Seeger remained the old-fashioned folkie

February 6, 2014 

I was in the shower the other day singing “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” the old Woody Guthrie song that everybody knows although they don’t know exactly why they know it.

In this case, I was singing it because I had just heard Pete Seeger sing it in that plain but penetrating voice of his during one of the many tributes to him. He died Jan. 27 at the age of 94.

I sounded OK in the shower. That was because most of the songs Seeger sang, either by himself of with others, were the sort of easy egalitarian anthems designed to be sung by a crowd. In fact Seeger’s friends testified to his almost mystical ability to coax a crowd to sing along with him.

“So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You,” whose subtitle is “Dusty Old Dust,” is a folk classic, a song that undoubtedly gets sung around a lot of summer-camp bonfires. But it’s also a protest song about the Dust Bowl and the mistreatment of the migrating Okies. This is the chorus:

“So long, it's been good to know you;

So long, it's been good to know you;

So long, it's been good to know you.

This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,

And I got to be driftin’ along.”

It’s no surprise that Seeger sang protest songs. What’s remarkable, however, is how those songs, including several he wrote himself, have become ingrained in our culture and our collective memory, almost as if we were born knowing them.

Seeger wrote or co-wrote “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement. It reportedly was based on old gospel songs, especially “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn sung by striking tobacco workers on a picket line in South Carolina.

Seeger modestly claimed that his biggest contribution to the song was changing the lyric “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome,” which, he said, sounded stronger.

But he also wrote the moving “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which took its lyrics from the Bible. And he wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which became an anti-Vietnam War song and which still can bring on unbidden tears.

Some might have found Seeger’s politics hard to stomach. He flirted with communism, but later renounced it. Notably, he refused to testify before a House subcommittee in Congress about his involvement with the party because he believed that in America, no one should have the right to question him about his beliefs. And he only narrowly avoided going to jail for that act of defiance.

He was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, the peace movement and efforts to heal the environment. He almost single-handedly brought the Hudson River back from the dead by cruising up and down the river in a homemade wooden ship, holding hootenannies on board and speaking to residents along the shore about cleaning up their waterway.

He was undeniably political but never strident, never hectoring, never mean-spirited. He came from the folkie tradition of Guthrie, Leadbelly, Dave Van Ronk, the Clancy Brothers, Joan Baez, the young Bob Dylan, and his own group, The Weavers. He never went electric or tried to keep pace with the pacesetters in the psychedelic ’60s.

Seeger’s weapon of choice was an elongated five-string banjo. His favorite guerrilla tactic was getting people to sing along with him.

One of the most endearing stories about Seeger was that he was a reluctant millionaire, a capitalist in spite of himself. He never set out to make a fortune, but the proceeds from records and concerts, and the royalties from songs made him a millionaire a few times over.

He managed to give a lot of it away and lived humbly on a hill near the Hudson. But he couldn’t dodge getting rich.

At times you could look at the bearded Seeger in his dungarees and shirt with rolled up sleeves, and think maybe here was a poseur, someone who has perfected the schtick of a folksinger and milked it for a lifetime. And then you would mentally slap yourself and acknowledge that this guy was the real thing, a genuinely humble man, a man dedicated to the old-fashioned ideals of freedom, peace, love, tolerance and harmony, helping those in need and pursuing higher ends than material wealth.

You’d realize that and smile. And then you’d sing along.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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