Friday, February 22, 2013

More Or Less In Praise Of Pete Seeger

This morning, I read this quote from Robert Crumb, who was speaking about Pete Seeger:
Seeger… he's a saint. Pete Seeger's a fucking saint, but I never found his music very interesting. You know, musically he can play the banjo, but he's so political, so deeply, vehemently political — and I agree with his politics completely — but it made his music political; the message was more important than the quality of the music to him. He's a literary musician, you know? But he dedicated himself to getting out there an playing these left-wing, rousing songs to labor unions and strikers, it's amazing they never put him in jail. Well, actually, I think he was in trouble for a while but he never went to jail. Is he still alive? I think he is. I think he's still going! I know someone who recently talked to him and I guess Seeger is very inspirational. He's still very lucid and he talked about the old days. You know, he started all that political campaigning in the '30s, and he started very young with that. He's from an upper-class family with money. I think it was the Seeger family whose maid was Elizabeth Cotton, and one day they found her playing guitar and singing and they went, "Oh my God! This woman is a talented singer/musician!" Somebody, years ago, gave me, as a gift, a huge box set of ten LPs of all of that left-wing folk music done by the folknics, not by the real folk, but the folknics of the '50s and early '60s: the Almanac Singers; Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. It's just totally uninteresting. Real country hillbilly music by deeply ignorant, racist people is much more interesting than that stuff. As I said, I agree totally with their politics, but musically it's really uninteresting. The whole folknic scene, even when it was happening in the late '50s and early '60s, I was never moved by it. I preferred rockabilly. 
 I found that this pretty much summarizes my feelings about Pete Seeger. I've always thought of him as sort of a secular humanist monk with the same passion, dedication and conviction as anyone in the religious life.  But for me, his music is not particularly good.  Crumb's right:  Seeger's message rendered the music an unobtrusive vehicle for the politics.  His politics - in my estimation - have always been spot on.  Always.  Seeger's character is unimpeachable and his  lyrics can be quite stirring. But the music unlistenable.  It sounds dated and even corny.  His banjo playing, while adequate, is uninteresting to me.  Perhaps Seeger himself would not argue the point that it's all about the message, not the medium.  To me, what I've heard of his music would back up that claim (should he ever make it).

Of course, P.S. trickles down to us through those he has influenced, starting with Bruce Springsteen, who is an open, unabashed fan of Pete Seeger's.  Pete Seeger has inspired generations of not just folk singers, but activists and lefty rock bands as well.  He has a career that has spanned decades, a drive and singular dedication that is a well that many have run to for inspiration.  His music is collective memory and consciousness, celebrating what's great about us as well as holding us to account.  It sounds stupid to call him a national treasure, but I feel like if anyone is, it's Seeger.  I won't be buying anything of his anytime soon though.

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