In search of the heirs of folksinger Pete Seeger

Dangerous Music

Pete Seeger and his pickup full of lumber

Pete Seeger, Beacon, 2010. Foto © Claus Biegert


It was one of those moments that wells up out of nowhere in Manhattan. Suddenly across the Upper West Side the warm wind carried the amplified yowls of a soprano saxophone. Plus the wild animal cries of a wolf. Plus a police siren. To be abruptly joined by the full-throated howls of a legion of fans.

It was the 2014 kick-off of the annual Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival: an audience of over a thousand had assembled in the shadows of the Metropolitan Opera to honor folk music pioneer Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi. Seeger had passed on earlier in the year at the age of 94, just a few months after Toshi, 91, had proceeded him. Composer and saxophonist Paul Winters had appealed from the stage: "Let's howl together! In remembrance of Pete and Toshi Seeger." And then he added: "And on behalf of Leonard Peltier!"

Pete would have relished the moment. Not many have understood as well as Seeger how to channel an audience's energy into a burst of resounding protest. And always on behalf of a cause crying out for justice... Pete was involved in the FREE PELTIER movement since the Indian activist was first tossed behind prison bars at the outset of the seventies. In a trumped-up trial Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive lifetime terms for the murder of two FBI agents. Witnesses later recanted their testimony, some spoke of FBI tampering and threats, and although the charges were eventually reduced from first degree murder to aiding and abetting, Peltier's punishment remained the same: two consecutive lifetime terms. The case is one of the greatest travesties of justice the United States has ever known; around the world Leonard Peltier is considered a political prisoner.

Up on stage, Tinya, Pete Seeger's daughter, read a letter Peltier had sent from USP Coleman. Peltier wrote of how much Seeger's public solidarity meant to him, how it had filled him with new strength. Together with Harry Belafonte at the end of 2012 at Broadway's Beacon Theater, Pete had hosted an evening called, Bring Leonard Home! The men had assembled a number of prominent artists – from Bruce Cockburn to Jackson Brown to Peter Coyote and Michael Moore – in order to urge President Obama to grant Peltier his long overdue pardon. From Washington came no response. At the Lincoln Center Out Of Doors event, Harry Belafonte appeared from behind the curtains. The eighty-eight year-old civil rights campaigner slowly made his way to the microphone with the aid of a cane. And there, his famous voice infused with sudden power, he reminded the audience of Seeger's unbending art of addressing injustice. Belafonte shouted: "Seeger sang out on behalf of the truth!"

"To sing out on behalf of the truth," David King Dunaway, Pete Seeger's biographer, told me, "was always a component of folk music." Dunaway, reporting from Lincoln Center for his new show at National Public Radio in New Mexico (the Seeger event was naturally an interviewer's goldmine), traced the folk tradition back to the early dynasties of China: "The rulers sent spies to the gatherings along the Great Wall to closely listen to the songs sang by the workers. Rulers have always feared the grassroots wisdom of the working class."

I asked Dunaway: "Who will pick up where Pete Seeger left off? Who are his heirs?"

Dunaway shook his head: "That's no easy question to answer." He explained that what made following Pete's footsteps so difficult was that, "Pete Seeger invented himself. Just recall his biography."

In 1919 Pete Seeger was born into a home where music was celebrated; he struck out on his own in the midst of the Great Depression and met up with Woody Guthrie; Pete was the co-founder of such successful bands as the Almanac Singers (with Guthrie), and The Weavers (with Lee Hays); he toured as a folk troubadour for the trade unions and on behalf of civil rights until he was called to appear before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee because of his alleged communist connections; for his silence before the committee Pete was banned from public appearance; radio stations were prohibited from playing his music; at the end of the fifties Pete co-founded the legendary Newport Folk Festival; alongside Bob Dylan and Joan Baez he became one of the leading voices in the protest movement; long before ecological thinking became fashionable, Seeger battled for the rights of his beloved Hudson, composing the tune, My Dirty Stream; Pete gathered some friends and constructed a sloop, the "Clearwater", then sailed from landing to landing to battle river pollution by calling to life the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater environmental organization; again and again Pete toured the country giving concerts and leading sing-alongs on behalf of civil rights, the environment, peace, and the end to all things nuclear; finally, in 2009, Pete became one of the country's musical giants: playing his famous, long-necked banjo (ringed by the words he engraved so many years earlier: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender), Seeger sang a Woody Guthrie tune at President Obama's inauguration: This Land is Your Land; not two and a half years later Pete was back in New York marching with the aid of two canes across Manhattan as part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Can a career that spanned three generations ever know an heir? Pete hated the word 'career', Dunaway told me. When his Seeger biography How Can I Keep from Singing? was published in 1981, Pete disagreed with much of the content. For friends he would sign as dedication: I'm described here as a saint. But a saint I ain't! Two decades later Seeger invited Dunaway to his log cabin outside Beacon, high over the Hudson, and the two pieced through the book page by page, weeding out every tiny error. The revised biography appeared in 2008 with a forward from Seeger.

The heirs of Pete Seeger? I learned more of Dunaway's answer each time I ran into him. The Seeger festival was a five-day tribute: it started come sundown at the Hudson River Park in West Village with Jim Brown's film portrait The Power of Song, then wandered north to a memorial service at the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie. Picnics followed at Beacon, and at the Ashokan Center in the Catskill Mountains. There was a concert in the Bronx, and a photo exhibition on Broadway. The series climaxed with the Lincoln Center event, followed by the New Songs of Justice concert in Central Park – a venue that featured young voices from hip-hop, alternative country, indie, and punk: Amanda Palmer, Anti-Flag, Michael Glabicki, Steve Earle, James Maddock, Nyraine, Toni Blackman, Rebel Diaz, White Tiger Society, Sarah Lee Guthrie, DJ Kool Herc, Aurora Barnes. Pete's heirs? "Sure," said Gina Belafonte, her voice having something of her father's rich timbre. Together with musician Jason Samel and Seeger's grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, Gina had organized the Seeger festival.

"Pete's heirs will be among those who show up wherever a fire needs putting out," Dunaway said. "His heirs are the ones who see no future in the status quo. For example, what's happening today with fracking. This brutal way of forcing natural gas from the earth endangers the groundwater. Especially on the East Coast fracking has mobilized a great many musicians." John Lennon's song, Don't Frack my Mother, as performed by Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon with plenty of Hollywood back-up, has became the hymn of the anti-Fracking movement.

Later I ran into Dunaway again, and this time he came up with a few solid names: "Bruce Cockburn, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young." Bruce Cockburn belongs to the Free Peltier initiative. Springsteen met Pete in 2006, and in his honor came out with The Seeger Tapes recording. Neil Young is singing out against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which promises to destroy huge sweeps of land by transporting crude from the oil sands of northern Canada. Neil is the figurehead of a protest movement that unites concerned Native Americans with Canadian activists in an environmental organization called, "Idle No More."

David Amram and Peter Yarrow, cellphones in hand, besieged again and again for their autographs, hurried up to us. David Amram, 83, is a composer and all-around musical genius; Peter Yarrow, 73, was the Peter part of Peter, Paul and Mary. They coordinated their calendars with Dunaway's – in September the musicians plan to fly to South Dakota and perform in the Black Hills, the sacred mountain range of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota. Again the point is to send a message to Barack Obama. "Per executive order the President can return the Black Hills to their lawful owners," said Amram. "For the Indians it's not about possession – they simply want to be reaffirmed in their traditional role as caretakers."

"Critical thinking as regards our own history is so difficult in this country," added Yarrow. "We have to finally face the land theft and acts of genocide we committed against this country's First Americans. A process not unlike what the Germans are doing with their Nazi past." Both men were combing the Seeger events to find comrades-in-arms for their Black Hills initiative. Seeger's heirs have much work ahead of them.

by Claus Biegert, published in German by the
Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich on 5 August 2014

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus