|Pete Seeger, 1984. Wikimedia Commons|
Some time ago I was writing a piece for a conference and, as often happens, some passages fell out of the final presentation that I thought were worth hanging onto for another occasion. That occasion hasn't yet arrived, but certain recent events made me think of Pete Seeger as a cultural icon for the Left. He was a spokesperson for environmental sustainability, and early on he saw how environmental harm was the inevitable by-product of the military-industrial complex and the economic systems of both the Free World and the Communist bloc. He understood the irony in the claim that technology would revolutionize food production and raise living standards in third- and fourth-world counties, when in fact it would be utilizing higher and higher amounts of fossil fuels that would increasingly pollute the environment while heating the planet and changing the climate. It occurred to me that this could be a good place to lodge those passages about the character of Pete Seeger, until another occasion presented itself; and so here they are, with slight changes to adapt themselves to this different context.
The iconic image I have of Pete Seeger is of a tall, lean man in a blue-collar workshirt. With this workshirt he signaled his identification with the Depression-era, progressive myth of an industrial proletariat. I’d gone to one his concerts when I was ten years old and was thrilled to learn to sing along with him and everyone else. He wrote a regular column in the 1950s and 1960s for the folksong magazine, Sing Out, which column he called Johnny Appleseed, Jr. after the “natural man” John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed. The apple, of course, is the iconic American fruit; what is more American than apple pie? John Chapman traveled throughout the United States in the 1800s, planting and giving away apple tree seedlings; Seeger borrowed the Appleseed myth as he traveled and planted seeds of peace and brotherhood. In so doing he sought authentication in yet another cultural myth, the wandering medieval minstrels and actors who told the truth in song and story because they weren’t bound to the soil or to the court or any official culture.
Seeger became authenticated as an icon for the folk music revival and the progressive movement throughout the second half of the 20th century, advocating for workers' rights, Civil Rights and for world peace. I became acquainted with him in 1981 when for three days we served on a panel together for the National Endowment for the Arts. Seeger also channeled his considerable efforts into the environmental movement. Seeger symbolizes the authority of an alternative narrative fueled by music, a site of resistance to state hegemony. His was a narrative that blended political and cultural democracy. His narrative of brotherhood and sisterhood ultimately extended to include plants, animals, landforms, and geological forces—that is, the entire world of nature.
Nature and nurture among the Seegers produced a family of educators, artists and writers intent on doing good rather than making money. His father, the polymath musicologist Charles Seeger, was a principled scholar-activist. Pete, influenced by Alan Lomax’s commitment to cultural democracy and by Woody Guthrie’s life as a singer-songwriter, found that he could advance his progressive ideals by using his great gift for music and song-leading to enact, by means of his concerts, the feelings of brotherly and sisterly love and solidarity required for the social democracy he envisioned. Of course, his political activism involved more than just music performance.
Yet, interestingly, his brother Mike, an equally accomplished musician, did not use his musical gifts for political activism and social democracy. I knew Mike as a fellow old-time musician, having first met and played music with him in 1967; but he was modest and known to only a relatively small segment of the folk music revival. I found Mike dedicated and driven, like his brother; but Mike’s dedication was to working behind the scenes to help perpetuate acoustic old-time string band music. He worked tirelessly to aid and promote the elder source musicians who had kept it alive in the face of all the 20th century pressures to modernize and commercialize it. As Mike once quipped, by playing old-time music one could earn tens of dollars.
While Mike Seeger’s story fed the pre-modern cultural myths of small, face-to-face communities and appropriate technologies for a few thousand of us old-time music aficionados, Pete Seeger became a household name. He not only perpetuated but also helped to promote and delineate, many more cultural narratives: those of the poet-hero of the working classes; of self-reliant antimodernism; of the value of an unpolluted natural environment, and of the cultural myth of universal brotherhood, peace, and justice.