There's a famous picture of Woody Guthrie where along the face of his guitar are clearly seen the words "This Machine Fights Fascists". That picture has long been part of the romantic image that's grown up among "folkies" about the guy who inspired Bob Dylan and wrote some of the most enduring songs of the twentieth century, songs that are sung to this day.
The legends haven't been as flamboyant about his old friend Pete Seeger, and for some reason he's never obtained the status of Woody among the left and the folkies even though he was as staunchly committed to all the same causes as Woody and has continued to be to this day, even though he's well into his 80s. Radical singer/songwriter Phil Ochs even took shots at Pete and his audiences in the 1960s with his song "Love Me, Love Me, I'm A Liberal" — "I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts/He sure gets me singing those songs."
Pete wouldn't contain himself to singing only about the cause, he would sing old spirituals, songs for children, and he was probably the first world music performer as he would also sing folk songs from all over the world. He also did the unforgivable in the eyes of so many — he and the band the Weavers had a hit. In the days before they were booted off the airwaves as part of the blacklisting of the 1950s ( Pete had been a member of the Communist Party of America until 1950 when he quit in disgust) they achieved a high level of popularity for their performances of American and world folk songs.
But for all his supposed mainstream acceptance, Pete was blacklisted along with hundreds of other artists whose patriotism was questioned by the American government via the infamous hearings of Joseph McCarthy into un-American activities. Pete's banjo may not have had fighting words on it, but what it did say – "This sound surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" – said all that needed to be said about the man and his music.
Pete came by his appreciation for American folk music via his family, as his father was a folklorist and a music teacher. He was born in New York City in 1919 and even though his family was musically inclined and he himself started playing ukulele at five, he didn't consider a career in music until 1936, when he first heard a five-string banjo. At twenty-five he dropped out of his life of journalism and Harvard University and embarked on the path he continues to follow today.
From his first group in New York City with Woody Guthrie and others called the Almanac Singers, the work with the Weavers, and his amazing solo career, Pete's voice has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the fight for social justice in America. Playing in work camps during the Depression, at union rallies when you could still be shot for being in a union, singing the songs of The International Brigade who fought in Spain against Franco, and the music of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, his high tenor, and banjo have been a continual part of the soundscape that's called for change.
For all of Pete Seeger's supposed public acceptance he has still never received the same sort of recognition as his famous contemporary. Tribute albums to Woody Guthrie have, deservedly, been made countless times over in the past twenty years with contributions from people like Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and others. Finally in the past year we've started to see some of the same for Pete with the release of Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions.
With far less fanfare there have also been some releases of the man himself singing his own work. One of the more interesting ones comes from a Spanish label, Disc Medi, which has released a double disc entitled Brothers and Sisters, the title of which comes from a line in what might arguably be Seeger's best known song, "If I Had A Hammer," co-written with Weavers band mate Lee Hays.
The line in fact says so much about Pete Seeger's attitude that it could well be his epitaph: "It's the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land." Tolerance and reaching out one's hand to walk hand in hand with the person beside you are the lessons he has preached his whole life. It's not his fault that too many in the world have been too cynical to listen or accept that teaching.
Some might question why we need another recording of Pete Seeger singing songs like "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", "The Big Rock Candy Mountain", "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," and "Study War No More" and I'd answer we can never have enough recordings of Pete or anybody singing those songs. But for those who need an excuse to make a collection special, the second disc contains recordings that are not going to be familiar to today's audiences.
While some of the titles might be familiar, the arrangements are going to be awfully disconcerting at first listen. To hear Woody Guthrie's dust bowl classic "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" performed with full orchestration a la the best Tin Pan Alley tradition is a little strange. But the first eleven songs on disc two are taken from old Weavers recordings and concerts and that's how they were being packaged and presented by the record companies of the day.
Even those of you who have heard the classic Weavers Live At Carnegie Hall album from the same period won't recognise these songs as the same ones you're familiar with. There are also some great recordings of the old Almanac Singers, which are hard to come by, singing some of their classic union tunes, "Which Side Are You On", "Union Maid", and "Solidarity Forever," to present a nice counterbalance to the almost sappy production numbers of songs like "Wimoweh" and "On Top Of Old Smokey".
But either way these are versions of these old songs not readily available any more, so these discs are a valuable resource for that reason if none other. It's always interesting to hear how in different periods of time various songs were adapted for popular consumption. It makes you wonder what would be done with songs like "Follow The Drinking Gourd" or "Around The World" if someone took it into their heads to try and make them top forty friendly for today's audiences.
In the summer of 1981, I was fortunate enough to see Pete Seeger perform in concert. It was in the days when he and Arlo Guthrie were still touring together and performing cross-generational concerts. They would each perform their own material while the other sat on the stage watching, and then they would also play songs together, usually ones that Arlo's dad had written.
I can still remember Pete Seeger sitting on the stage, eschewing the chair they had supplied for him, cross-legged on a blanket staring up at Arlo as he and his band performed their set. Although at nearly 87 he is still touring and playing, I doubt if I'll get the chance to see him perform again, so I will always cherish having had the opportunity.
When Springsteen put out his disc this year, I asked myself why anyone would buy him doing Pete's songs when they could just as easily hear Pete singing them. After listening to Brothers and Sisters, I wonder it even more.