There were only two records that my parents owned when I was a child that I remember at all, The Weavers Live At Carnegie Hall and The Songs Of Joe Hill by The Almanac Singers. I wasn't what you'd call politically aware as a kid, so I can only imagine I liked the old union organizing songs that were on the second record for the same reasons that I liked the music the Weavers performed – they sounded great. The music was up tempo and the singing voices were enthusiastic and nice to listen to, which for a little kid is really all that matters. Hell I could have liked them for the simple reason that they were the only "singing records" my parents had aside from opera, and the relief of hearing something intelligible made them easy to like.
However, aside from whatever relief the albums might have given me from the dubious benefits of an early and unwanted education in classical opera, they were my introduction to Pete Seeger. The cover of the Weaver's album featured a picture of the four musicians grouped together around a microphone and while Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays were fairly distinct based on gender and age, distinguishing between Fred Hellermen and Pete was a little more tricky for me until I figured out that Pete was the one with the banjo and Fred was holding the guitar. Ever since, and no matter how many pictures I've seen of Pete playing a guitar or any other instrument, he has remained firmly fixed in my head as the tall guy playing banjo who sings with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open.
I'm sure any of you who have either seen Pete in concert or a picture of him performing can visualize exactly what I'm talking about. He stands up in front of the microphone, slightly stooped, as if its just a little bit too low, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. When he talks its straight out into the audience, but when he begins to sing his head tips up as if he's trying to throw his voice out around the world for all to hear. Now I know it's probably a hang over from the days when he was playing places where there was no amplification and he was doing his best to send that voice up and out so that even those furthest away could hear whatever message he was trying to impart that day. Yet, whenever I see a picture of him standing thin and alone against the sky poised to begin singing, I can't help but think that he's offering up his songs as a prayer for the world.
When you think about it, it's not that much of a stretch to think of his music in that way. After all, his concerts are as much like revival meetings as anything else with him leading people in songs that are as often as not messages of hope and faith. While he's always peppered his set lists with songs from other parts of the world that give us a window into somebody else's reality, the majority of his music is about what can be done, should be done, and needs to be done to make the world a better place for all of us. All of this has been captured brilliantly in a new recording, to be released on September 30 2008 from Appleseed Music called Pete Seeger At 89.
On thirty-two tracks of music and talk, Pete and his friends show what it means to really care about what goes on around you and the importance of involving as many people as possible in whatever way possible. That could mean getting a person to sing a song that makes them feel better about themselves and whoever is sitting next to them at the moment, or singing a song that encourages them to get involved in their own community cleaning up a polluted tract of land. Honest, sincere, and unconditional caring is a rare commodity and it was so palatable that, in these days of increasingly cynical politicians and disillusioned people, listening to this CD brought me close to tears on a number of occasions.
It wasn't even a matter of what was being said, it was how it was being said that affected me. Whether it was a song about PCB pollution in the Hudson River ("Throw Away That Shad Net (How Are We Going To Save Tomorrow?)") or about the end of WW2 as seen through the eyes of a young Japanese woman ("When I Was Most Beautiful") it didn't matter. What caught at me was the realization that every word was spoken or sung with genuine caring no matter the topic. Who but Pete Seeger could write a song based on a twenty-seven word zero waste resolution passed by the city of Berkeley California and not only turn it into a call and response sing-a-long, but make lyrics like "Hooray for the city of Berkeley California" not sound corny?
Nobody, that's who. You know over the years there have been people who've derided Pete Seeger for not being radical enough while at the same time he was being pilloried as un-American for being a dangerous radical. What neither side have failed to understand is the true nature of Pete's radicalism. It's got nothing to with politics and everything to do with the heart. He encourages people to open their hearts and genuinely feel that they are part of something bigger then themselves. Even if it's only for the briefest of moments while they join in a chorus of "This Land Is Your Land" or a folk song from some place across the ocean in a language they don't understand, they become part of a community of people who are all doing the same thing at the same time.
That's what Pete Seeger's music has always been about, building bridges between people. Either by telling the world at large the story of what it's like to be a miner who "owes his soul to the company store" or getting a thousand strangers to sing together in a darkened concert hall, he brings people together. His songs remind us that there is a world outside of ourselves and that the person who lives on the other side of the world is as real as we are. With Pete Seeger as our guide, we find that it's not difficult or bad to care about the person beside you or the person on the other side of the world and that it actually makes you feel better about yourself.
At eighty-nine years old Pete's voice isn't as robust as it used to be, and he doesn't so much sing anymore as he recites some lyrics now, so he has wisely chosen to have a bunch of friends help him out on this album. Yet, by taking a back seat on some songs and allowing others to lead instead, he gives yet another example of how his music is able to bring together diverse groups of people to accomplish a common goal. Who else but Pete Seeger could get an Israeli songwriter and a Palestinian poet to re-write a Hebrew language folk song, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", so that it now includes Hebrew, Arabic, and English lyrics sung at once in harmony?
Long ago, in the days before there was a world music genre, Pete Seeger was singing songs from cultures around the world in languages he probably didn't even understand. In those days folk music was just that, the music of different folk from around the world. Pete still doesn't see any difference between playing a song written by a guy from Oklahoma or one written by someone from Chile or Moscow. It's that attitude that has permeated his music for generations and has inspired audiences around the world to broaden their horizons. Now if only the rest of the world could catch up to him we'd be getting somewhere.
Pete Seeger At 89 is a great album of music by a great hearted performer. In the forty odd years since I first heard him singing he's still the tall guy with the banjo. His voice might not be able to crack the sky anymore, but his heart and soul are as mighty as ever and that banjo still surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.