Pete Seeger died three days ago. The Press is calling him a hero. But not that long ago the establishment portrayed him as a villain, a Communist who refused to testify to the US Congress in the HUAC hearings of the early 1950s. I was a little boy at the time, but I recall my parents being outraged at the way Joseph McCarthy and his know-nothings were smearing Americans who had as much right to be Communists as to be Republicans or Buddhists. Seeger's days as a Communist were long behind him by then, but he still believed in communal ideals. Alan Lomax was so worried that he (Lomax) would be tarred with the same brush and then unable to accomplish the work he felt called to do, that he fled to Europe, where he was able to continue that phase of his remarkable career, collecting and promoting folksongs and folksingers. Seeger remained in the US, convicted and sentenced; and although cleared later on a technicality, he was blacklisted and prevented from appearing on major venues such as television. He was the original “alternative” musician, forced to make his way outside the established channels where only a few years later folksingers like The Kingston Trio, who had not taken the same political stand, became establishment darlings and were well paid for it.
Pete was a populist, someone who believed in the inherent worth and dignity of the so-called common person. He gave his heart and soul, his hands and his songs to the workers, the unions, the oppressed and downtrodden. So humble a man he was, that only now is his influence in the various rights movements of the last century—labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, the right to dissent--becoming known. Until now few knew, for instance, Pete was a crucial link in the chain that transformed the old, African-American gospel song, “I Will Overcome,” into the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
I spent some time with Pete Seeger in 1981. We were working for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, trying to decide how to apportion grant money in response to the dozens of proposals for projects that had come in. At our meetings where we discussed these proposals, Pete didn’t say very much. Much of the time he seemed bored, distracted. He would tilt his head back, showing even more of his already prominent Adam’s apple. I could understand how some people might have been put off over the years by what they thought was a patrician distancing, inherited from his father, the musicologist Charles Seeger. But he was paying close attention. He just didn’t think he had much to contribute, so he mostly kept silent. But there was one proposal that I recall he spoke for, passionately.
It was a proposal made by an arts organization in one of the northern New England states, possibly Maine, or maybe it was New Hampshire. The organization wrote that they wanted to hire a professional photographer, with experience in taking pictures of vernacular folk art, to travel around the region documenting the yard art that people used in decorating the spaces outside their houses. Not the carefully manicured bushes, walks and foundation plantings of the suburban middle-class, but the oddball sculptures, the paintings and things hung on barns and garages, the junk carefully constructed and arranged in seasonal collages to depict the first Thanksgiving, or the piles of stones balanced one on top of the other—the sort of thing you'd find in the countryside. The best of these were to be collected into a traveling photo exhibit that would tour the public libraries in the region for a few years.
We had read all of the proposals well before the discussion. This was one that I myself had particularly liked. I’m not sure why, but I’d been fascinated by yard art for years. Not the pink flamingos and stooping-over ladies showing their bloomers—that was store-bought yard decor—but the eccentric, individual expressions, the one-of-a-kind homemade signs like those announcing the end of the world, and the elaborate figures made out of found objects, the flowers made from old springs and gears and bottle caps, the window shades that people painted with allegories of their dreams, the old tractors and farm machinery reminding people of the way that land once had been treated, everything showing how so-called ordinary people weren’t ordinary at all in their impulses to create, to pattern their worlds aesthetically and turn the most common objects into things that deserved witness.
I must have blurted out something like that when the discussion of this grant proposal finally began. At any rate, I spoke in favor of it. Everyone else, except Pete, looked at me as if I were crazy. One of them said, quoting the old saw, “Yes, but is it Art?” A second person said that he didn't want to see a photo exhibit of junk cars and old lobster traps. Another was worried that the Endowment would become a public laughingstock when some Congressman intent destroying it pointed out that we had given someone a bunch of money to go around the country photographing Christmas lights.
At that point Pete, who had been unusually attentive, cleared his throat. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I like this idea. Yard art is something lots of folks do. And it’s something lots of folks understand because they do it. And something lots of folks like. Maybe not the highfalutin’ folk who sit up here in the national endowments, the ones who have paintings on their walls that ordinary folks wouldn’t know which side was up. This yard art, or whatever you call it, is of the people, by the people, for the people—you know that. And we should celebrate it, and support it, not just by how it looks, but for what it is.”
That was the longest speech Pete made to our group. I hope I remembered his words right. I think I got the gist of it, anyway. When he was done I was ready to applaud. But the others were like trees standing by the water, and they would not be moved. Pete and I were the only ones in favor of the proposal. We were outvoted. Majority vote ruled, and the proposal was not recommended for funding.
Pete Seeger is gone now, but as I was saying to a friend two days ago, and to the radio man who interviewed me about Pete yesterday, he isn’t gone. Like Joe Hill, whom he often sang about, Pete Seeger lives on.