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VOICE OF A GENERTION STILLED : PETE SEEGER DIES

The near-legendary Pete Seeger was many things to many people: a folk singer, an alternative political figure, a major musician who saved an instrument from oblivion, leader of a major folk group which influenced others and spearheaded an international folk revival, a voice of protest, an environmentalist and all around man of the people.  He was 94 and passed quietly.   (http://nytimes.com)

I was fortunate to have met him and on a few occasions actually got involved in political and musical conversations with him.  I booked his group, The Weavers, into Brooklyn  College, championed his social causes personally as well in print and caught him in musical contexts anathema to his folk musical calling, unless you consider the blues folk music as some do.

He was a self-avowed Communist –he would say “with a small ‘c’ “– when that word was tantamount to “criminally violent overthrow.”  When brought up on charges of contempt of congress, eschewing legal counsel at one point he sang his defense.

Its was the 1950s.  Gordon Jenkins, orchestra leader, composer and a & r man for Decca Records — the label which brought you Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and a bevy of big bands– he who later arranged sappy strings for ’50s and ’60s Capitol Sinatra, signed Seeger and produced the Weavers first hits.  Such songs as Huddie “Leadbelly” Lebetter’s “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top Of Old Smokey,” and originals by Seeger were in their portfolio.  You just knew they were asking for trouble as some of those tunes were what we now refer to as “protest,” Southern slave laments, containing lyrics that had to be adjusted for a.m. radio.

Seeger’s and The Weavers –nee The Almanac Singers– were first banned from radio, dates canceled, then hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  It became a cause célèbre sometimes leading to fisticuffs between pro and anti Weavers.  [The Weavers were Seeger, (Ms.) Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman and Lee Hays.]

Seeger, not wanting to endanger his friends, resigned and was replaced by Eric Darling and later by Eric Weissberg, who later went on to score a hit “Dueling Banjos” music from the movie Deliverance.

In 1959-60 as Vice President of the Senior Class it fell into my purview to book our fund-raising final concert at Brooklyn College.  I had already spearheaded jazz concerts at the College for the past four years bringing in Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton, Chris Connor, a Count Basie Reunion Band with vocalist Joe Williams and The Four Freshman among them.  So the committee looked to me for ideas.  I suggested The Weavers.  “Whoa!” was the look and body language of those politically appointed professors/advisers save Dean Francis P. Kilcoyne, our Senior Adviser, who winked in my direction, and who later went on to be interim President.  I had called Weaver Manager Harold Leventhal and got assurance that Pete would definitely NOT attend thereby securing acceptance.  Understand that BC was and is a City University component and any “pink-o” affiliation –it already had a reputation of being a “Little Red Schoolhouse”– would be embarrassing.  After much debate we finally agreed with barely enough time for publicity –I was in charge of that as well– and box-office coordination.  Tickets –only two-per, please– within almost literally minutes of going on sale, gone.  It remains the quickest sale of tickets for any event at the School.

The concert with its wildly cheering audience came off without a hitch, save for the constabulary presence.  This was different from any other Weavers performance in that there were six people on the Walt Whitman Auditorium Stage that evening, the  extras being those who had taken Seeger’s place since his indictment.  The group had already been dropped by Decca, Columbia and now lighted on Vanguard Records under the aegis of Leventhal, Moe Asch and John Hammond, who had released their massive-selling Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert which had also broken the Hall’s sell out record.

Not long after the interval, and unbeknownst to me as I read some informational Senior Class boilerplate from the stage, their was a buzz.  A certain celeb had surreptitiously waltzed backstage.  And out he came; Peter Seeger was in the house!  The cops were uncomfortably pacing.  The professors were fidgeting not knowing what to make of the wild cheering and stomping.  The SO which ensued for sometime has been burned in my brain.

The rest of the expanded Weavers concert was nothing short of spectacular considering Seeger hadn’t performed much due to the political environment.  One who stepped up to the plate was Village Gate owner Art D’Lugoff.  D’Lugoff, another of the cadre of left-leaners from the entertainment arena, booked Seeger and the blues duo of pianist and composer Memphis Slim (aka John Chapman) and bassist and blues shows entrepreneur Wee Willie Dixon.  The trio opened the sets; then Slim and Dixon did a set of their own as did Seeger including his patented sing-along with audience harmonies on “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”  Seeger rejoined for a trio finale.  Seeger played 12-string guitar and five-string banjo.  He was a renowned and respected expert on the later.  An LP was released on Folkways.

David Amram, the french hornist, pianist, composer, conductor, native flautist and hand percussionist sent the Seeger family the following slightly abridged and edited personal note which he sent to me as well.

“It is not often that many 83 year-olds like myself have the chance to have someone older than themselves to look up to and to spend time with, as well as to collaborate with musically.  Now I won’t have a chance tp play with Pete Seeger anymore but I will continue to look up to him every day of my life.

“I first heard Pete 65 years ago when my mother took me to a [Presidential candidate] Henry Wallace rally in 1948 when i was about to turn 18.

“All the hundreds of times I have played with him since then have always been a joy as well as an honor.  He chose his path and stayed on it, walked the walk and talked and inspired generations to raise our voices in song, to always think of others, to respect ourselves and share whatever blessings we have.

“[Pete] shared his incredible gifts with everybody setting examples to musicians of what our job is all about, to make contributions while we are here, to honor young people and to show love and exercise responsibility to planet earth.”

Guy Davis, Pat Humphries and David played some for Pete’s family in his hospital room.  As they sang goodbye “we could feel his spirit fill our hearts” with the energy that was uniquely Pete Seeger’s.

In addition to the music his legacy is a cleaner Hudson River.  There’s even talk of renaming the new Tappan Zee Bridge replacement after him.  How about that for turnabout?!

© January 2014 by arnold jay smith


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