There was a time, before Starbucks and Iphones and Ipads and iPods, and texting and email, when stories were told by folk singers. For those of you hyper-caffeinated twenty something PDs and ASAs who march into the courthouse with one hand on a cafe latte and your head buried in your smartphone, you know who we mean- those of you who never stayed up all night banging out a term paper on a typewriter- the idea that a simple man could move a world through song without a twitter account or youtube videos might seem unbelievable. And yet Pete Seeger did just that.
After starting a radical newspaper, Seeger dropped out of Harvard (leaving behind a classmate named John Fitzgerald Kennedy), and then hitchhiked across the United States. Along the way he met and sang with legends like Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter- an Ex-con from Louisiana- and Woody Guthrie, an Okie minstrel.
Pete Seeger helped write and arrange such classics as the depression era "If I had a Hammer", the Vietnam protest song "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", and the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
HUAC- the House Un-American Activities Committee that ruined the lives of countless good Americans during the "Red Scare" of the 1950's, thought that the words like "Freedom" and "people" in Seeger's songs were "code words" designed to help Communists infiltrate American Society. Called to testify before the Committee, Seeger heroically declined to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent: "I've sang for hobos and I've sang for the Rockefellers and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody" Seeger told the committee. Asked to name names about people who may have attended suspected Communist meetings where Seeger sang, Seeger, who offered to sing for the Committee, refused to testify: "I think these are very improper questions for Americans to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this" he told the committee. Seeger, who had sold millions of records before he testified, was convicted of contempt of Congress, sentenced to a year in jail, and saw all of his record sales and concert bookings evaporate. In 1962 Seeger's conviction was overturned on a technicality. A resurgence of folk music in the 1960's saw his career revived.
He sang for presidents, with Bruce Springsteen,
with homeless hobos, with young people protesting the Vietnam war and with countless leaders of the civil rights movement. Singing at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, he led an audience of 10,000 Russians through "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore". He was unique, an American through and through.
Here is Pete Seeger-age 89- with the Boss, in 2009, at a concert on the Lincoln Memorial during the pre-inaugural festivities for President Obama. So make some room on your phone or iPod, erase a Jay-Z song if you have to, and download some Pete Seeger.
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