The polite but tired view of folk music is one of intimacy – a style confined to the comfort of coffeehouses and the company of friends. Pete Seeger lit a fuse to that notion. His coffeehouse was a global stage and his friends were successive generations of artists and activists that saw folk not only as a means of personal expression but as a pen with which to address an often intolerant nationIn a career that spanned seven decades, Seeger upheld folk as a social art form. His music was designed to serve and be shared.
To understand the importance of a performer like Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94, one needs to revisit the dark corridors of American history where his music took shape. McCarthyism. Segregation. War. All manner of labor, social and environmental unrest. He may have become a commercial musical force with The Weavers by making a hit out of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene. But it was what Seeger was saying in a string of work and protest songs that stirred the pot of social consciousness. It made him famous. Then it got him blacklisted.
But Seeger’s importance didn’t begin there. As a protégé of folk archivist Alan Lomax, folk was his key to America, especially rural areas where folk was a part of daily work life. These were roads Seeger never stopped walking. It led him to benefit concerts for migrant workers in the early 1940s to Occupy Wall Street 70 years later.
What continued to astound, though, was the reach of influence Seeger had upon other artists. The popularity of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash would have likely varied considerably without Seeger’s support in the 1960s, as would the more electric Americana of The Byrds and the progressive country legions they inspired.
More recently, the politically driven music of Bruce Springsteen, the indie activist records of Ani DiFranco and the globally/socially minded songs of Bruce Cockburn would have been unimaginable without Seeger.
For me, the recordings that exemplified the quiet but steadfast power of Seeger’s tireless folk vision were the concert albums he released with Arlo Guthrie over the years, particularly 1975’s Together in Concert. Among that record’s almost childlike highlights was Get Up and Go, a humorous reverie on aging from a Seeger that still had four decades of life and work ahead of him.
“In spite of it all, I’m able to grin,” Seeger sang with no small level of whimsy. “And think of the places my get-up has been.”