will still have great-grandchildren here, by the time the 22nd century comes along.

And with such words, Seeger stays among us. As Arlo Guthrie noted in a public statement today: “‘Well, of course he passed away!’ I’m telling everyone this morning. ‘But that doesn't mean he's gone.’”

Peter Blackstock

About Peter Blackstock

Peter Blackstock is a music writer for the Austin American-Statesman. A UT grad who grew up in Austin, he worked at the Statesman in high school and college before moving to Seattle and co-founding the alt-country magazine No Depression in the '90s.

Send Peter Blackstock an email.

  • comment(1)

 
 

Latest Music Videos

Austin Music Source on Twitter